Skin in the Game

I think we’d be better off if more Americans knew more about their own family’s history. Not only would most of us come away with a renewed sense of gratitude for America, we would also be better able to evaluate the claims of today by something other than the standards of today.

Case in point: my paternal great-grandfather, Joseph Piatak, who was born in rural Slovakia in 1868. Three of his eight brothers died in childhood, a common occurrence in their native village, and the Hungarian government helpfully recorded the family’s meager possessions in a detailed census the following year: They lived in a one-room house, they owned no land, and their most prized material possession likely consisted of two cows in a village where agents of absentee, noble Magyar landlords controlled hundreds of cows and much else besides.

Joseph seemingly tried to make a go of it in Slovakia, even after several of his brothers had left for Cleveland. But it appears that the need to bury his 2-year-old daughter was the last straw. Shortly thereafter, he made his way to a train station — probably for the first time in his life — went to Bremen, and boarded a steamship for New York. His wife and young son followed a year later. Ultimately, five of the six Piatak brothers who survived childhood crossed the Atlantic, as did some 400 or so of the roughly 900 people in their village. The Piatak boys were part of one of the largest immigration waves ever, comparable to Ireland, southern Italy, and Norway — other desperately poor places that emptied as many of their people left for America, mostly forever.

Joseph spent the rest of his life doing hard, physical labor amid the smokestacks of Cleveland, where he and his wife Mary had five more children, none of whom died in childhood. Those children grew up very grateful to be Americans, even though many of them, my own grandfather among them, needed to leave school before the eighth grade to help their family earn a living, generally by engaging in the same sort of hard, physical work their father had done since coming to America.

This gratitude at being in America was widespread in the hundreds of thousands of Slovaks who came here. None of my older relatives had any particular interest in the little corner of Europe our family had left, which they knew from their parents as a place of poverty and oppression. Had Joseph stayed in Slovakia, for example, it would have been impossible for him even to attend a high school that taught in his native tongue. The government had closed all Slovak-language high schools in 1875.

So strong was the desire to become Americans and leave Slovakia behind that most Slovak families who came here ultimately decided not to continue passing along the language. Older relatives told me that “we speak American because we live in America.” My grandfather could speak Slovak, though I have no memory of his ever doing so. My Dad knows not a word of it. There was no sense in my family of Slovakia as being our real home, or even a place we could repair to if things got bad here. We were Americans now, for good. We had skin in the game.

Iwo Jima flag raiser Mike Strank was a Slovak immigrant killed in action.

As a group, the Slovaks who had come to America showed their gratitude to their adopted country early on. Matej Kocak, one of only five double Medal of Honor recipients in World War I, was a Slovak immigrant. Killed in action, he lies buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. Slovak immigrant Mike Strank was one of the six Marines who raised the Stars and Stripes on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima and was killed in action there. You can find him in Arlington National Cemetery.

My Slovak forebears and their countrymen brought to America a willingness to work very hard, and over time that hard work paid off in membership in the American middle class, a class whose affluence was unimaginable in the villages their families had left. One of the handful of Americans to walk on the moon was the grandson of a Slovak immigrant, and the scientist given principal credit for developing GPS was the son of Slovak immigrants.

It is difficult to know your family’s part in this history and still conclude that America has been an evil place. It is also hard to believe that your family members who came to America with nothing and spent long years doing demanding, even dangerous work owed what they managed to achieve to “white privilege,” especially when your family had been so “privileged” as to have been been serfs for centuries.

Knowing this history also makes it hard to swallow the notion that Americans should pay any attention to those who don’t have skin in the game. When Joseph Piatak filed a petition to become a naturalized American citizen in February 1917, he renounced all allegiance to his former country and pledged “in good faith to become a citizen of the United States and to permanently reside therein.” And so he did, dying in Cleveland 27 years later without ever once returning to Slovakia.

By contrast, some of the loudest voices presuming to tell Americans how we should vote and what we should think don’t have skin in the game. The Atlantic’s editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, who has turned that venerable magazine into a Never Trump propaganda sheet, is a dual citizen of Israel and the United States. He volunteered to serve in the Israeli military, but not the American military. The Atlantic’s David Frum, a fanatical Never Trumper, is a naturalized American citizen, but he remains a citizen of Canada, where his sister serves in the Canadian Senate. Frum has also forthrightly declared that his vote is determined in large measure by a candidate’s stance on yet another foreign country, Israel.

Both men and their fellow scribblers at the Atlantic are also members of a class that, as a whole, has come to view American jobs as exportable, American workers as replaceable, and Americans who support Trump or who cling to their Bibles and guns or who otherwise engage in practices the readers of the Atlantic cannot fathom as objects of disdain or even hatred. Members of this class are confident that, if America goes south, a pleasant new home will be found among people much like themselves in some foreign metropole in which they have connections or even citizenship.

There are of course people who hold dual passports for purely pragmatic reasons, and friendly feelings for the lands your family came from are only natural. But dual citizenship coupled with advocacy of foreign adventurism is the antithesis of the straightforward commitment to America my great-grandfather was wisely asked to make. Americans would do well to remember that both Goldberg and Frum were voluble cheerleaders for the disastrous Iraq War. Goldberg pushed hard the bogus claim that Iraq was a principal sponsor of al-Qaida, and Frum questioned the patriotism of conservatives with the foresight to oppose that war. They remain committed to risking American lives and American treasure in the Mideast morass. Indeed, Frum used what influence he had in the Bush White House to put us on the road to war with Iran. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that one of the reasons they hate Donald Trump is because Trump has voiced skepticism of more wars in the Mideast.

“America First” provokes in Goldberg and Frum the same reaction a crucifix does in a vampire. Lectures from dual citizens about what we Americans should do or believe ought to produce the same sort of reaction in us.

One comment

  • An excellent piece, by a top-notch writer! As someone with ancestors from Poland, Germany, England and France, I express my admiration for the cultures and histories of those great nations, but my loyalty is to the USA. At this late hour, it appears increasingly unlikely that the America we knew even as recently as twenty years ago can be restored, but a sizable remnant of the core can keep some significant parts of it alive as we carve out a place for ourselves amidst the ruins on this continent.

    Like

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