What should Armenia’s immigration policy be?
I wrote “Armenia,” not “America,” figuring that the eye and the mind would suffer a bit of a hitch. For as soon as you try to turn your mind to Armenia, not America, you have to ask the most obvious questions, not the least among them being, for young Americans quite innocent of geography, “Where the heck is Armenia?” And that question implies others. For when we ask, “Where is Armenia?” we do not simply ask about its latitude and longitude. Those are the least of it. We ask whether Armenia is landlocked or on the sea; whether it is mainly flatland or hills or mountains; what rivers flow through it; what kinds of farming or herding you can do there; what wealth, if any, the Armenian earth holds in its secret places, and whether the wealth is accessible; what the seasons are like; what are its wild animals and trees and flowers; how its skies appear on a summer night.
Once you ask those questions, you are drawing near to the crucial bridge. You move from asking what it might be like to live in Armenia, to asking how the Armenians do live there; and since Armenians are men and not beasts, they have a history and a culture; they have cultivated a way of life stretching far back into the past; they have their songs, their folkways, their heroes, their glory and their shame, their language, their dress, their ways of greeting one another in the street, and the bend of their knee as they pray to God.
So then, what should Armenia’s immigration policy be?
The sane answer from someone who does not live in Armenia must be something like this: “How should I know? I am not an Armenian. I don’t know what the conditions in Armenia are like. I don’t know what immigrants you are talking about and where they are from, how many of them there are, how the Armenians might accommodate them without harming the poor that are already in their midst, and whether the immigrants want to be Armenian, or just want to be in Armenia, using the land for their own purposes.”
Simply put, the question is meaningless. Any sane and morally justifiable answer must take into account what Armenia actually is, as a genuine human place and not as a geopolitical fiction. More than that, the answer must be such as would preserve and promote Armenia. For it is not good that such an ancient and venerable culture should perish from the face of the earth. Part of what it means to be human is to transcend the generations by means of cultural memory, with all its sweet ties of piety, gratitude, and duty. I take it for granted that Armenians who love their nation do not love the intersection of latitude and longitude, or the tiny interval of time in which they happen to be breathing. Though the whole must elude their comprehension, it is still that which they love, greater than themselves, to endure, they trust, long after they have gone.
Whatever Armenia’s immigration policy should be, it should be in the service of Armenia – because, again, Armenia should endure and thrive. And this moral directive returns us to an ancient understanding of the special duties that should bind men together when they are not of the same family, or of the same city, or even of the same nation, but for some reason they have been brought together into a close relationship. I speak of the duties that bind the host and the guest.
Hospitality, we see, is a mutual thing. “Good my friends,” cries Gloucester, as the wicked Duke of Cornwall and his worse wife, Regan, bind him to a chair in his own home, “consider, you are my guests!” Macbeth, when he hesitates to proceed with his plan to murder King Duncan, understands that he is Duncan’s host, “who should against his murderer shut the door, / Not bear the knife myself.” Travelers, whether or not they bear the added burdens of poverty and raggedness, are particularly vulnerable. They may be ambushed and robbed, like the man who was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.
They may be hungry and footsore, like David and his men when they appealed to Nabal, who was going to have a feast for his sheep-shearing. They may have come to your land rather than starve, as did the elderly Jacob and his household, blessing the Pharaoh who welcomed them in. But when they come, they take upon themselves a duty to defer to your ways. Odysseus is treated most handsomely at Alcinous’ palace, and he joins in their feasting and their games, but he understands that Alcinous and his queen Arete govern there, not he, and so he obeys their wishes.
Meanwhile, in Ithaca, the 108 suitors who have made themselves free as guests in Odysseus’ home mistreat everyone and are not, in their turn, particularly gracious to any strangers who show up there.
More is at stake than personal gratitude. Why is highway robbery a more serious crime than purse-snatching? It is because if you allow it to go on, there will be no more highways at all; an entire feature of a healthy way of life will be shut down. Why are the persons of ambassadors and heralds sacrosanct? Because if they were not, there would soon be no way one enemy nation or army could communicate with another. If people want there to be good and generous hosts, they must demand that there be meek and grateful guests, because otherwise the very offices of hospitality must be swept away.
If we assume that you are not just passing through Armenia, but that you want to take up residence in Armenia for good, then the Armenian’s willingness to welcome you in must be met with your willingness to become Armenian, insofar as you can: to learn the language, to follow the old Armenian ways, to honor the nation’s heroes, and so forth. It is what Uriah the Hittite apparently did, for the name we know him by is Hebrew, not Hittite (Hittite is an Indo-European language, as English is), and Uriah seems to have honored the ark of the covenant, saying that he would not lie with his wife Bathsheba – as David pressed him to do, because David wanted to conceal the fact that he himself had begotten a child upon Bathsheba – so long as the ark and the armies of Israel were abiding in tents. Uriah the Hittite was then more a child of Israel than David was, as many an immigrant proves himself to belong more to the land to which he has come than do the heedless or ungrateful natives themselves.
I am not an Armenian. I am an American. But I want there to be an Armenia – a real place, that is, a culture, which is far more than goat cheese or fancy dress for a national holiday once a year, as America is or ought to be far more than hotdogs and fireworks on the Fourth of July. It is not good for the world to be homogeneous, because homogeneity is but a monstrous way of being alone, and when you die, your place knows you no more, because you never had a truly human place to begin with – an Armenia, or an America. Let there be nations, and therefore let there be hosts and guests, and not just streams of individuals crossing a line on a map. Then we may ask, and it may mean something, what a nation’s immigration policy should be – what America’s should be.