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People On The Move Drive Anxiety, Hope — And, Always, Change

A boy stands onshore after arriving with other refugees and migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey, on Saturday.
Dimitar Dilkoff
AFP/Getty Images
A boy stands onshore after arriving with other refugees and migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey, on Saturday.

Today I was thinking about a conversation I had years ago when I was just learning to cover national politics. I had arranged to have lunch with a well-known Republican political operative, who had just come off a string of election victories; I'd sought him out so I could better understand the philosophy behind his tactics.

He was nice enough to meet me, and over bites of burger he explained to me that he was pushing the party to ramp up its outreach to Latinos, who were, at the time, a much smaller group of voters and potential voters than they are now. "This way," he said, "we can grow the party without changing the party."

Well this fellow was a smart man, very good at his job, but of course he was wrong about that one. It just doesn't work that way. Ask Queen Elizabeth: In-laws change things. They bring fresh ideas and energy and, sometimes, new habits and priorities; they don't care about your old rivalries and resentments, but sometimes bring their own.

Unless you are willing to rule with an iron fist, suppress all difference, demand total allegiance and conformity as the price of admission, then new people will change things — sometimes in ways we will like and sometimes in ways we won't.

It strikes me that this is the force that is changing the world right now. Along with technology, people on the move — from one country, one region or even one party to another — are the force that drives so much of the world's anxiety and hope. Those two forces are, of course, intertwined.

Technology plays a role in the mass movements of people because it changes things: It gives people powerful information and equally the means to spread vicious lies. It gives them tools to navigate the world, and to destroy it. Technology can narrow the differences between people or make them enormous.

Migration, though — all that goes with it. That is the thing that looms so large for so many. And it strikes me that our language for something so large seems very small. Around the world right now people talk about migrants as either sinners or saints; saviors or parasites. People who can grow the party without changing the party, or people who want to overthrow the party. Why do we do this, when we know it's usually not that simple?

New people will change us, and we will change them. The question is how, not whether, and whether we choose to focus on that which is fundamental to who and what we are, or merely incidental. What are our values, as opposed to our fashions? What are our virtues as opposed to merely our habits?

I think about that every time I hear about someone getting fired for wearing braids or headscarves or a beard or a turban on the job. Unless it's about safety, what does what you wear on your head have to do with how much you love your job or your country? The Sept. 11 hijackers, remember, wore polo shirts and khakis.

On the other hand, who cares if your wardrobe is custom and your bank account is full, if you don't share this country's hard-won understandings about the worth, dignity and equality of every person? Those are questions I want to ask as we think about who is invited to the party, and who isn't.

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Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.