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August 15, 2019
In the world of politics, “America” is a brand not a place. As a really existing place, America refers to two continents and about 40 countries. But when we invoke “America” in this country in the context of a political debate, we mean something else. “America” is a set of ideals. It is a marketing device for democracy. A “City on the Hill.” Some kind of “beacon," or other light in the darkness, and so on. It is a brand, and we are forever talking about what this brand means. Is Trump “un-American?” Yes, because “that is not the America I know!” Or we declare, “America is a nation of immigrants," while others shout, “America is a nation of laws.” The Center for American Progress (and Joe Biden), now declare both to be true by way of announcing some new third way on immigration policy. But we can never simply say this or that idea is good or bad. Nope. Rather we have to put it on a scale called “America.”
This week we got the latest episode in this stomach-turning debate over what meme best stands for the United States of America’s really existing tortured history with immigration. It went something like this (from John Nichols at the Nation):
NPR’s Rachel Martin asked Cuccinelli a good question: “Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus’s words etched on the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your tired, give me your poor,’ are also a part of the American ethos?”
It was Cuccinelli’s reply that raised the eyebrows of those who know the story of Lazarus and her poem. “They certainly are: ‘Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,’” he answered, reworking not just the words but also the intent of the poem. Cuccinelli then added, “That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge was passed—very interesting timing.” Very interesting, indeed.
Aghast, we all were for a moment.
And then, well, we thought about it. Casting the Statue of Liberty as a metaphorical “Mother of Exiles” made for good poetics, but it never bore much relationship to reality. The United States then, and certainly now, bore much more resemblance to the old colossus of empire, "with conquering limbs astride from land to land," than the new colossus Emma Lazarus was pleading us to be - one that garners its strength not from conquest, but from openness. I like that idea. Many people do. But the “idea” only enters the “American ethos” as an aspiration.
By the time the plaque with Lazarus’ poem was put on the base of the Statue of Liberty in 1903, the United States had institutionalized racialized immigration quotas and blocked many non-white people from becoming naturalized citizens. Standards that would hold until 1965! The United States government has to this day, sought to block entry of the poor except when their labor is needed, and then only allowed to enter temporarily.
The sad truth is, that Cucinelli’s take on the “ethos” of the poem is probably more accurate than what is implied by Martin’s question. Perhaps, not what Emma Lazarus meant (as Nichols goes to great lengths to show - while ignoring some of her more problematic political stances), but certainly what U.S. policy actually was at the time the poem was posted to the Statue of Liberty’s wall.
What liberty exists in this country derives not from an idea, or set of ideas, written on scrolls or inscribed on walls, but from the struggle of people who demanded freedom as a human right - not some uniquely American perk.
Surely, we all know the United States did not simply become a brutal unwelcoming place for immigrants in January 2017. Right? It has always been that - our denial of that fact is one reason we have the president we now have. So, we have to find a way that talks about this country’s history of abuse of immigrants with the brute force it deserves - so we can change course, not just a president.
Perhaps Emma Lazarus’ poem can provide a guide for who we, as a country, can aspire to be in the future. But it bears little resemblance to what we have been in the past. Pretending otherwise does a disservice to the people who have struggled with the much harsher reality that has been, and continues to be, “America."