Emma Lazarus' Radical Rhetoric and Pinko Dream
As much as I hate social media, I have to admit it serves some useful purposes. It is, for example, incredibly useful in helping me think up topics for the Big Whoop. True, a lot of times the subject matter it inspires is along the lines of “This is why I despise social media, yet am horribly dependent upon it” but it regularly inspires less self-indulgent columns as well.
For example a few days ago Fox News tweeted this quote from Tomi Lahren’s appearance on Watters World: “You don’t just come into the country with no skills, low education, not understanding the language, and come into our country because someone says it makes them feel nice. That’s not what the country is based on.”
This prompted me to look up what “The New Colossus”, the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, actually says. Does it, as Lahren suggests, send a strong message to the world that the low-skilled and uneducated of the world who want to come to our country in search of opportunity are not welcome here? Is it full of Trumpian tough talk about defending our borders against the monsters who would steal our freedom?
What I discovered, amazingly enough, is that Lazarus’ poem conveys a message antithetical to the one Lahren is angrily promoting. In “The Great Colossus”, the low-skilled and uneducated, whom Lazarus eloquently refers to as "your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore” are all actively welcomed as the life-blood of our formerly great democracy, and not as shadowy, sinister human Trojan Horses intent on infecting our nation with the ills of their native lands.
I got choked up reading “The New Colossus.” I really did. I may have learned the words by heart as an elementary school student but I’m not sure they meant a whole lot to me, if they meant anything. They were just more patriotic hokum.
Not any longer. In 2018, the idea of the United States as a beacon of hope and opportunity to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free is no longer considered one of the cornerstones of representative democracy: it's goddamned radical.
To Lazarus, The Statue of Liberty wasn’t just a shimmering symbol of what our country should be: she was the “Mother of Exiles” issuing a clarion call to the suffering people of the world, your uneducated and illiterate and under-resourced, to come to a promised land where you could realize an American Dream that has always been, and always will be, the dream of immigrants, of exiles, the rootless, the oppressed.
There’s an aspirational quality to Lazarus’ poem. She wasn’t necessarily writing about who we are but rather who we should be. She wanted our nation to be an honorable citizen of the world, a beacon of hope that can be felt in the dingiest tenements the world over. She envisioned a world where the wretched of the earth, the homeless, the tempest-tossed would be welcomed with open arms by the holy Mother of Exiles.
Emma Lazarus’ dream is still alive but it is under siege by people like Lahren and Donald Trump who cling to an American identity rooted in a deep, paranoid hostility towards the rest of the world in general and immigrants in particular.
The “imprisoned lightning” of democracy and opportunity that Lazarus wrote about so beautifully and inspirationally still rages, but it is threatened by people whose idea of Patriotism and Americanism strikes me as deeply unpatriotic and woefully unAmerican.
Lazarus reminds us that our embattled vision of the United States as a land of opportunity is worth fighting for particularly when it seems most in danger. ‘
But don’t take my word: take the time to really read Lazarus’ poem and I think you’ll be just as moved and inspired by it as I was and am:
The New Colossus
Emma Lazarus, 1849 - 1887
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
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