I recall a time when white nationalist talking points inserted into any discussion about the Statue of Liberty would have been politically dangerous, even for a Republican. Lest we forget, a mere seven years ago a Republican candidate for president of the United States was castigated endlessly (and, let’s face it, fatuously) for referring to “binders full of women.” We knew what he meant, and, what he meant was clumsily put, albeit innocently intended, and the backlash was a simple case of taking cynicism too far. The truth was then much easier to come by than it is now. Mitt Romney shouldn’t have become president of the United States, not because he kept actual women locked up in actual binders, but because he was a weak-minded fool and a coward, and Americans understood that.
But if one could add another verse to the Book of Ecclesiastes, one would be forgiven for wishing to include “a time to be cynical,” because that time is certainly now. These days there are fewer and fewer instances where extreme reactions to mildly and (ostensibly) innocently-phrased pronouncements are not warranted – barring irresponsible accusations of murder without evidence, of course.
When the concluding lines of the sonnet “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus, was first cast in bronze in 1903, and added to the plinth of the Statue of Liberty 17 years after Lady Liberty first lifted her lamp beside the golden door of New York Harbor, I doubt any realized then how pregnant with dangerous meaning those 17 years “too late” would become, in the hard and humorless eyes of white nationalists a century later. That 17 year gap in time subverted, in their view, “what the statute originally meant,” and hastily, they insist, tacked on this popular nonsense about letting brown people come flooding in, for goodness’ sake.
Never mind that the poem was actually written in 1883, three years before the statue was dedicated. Never mind it was written precisely to raise money for the very plinth upon which Lady Liberty was to rest and to which the poem was ultimately affixed. Just don’t confuse a white nationalist with the facts. Besides, if we destroy this precious little talking point of theirs they’ll jolly well go in search of another.For those of you who don’t know or have forgotten what the plaque says, here is the entire text:
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!
All of which brings me to Ken Cuccinelli. Cuccinelli is the Trump administration’s acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services. It was he who in a recent PBS interview changed the words of the poem. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Cuccinelli began, then he added the words, “who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
All of which is to distract Americans into believing that immigrants are an undue strain on the system, despite the fact that they pay billions in taxes, billions into social security, and, for those who are undocumented, are not allowed to vote, collect benefits or qualify for Medicare. It was immigrants who helped build Trump Tower at the below-minimum-wage rate of $4 an hour. And, no, it was not millions of undocumented immigrants who voted for Hillary Clinton. No matter how much Trump would love to blame them for that, Hillary legitimately won the popular vote in 2016.
Donald Trump’s recent disavowal of white supremacy rings hollow in the shadow of Cuccinelli’s rewrite of the Statue of Liberty poem. Insisting that however duck-like the appearance, the walk and the quack may be, that this administration is not a duck is laughable. We know what the poem on Lady Liberty says, we know what it means and we know when it was written. All Americans ought to understand this, particularly a man named “Cuccilini.”
All of which puts me in mind of another poem written by another woman, Marya Mannes:
Borders are scratched across the
hearts of men
By strangers with a calm, judicial
And when the borders bleed we
watch with dread
The lines of ink across the map
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.