Should We Take Down the ‘Huddled Masses’ Plaque From the Statue of Liberty?
Regularly I get frustrated when people try to set our immigration policy based on a poem. They quote it as if it were scripture, or the key passage from one of our Founding documents. Jim Acosta filibustered a White House press conference by reciting it, without really understanding it.
Okay, first let’s read it. Because this short poem by Emma Lazarus is genuinely lovely. Not just the images and language. The sentiments in it as well.
“The New Colossus”
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!”
America Wasn’t Really Founded at Ellis Island
I need to let my eyes dry after reading that. In part, yes, because my father’s parents (and mother’s grandparents) came in through Ellis Island in New York harbor. Sprung on the one side from Austria-Hungary, and the other from colonized Ireland, my family was hardly Pilgrim stock. In fact, the Zmiraks came from one island off the Croatian coast, to another off the U.S. coast, Manhattan. My parents then moved to Long Island, even further off the coast. I’m the first member of my family ever to live on the U.S. mainland.
Lazarus herself wouldn’t have expected the U.S. to go on pursuing the same immigration policies a whole century later.
But there’s more here than personal gratitude for the chance America gave people like my family. Let’s reflect on what’s really uplifting in Lazarus’ verses.
Not the Statue of Hospitality
Lazarus contrasts the Statue of Liberty with icons from the ancient, pagan world. They marked the glory of rulers, who goaded and took credit for conquests, to make their own names eternal. Think most pointedly of the Arch of Titus. He built it in Rome to commemorate himself, and his savage conquest of the Jews. It depicts, among other things, his soldiers carrying off the menorahs and the Ark of the Covenant from the looted Temple in Jerusalem.
Ours is no such monument. In fact, the French Republic gave our republic the Statue of Liberty to mark our system of government. Especially the unique blend of ordered liberty which our British civic ancestors planted here, and which sadly has eluded France itself for most of her history. You’ll note that the Statue faces out of New York Harbor, with its back to most of the country, lighting the way for others to emulate her, if they can.
It’s not a Statue of Refuge, or of Hospitality. The Lady does not throw open her arms to all and sundry. She’s not like medieval icons of Charity, which show a woman breastfeeding two, three, or even more hungry children. This lady stands tall and fearless. She is a lighthouse, not a nursemaid.
Challenging Other Nations
And yet. Lazarus hymns the Statue as offering “world-wide welcome.” She contrasts its embrace of ordinary, battered humanity with the “storied pomp” of monuments cast by monarchs in “ancient lands.” Liberty itself, the proper claim of every God-made human being, is offered here to anyone with the mettle to come and claim it. To join his own efforts to ours in preserving ordered liberty, on the pattern we inherited from our distinctively English, broadly Protestant founders.
And that’s what’s crucial. The Lady offers liberty, not charity. A chance to work unhindered and keep the fruits of your labor. Not a hammock and handouts. She’s not the Good Samaritan, picking up a near-dead stranger and paying his bills. Look at her face sometime, at the cast of her eyes. She’s not really welcoming foreigners into America, but challenging foreign nations to become more like America. To offer their people the same chance, which all deserve but few ever get.
We Once Hungered for Strong Backs
When the Statue of Liberty was built, and when that poem was written, we had no welfare state. No ethnic quotas. No separatist movements among immigrants who resented America and expected “reparations” for the “crimes” the U.S. had supposedly committed against their homelands.
We had vast states full of farmland conquered from the Indians. We were opening thousands of factories hungry for strong backs willing to work, regardless of education or even skill.
If you showed up and things didn’t work out, you were on your own. Or you leaned on your church and extended family. Maybe you went back to Europe, as one in three Italian immigrants did. Lady Liberty wasn’t going to pick you up and nurse you. She kept her eyes on the prize, which was a land of equal laws and broad opportunity.
A Middle Aged Nation Now
We still have the chance to preserve Liberty, to restore equal laws, and improve the opportunity we offer every citizen. What we don’t have is vast empty land for farmers to homestead. Or burgeoning factories thirsty for the sweat of unlettered workers like my grandparents. Or a stern system of self-reliance that sees failed immigrants go back to their homelands. Instead, our welfare system works more like a glue trap, a migrant motel: poor people go in, but they don’t come out.
I don’t think Emma Lazarus herself would have expected the U.S. to go on pursuing the same immigration policies a whole century later, once it had become a middle-aged country. Especially now that those policies eat away at our liberty — growing and growing the class of people dependent on the government. Feeding ever more power to radicals who reject private property, and even national sovereignty.
A poem that was suited to America when it was a vigorous teenager doesn’t work so well now that it’s frankly middle-aged. To make laws based on that poem is just as ridiculous as a 50-something man like me going out slam-dancing, just because he can still remember the lyrics to some Clash albums. We need to act our age, and retain a little dignity.
So let’s leave the plaque where it is, as we should Confederate memorials, as a relic for remembrance, not a road map to the future.
John Zmirak is co-author, with Al Perrotta, of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration.