Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Golden Door

March 28, 2013

Monrovia, California

I guess it’s time I weighed in on the subject of immigration into the United States.  Hell, everybody else has, even though hardly anyone has said anything meaningful about it.  There’s only one opinion about immigration that seems unequivocal, and that’s from those who say we should seal our borders and not let anyone else in.  I acknowledge the honesty of those who feel this way, even though I disagree with their opinion.  At least they know what they believe.  Also to be acknowledged, though not applauded, are the voices of the capitalists and agribusiness people who believe in simply continuing our laissez faire policy regarding illegal immigration so they can have a continuing source of low-level workers to exploit.

As for just about everyone else—moderates, liberals, progressives, or whatever those who are not absolutely xenophobic or rapacious wish to call themselves, well, their opinions seem to be a sad mishmash of wishful thinking and compromise and “promise” and “hope” with nothing to show for all their collective hand wringing and tongue wagging.  Like, let’s legitimize those who came here before they were two years old, or some such shit.  Let’s give people a chance to work their asses off for next to nothing then reward them with citizenship.  Let’s start the whole project next term, under the next president, or maybe in the next decade.  Let’s do something, but we’re not sure quite what.  I think of a line from Yeats from his poem The Second Coming when I hear stuff like that:  “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The problem as I see it is that we are laboring under the misapprehension that we have an “immigration problem” in the first place.  The fault is not in our national stars, but in our national selves.  A long time ago, when this country was filled with racism and hatred and misogyny and intolerance at a level far greater than it is today, the nation of France gave us a statue to celebrate our centennial.  The citizens of that country continue to look down their long Gallic noses at us, as they did then, and not without some reason, even though their own history has been as brutal and intolerant as ours has regarding many things, and over many more centuries.  But they meant well at the time they gave us the statue, and they continue to mean well, and they are today a much more decent and humane bunch than they once were.  And their food is far better than ours. 

When the Statue of Liberty made its way across the ocean a few years later people bolted the thing together and stuck it on an island in New York Harbor, and several years after that began to think about something to put on a plaque on its pedestal.  A young woman, an aspiring novelist and poet whose ancestors had been here since colonial days, even though she was not a WASP but of Jewish heritage, wrote a sonnet and entered it in a contest for that purpose in 1883.  She died four years later, at the age of 38, but eventually her poem gained some traction in some circles, despite the fact that it was just a tad too militant for the tastes of upper class New Yorkers who were still trying to finance the pedestal project.  Finally in the early 20th century they put the poem on a plaque on the base.  The woman’s name was Emma Lazarus, and here is her sonnet, which is rarely quoted in full or taught to school children, though it should be, if only to show that this country from time to time stands for something good:

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-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Here let me indulge in a bit of pedagogy.  As a poem Emma Lazarus’s The New Colossus is pretty much a product of its time.  A bit overwrought some might say.  Certainly hortatory and high Victorian and wonderfully suited to the era, when memorization and declamation of the long epic poems of Longfellow, the love poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the doggerel of Kipling were in vogue.  It’s no Ozymandias, nor as elegant as many of Shakespeare’s sonnets or Milton’s On His Blindness, to be sure, but nevertheless it is precise and well-constructed along Petrarchan lines—a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a, c-d-c-d-c-d.  English teachers take note.

One reason it doesn’t get quoted in full very often is that the octave (the first eight lines) has become a bit arcane.  The author is evoking the Colossus of Rhodes (its title is after all The New Colossus), and the study of the seven wonders of the ancient world has given way to more modern and urgent subjects.  In addition, the “air-bridged harbor” over which the statue’s mild eyes look now has one big bridge across it, and a few tunnels under it as well, and the “twin cities” to which she refers are Brooklyn and Manhattan, merged a decade after her death along with three other boroughs into the greater City of New York.

Still, the arresting and really provocative thing about the sonnet is that it begins with the word “Not.”  Immediately the author stakes out her opposition to something else.  This won't be just another Colossus, but a far different Colossus, similar only superficially on account of its immensity and the fact that it acts as a sort of lighthouse.  She immediately casts aside the glorified mythos embodied in the ancient Greek representation of the sun god, and the bellicosity of the entire world, by describing an essentially gentle, welcoming, and peaceful national persona she calls Mother of Exiles.  She thumbs her nose not only at classicism and neoclassicism, but at sexism and the time-honored assumption that might makes right.  Not, I’ll wager, precisely what the Frenchman Frederic Bartholdi had in mind when he conceived and executed this idealized effigy of Liberty.

But the sonnet’s sestet (the last six lines), really packs the punch and the message.  It is frankly and strongly critical of the Europe from which the immigrants to this country had been streaming for generations, and began to do in much greater numbers in the latter part of the 19th century.  It says, in effect, “To hell with you and your supposedly glorious past and your sanctified history of oppression and feudalism and warfare and intolerance.  We’ll be happy to take the people you don’t want and the ones you treat like shit, you pigs.”  Today we read the lines with a bit more equanimity, but back then you can be sure the message did not go unnoticed on either side of the Atlantic.  Really, it’s the same message we send today, by implication, to the institutionally inept and corrupt governments and cultures of the Spanish-speaking countries south of our border and to those of the Asians and the Africans as well, where politics and religion and wealth and brutality conspire to keep people in thralldom and contribute to the age-old mistreatment of women and children and poor people generally.  Or at least it’s the message we should be sending.  And with that, back to my immigration thesis.

Here’s the main thing, and it’s the same thing as when Emma Lazarus wrote her sonnet in 1883.  People are not streaming out of the United States.  They’re streaming into it.  That should tell anyone with half a brain something about the state of the places from which the immigrants are coming.  Yeah, we wish this country were better that it is, and some of us are trying to improve it, but comparatively speaking (except compared to much of western Europe and Canada and Australia, probably), it could be a lot worse.  This fact should not be a source of pride in the U.S. so much as a reason for sadness about the nature of things elsewhere, but there it is.  Anyway I sincerely hope the reason people want to come here isn’t just for the burgers and fries and video games. 

Now here’s another thing.  Do we—do you—want to be responsible for forcing people to remain in places where they’re not wanted except as perpetual chattel, and where they’ll starve or get killed by disease or warfare or religious fanaticism?  Do you want to leave people in places where they routinely abort female fetuses and where women have to walk around in shrouds and are raped on general principles?  Didn't think so.  Neither do I.

Let me preemptively address some potential objections:

  1. If you’re worried about criminals coming into this country, remember that Georgia was once a prison colony (and is still filled, like the rest of the South, with people who are essentially dissolute and amoral).  Remember also that most of the earliest white settlers in this continent were outcasts.
  2. If you think an immigrant is going to take your job away from you, then by all means go to work pulling guts in a slaughterhouse, or bending over to pick strawberries, or cleaning rooms in a hotel, or trimming bushes for rich folks, or tarring roofs in one hundred degree heat.  The work is there for you.
  3. If you think some new religion is going to take over the country, remember that that has happened already numerous times, starting with the Pilgrims, and continuing with the Baptists and the Mormons and the whacked-out snake-handling Pentecostals and lots of others.  Remember also that there are regular church-going natural-born citizens all over this country already who think the earth was created in six days in the year 4004 B.C. or that some old dipshit in a white suit and slippers in Rome receives his wisdom directly from God Almighty.
  4. If you are worried that brown people are going to outnumber white people, recall that this continent was filled with brown people before the Europeans came, and that we imported brown people into the South for hundreds of years on purpose and that some of your ancestors fought in the Civil War because they thought that was a good idea.
  5. If you are concerned that English is no longer going to be spoken in this country, consider this:  the white guys who settled this place five hundred years ago didn’t speak English and none of the native inhabitants of the continent they discovered spoke English.  Nevertheless, since the U.S. has come into being as an English-speaking country, untold millions of people who came here from other countries didn’t know a word of English.  Despite this, most of them who came at a reasonably young age and all their children who were born here learned to speak English, and that continues to be the case today.  English isn’t just the language of our past, it’s the language of our future, though no language lasts forever.  But as a worldwide means of communicating I'll put my money on English over Spanish any day.
What’s all this leading up to?  Well, just this.  Here’s my proposed solution to the immigration problem, and it’s really quite simple, and very workable.  Every soul who wishes to come into this country and become a citizen should be able to do so.  Period.  And dispense with all that crap about making them memorize the Bill of Rights or name the planets or recite pi out to the tenth digit past the decimal point.  Just let them be citizens.  They'll get with the program, and probably do a better job of letting go of the darker sides of their ethnic pride than the New York Italians and the Boston Irish have.  Ban illegal immigration and replace it with unrestricted legal immigration.  Open the door and take it off its hinges and throw it away.

If we believe in liberty, then let’s put our belief to the ultimate test, and let people decide for themselves where they wish to live.  It will be a good lesson for us to teach, by example, to our children and to the rest of the so-called civilized world.

1 comment:

John said...

awesome poem! I have memories of that poem being read by an inspirational teacher. very appropriate.