Opinion

Don’t revise the Liberty poem – live up to it

The Statue of Liberty wields her torch, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, on a cloudy day in New York. A biographer of poet Emma Lazarus on Wednesday challenged a comment by the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, explaining that Lazarus’ words were her way of urging Americans “to embrace the poor and destitute of all places and origins.” (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
The Statue of Liberty wields her torch, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, on a cloudy day in New York. A biographer of poet Emma Lazarus on Wednesday challenged a comment by the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, explaining that Lazarus’ words were her way of urging Americans “to embrace the poor and destitute of all places and origins.” (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) AP

Last week, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, defended the Trump administration’s new green card “public charge” rules by tweaking Emma Lazarus’ “New Colossus” sonnet, inscribed on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty. The government will implement a new wealth test and explore whether applicants are likely to use various public benefits to determine permanent resident status. The Lazarus poem should now be seen as effectively proclaiming: “give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and not become a public charge,” Cuccinelli explained. I’m not sure he got the meter right.

Mandy Cohen, NC Department of Heath and Human Services director, worried that here poor “children, most of whom are citizens, will bear the brunt (of the changes), as families withdraw from programs out of fear and confusion.” The move presses Trump’s foundational proclivity to divide us into worthy and unworthy categories and furthers his constantly demonstrated disdain for the poor. (Think Slovenian models vs. s---hole country refugees). Cuccinelli warmed to it immediately – since it reminded him of his earlier efforts to eliminate birthright citizenship, make speaking Spanish on the job a fireable offense, investigate where Barack Obama was born, and his description of undocumented immigrants as “foreign invaders.” Finally, Steven Miller has a soul mate.

Lazarus proffered a different theory. Her poem opens:

“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….”

And it concludes:

“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.”

Surprisingly perhaps, Cuccinelli indicated he “did not think we’re ready to take anything off the Statue of Liberty.” The US is “one of the most welcoming nations in the world,” he said. Indeed. It is curious how we cling to our pretense.

We carve “equal justice under law” on our courthouse walls. Yet we exclude low income citizens from our civil justice system more ruthlessly than any other advanced democracy. We proclaim that all are created equal and we daily pledge allegiance to “liberty and justice for all” as we have become, in reality, the richest, the poorest and the most unequal nation in the world. In fact, Thomas Pikkety has written that inequality in the U.S. is “probably higher than in any other society, at any time in the past, anywhere in the world.” Number one. Ever.

Still, we embrace the charade. I’ve long loved Abraham Lincoln’s 1854 letter to Joshua Speed:

“As a nation, we began by declaring ‘all men are created equal.’ We now read it ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all are equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

Of course “the base alloy of hypocrisy” may be all there is to cling to for a hard Christian right evangelical, budget hawk like Ken Cuccinelli when you’re playing foot soldier to the likes of Donald Trump. Just don’t ask him to look in the mirror.

Contributing columnist Gene Nichol is the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina.
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