At the cutting edge of the debate impelling millions of immigrants in the United States to wrestle with staying home or going to work today, often a choice between a full stomach or dignity, is the question of what kind of society we want -- indeed what kind of world in the future. Yet it is also an argument about the past and who we are now.
This is why this is so emotional. At the core of the immigration debate lie images awash in our emotional freight about who we citizens of wealthy countries are as societies and our place in the world. This is not just a U.S. argument: in France they resent Arabic immigrants, in Germany it's the Turks, and even Italy, a net population loser for more than a century until the 1990s, now frets about Lybians and Albanians.
We nurture fond fantasies of who we are, the heirs of Napoleon and Goethe and Jefferson (but we don't claim Paisley, Stalin or Attila). Yet the G-8 countries have in common a history of expansionism, violence, enslavement of and disdain for people of other cultures. All immigration laws are everywhere, at heart, racist and xenophobic.
For example, the first U.S. immigration laws were enacted to keep out the Chinese, later darker nationalities who were not from Northwest Europe. Even U.S. humanitarian policy has always had the stench of selfishness and right-wing ideology. The USA would not admit the Nazi-fleeing Jewish passengers of the German transatlantic liner St. Louis in 1939; in 1980, the USA admitted 900 refugees from Communist Poland but only 1 from El Salvador, where murder and dislocation, at a rate of 300 dead a week, was U.S.-funded.
Not only are the myths misleading about the past, they do not contemplate a future in which the torch of power might pass to to another land, nor one in which the white northwestern European peoples of Europe and North America, no longer reproducing at replacement levels, become an imperiled minority.
Perhaps this is why this is such a hot button issue in Berlin, Germany as it it in Berlin, New York, because it summons our tribal instincts, our fears and preconceptions of ourselves.
It is also why the famous poem by Emma Lazarus, engraved at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, deserves a second read:
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!"
We are so accustomed to thinking of the poor huddled masses that we forget the major paradigm shift Lazarus was proposing, in an age when it was still preposterous. Lady Liberty, more than 10 times taller than the Colossus of Rhodes to whom the poet compares her, is not merely one more male conquering giant, but a mighty woman who commands with her eyes while she sheds light in the world.
The USA, at whose eastern door she commands and gives light, is not merely a tribal extension of Europe, it is the first country formed as a state, without ever before having been a people, an ethnos, a nation. Its name is a concept: unity among various territories. How fitting that the locus of a dream of unity at a global level, the United Nations, is headquarters well within the gaze of Lady Liberty.
The United States and the United Nations stand as yet unrealized ideals of common human unity, the globalization of the altruistic impulse to rejoice, revel and develop resources together, thanks to our differences.
Are we ready for such a dream? Lady Liberty commands it from her serene perch.