Monday, May 01, 2006

A Dream of Lady Liberty

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.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written, Sir. I don't understand borders and boundaries any more than our native Am's understood "my" land and territorialism. Dogs understand it (I'm glad we don't mark our borders the way they do!), but people are so violent about claiming and protecting "my" share. How do we come to "own" land and police it? Well, how did we come to form governments and laws?

A free-for-all won't work, but present policy isn't working either.

Anonymous said...

Except that the reason America works is people became assimilated and gave up parts of thier original identities to become Americans. Not Spanish speaking only, or Chinese speaking only, or Galleic (sp?) or whatever, but they embraced the American way, and adopted to the new country, not wanting to be a country within a country, in self impossed exile.
When they could get out of the ghettos, they did, making a better life. Less of that is happening, and there is much more of a breaking of the rules, and working from without. Illegals are going around the rules, and then demanding services, and full rights. How many are paying taxes, are covered by health insurance, etc.? Absent the rule of law, following the flaunting of law, one has chaos, which is what many are fleeing in the first place. Why not redirect efforts to make things better in their own homelands, so the numbers fleeing are running TO something and not AWAY from something?
And if the UN is your idea of a good idea working well, we have a fundamental disagreement. It is as corrupt and inept and ineffective as the many little nations, and some big ones, who opposed the recent reform efforts, modest as they were. And can you say, with a straight face, that Israel, the demon of so many riduculous censures is a worse threat or has acted so much more terribly than it's accusers, including but not limited to North Korea, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Uganda, Somalia, Cambodia, etc, etc, etc.
Give me a break!

Anonymous said...

Replying to "Anonymous #2 written at 2:59 PM.
Your comments reveal you ignorance on the theme as well as you faulty reasoning.
First of all their is no such thing as an illegal person. (It's just like saying "illegitimate child".) People aren't illegal: behaviors are. And to label these people in a pejorative way is noxious. Those I work with have risked there lives crossing the desert and mountains so their children don't starve. They are brave, suffer a lot and work twelve hours a day doing horrible jobs you wouldn't touch.
Secondly, what is the "American way?" Did those who came to our shores and populate our plains "adopt"? Adopt to what? You can still tell a Minnisotan because he speaks with a Germanic lilt. Would your way be the way of the native Americans? I doubt it. Is it the English way? I don't think so. It is "the way", the language, the cultures, the food, the morays, the talents and the abilities of a myriad of cultures that have immigrated to this land over a course of four hindred years. It is a way that continues to change because, like it or not, the majority (whites of European background) will become the minority--probably in our lifetime.
FLASH!!! Undocumented immigrants CANNOT GET WELFARE, MEDICAID, FOOD STAMPS, ETC., ETC.. Why perpetuate ideas you know nothing about?
FLASH!! Undocumented immigrants most often do pay taxes! How's that for a double message--governement says you are not supposed to be here, we will incarcerate you for your presence here but we will take your hard earned money , meanwhile. If a person wishes to get a residence visa (green card)and has been here, he has had to pay all his taxes, even if he has been here for 20 years! Amazing! In addition, he pays Medicare and Social Security in many cases but does not have access to those services, either (in addition to the assistant programs mentioned above.)
Flash! Roughly 30% of all the people who processs your meat, build your houses, and clean and cook in restaurants and hotels and 40% of all farm workers in the ENTIRE USA are undocumented. And who wants to deport these 12 million people, some of whom are elderly,many who are children and young people who only speak English and have no place to go as their homes were destroyed in US sponsored wars?.
The fruit orchards of California are going broke and closing because of newly tightened borders.
THESE PEOPLE ARE HERE BECAUSE WE NEED THEM AND DEPEND ON THEM. Our economy is built on them.
Your ideas of assimilation are just plain wrong. Most immigrants who came from Europe in times past as adults stayed in their ghettos, spoke their language and didn't learn much English--in huge numbers. It was their children who changed--but never completely--and carried "the old country" in their hearts until today.

Anonymous said...

I was unsure of comments I was hearing that illegal aliens can get welfare. I know how difficult it is for anyone to get welfare. However, my uncle did send me this government study, http://www.gao.gov/archive/1998/he98030.pdf
It shows that the American born children get welfare money and can help a parent secure housing. While I personally think we are enriched by many cultures, I have been seeing that California is really struggling with this issue, financially, and with the language.
The whole issue is caused, as Cecilio pointed out, by very restrictive immigration laws. And the US also impacts the Mexican economy, so we need to take some responsibility there. Our factories and farming practices close up small farms, and then they want to hire only women, disrupting household customs.
Greed is killing the world. MCB

Carol said...

"Very restrictive immigration laws" may lead to illegal immigrants, but so do employers who love to exploit cheap labor. Mutuosis. Low wages here are better than low wages there. I agree that anyone living here should be paying taxes and living within the laws. If the laws are so restrictive, change them. If millions come here for the jobs, crack down on "illegal employers" who take advantage of cheap labor.