This week, the Trump administration ventured into poetry, and the results are not pretty.
Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, offered his own revision of one of America’s most famous poems, “The New Colossus.” On Tuesday, during a discussion of new changes to immigration regulations, NPR’s Rachel Martin asked, “Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus’s words etched on the Statue of Liberty — ‘Give me your tired, your poor’ — are also part of the American ethos?”
“They certainly are,” Cuccinelli replied, and then he offered up this spontaneous improvement: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
Don’t try singing that — the rhythm is off. And so few words rhyme with “public charge.” Maybe “vile discharge”?
There’s something obscene about Cuccinelli’s efforts to contort Lazarus’s words of welcome into a litmus test of economic self-sufficiency. Over the decades, “The New Colossus” has acquired a patina of universality. Its phrases are as familiar to us as “The Star-Spangled Banner” or the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence. Staining “The New Colossus” with the bile of discrimination is a shameful act of cultural defilement.
In a sense, Cuccinelli is offering a literary version of President Trump’s statement to his followers in 2018: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” After all, anyone with an open heart who’s read that poem emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty, recited it in school or sung it in a choir has felt the power of those lines and knows what they mean. Cuccinelli’s clumsy gloss articulates a suspicious, begrudging permission extended only to the sufficiently equipped. What Lazarus articulates is a uniquely American ideal, a radical welcome that doesn’t presume anything except our common humanity.
But that, of course, goes right to the heart of the Trump administration’s efforts to divide us into worthy and unworthy, into patriots from a blessed country and rapists from “shithole countries.” It was only a matter of time before some Trump official started scratching at the bronze plaque with a screwdriver. The president’s immigration policy is a wholesale rejection of what’s best about American idealism in exchange for what’s worst about American nativism.
Cuccinelli has been busy this week trying to justify his poetic revision by pointing to the restrictive immigration laws the United States passed in earlier centuries. But Lazarus’s life provides a more illuminating context for the meaning of “The New Colossus.” As a member of a well-to-do New York Jewish family in the 19th century, she could easily have drawn back in horror at the immigrants pouring into America from Eastern Europe, fleeing pogroms in Russia. Many were desperately poor; most didn’t speak English. Then as now, facilities designed to house the refugees were inadequate for the number of people arriving. When Lazarus writes of the “huddled masses” and the “wretched refuse,” she wasn’t waxing poetic; she was documenting a crisis and trying to bring into being a great nation’s magnanimous response.
Set the phrase “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me” next to the phrase “Build the wall,” and you get a sense of just how far our national discourse has drifted off course under the sway of white nationalists.
If any good can come out of Cuccinelli’s grotesque misreading, it’s a renewed attention to “The New Colossus” as a whole, beyond just Lady Liberty’s rousing, oft-quoted request to “give me your tired, your poor.”
Look, for instance, at how the poem opens. One of the striking aspects of this sonnet is that it makes no appeal to military supremacy. In fact, it begins with a rejection of those antique emblems of dominance, such as “the brazen giant of Greek fame, / With conquering limbs astride from land to land.” No, Lazarus says, the United States welcomes new arrivals with a new symbol: “a mighty woman” whose power is demonstrated by control and humility — “imprisoned lightning” and “mild eyes.” She doesn’t throw unhinged temper tantrums on Twitter; she cries “with silent lips.”
Esther Schor, a professor of American Jewish studies at Princeton University, wrote a biography of Emma Lazarus in 2006, and she suspects that Lazarus would have welcomed the re-energized conversation about her most famous poem. “Since Donald Trump began his immigrant-bashing campaign for president in 2015, there has been a nationwide increase in citations of the poem,” Schor says. “Very simply, it’s our go-to text for responding to this administration’s harsh immigration restrictions and the execrable treatment of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexican border.” But despite that alarm, Schor has faith that the poem’s indelible mark on our country’s soul won’t fade. “It’s simply not possible for Stephen Miller or Ken Cuccinelli to desecrate the lines of the poem,” she says. “Americans have them by heart and are not about to give them up.”
We all have a role to play in making sure that’s true.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
'The New Colossus'
By Emma Lazarus
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!”