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Acosta vs. Miller: A lurking ideological conflict about the Statue of Liberty

Stephen Miller, President Trump’s senior policy adviser, got into a tense exchange on Aug. 2 with CNN reporter Jim Acosta about immigration. (Video: Reuters)
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The bitter on-camera exchange between White House senior adviser Stephen Miller and CNN’s Jim Acosta — a press room battle royal over immigration, English-speakers, and “cosmopolitan bias” — has been on repeat in the news cycle ever since Wednesday afternoon.

And while the argument reflected the Trump administration’s ongoing tension with the press, one of the subtler exchanges in the five-minute argument actually exposed a unique front in the culture war — what exactly does the Statue of Liberty mean?

“What the president is proposing here does not sound like it’s in keeping with American tradition when it comes to immigration,” the network reporter said to Miller. “The Statue of Liberty says, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’”

The implication of Acosta’s description was that the statue is an invitation to immigrants.

Not so, Miller retorted:

“I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of liberty and lighting the world. It’s a symbol of American liberty lighting the world.  The poem that you’re referring to, that was added later, is not actually a part of the original Statue of Liberty.”

Miller and Acosta quickly launched off into further rancorous dialogue, but that first back-and-forth set up the question about the monument’s meaning. It is a symbolic tug-of-war that has been particularly important on the far right, where the longtime mission has been to cut the statue free from immigration. This is why the poem — which is indeed a stirring open invitation to the world’s refugees — is such a target. That is why Miller carefully countered Acosta’s consolidation of the sonnet and the statue.

‘Give me your tired, your poor’: The story of poet and refugee advocate Emma Lazarus

And Miller is right about the poem. “New Colossus” was not part of the original statue built by the French and given to the American people as a gift to celebrate the country’s centennial. Poet Emma Lazarus was asked to compose the poem in 1883 as part of a fundraising effort to build the statue’s base.

A wealthy New York socialite and widely published writer, Lazarus was also related to the first Jewish settlers in America. Inspiring the 34-year-old was her advocacy on behalf of Jewish refugees fleeing slaughter overseas, as The Washington Post noted earlier this year. In 1903, 16 years after Lazarus’ death, the poem was inscribed on the statue’s base, just as millions of immigrants were streaming into New York harbor.

Lazarus’s words infused the gracious monument with an immigration message — regardless of what the original statue was meant to represent. That additional meaning riles up a particular slice of the right.

Earlier this year Rush Limbaugh blamed Lazarus for the false connection. “The Statue of Liberty had absolutely nothing to do with immigration,” Limbaugh said on a January 31 broadcast. “So why do people think that it does? Well, there was a socialist poet.”

But Lady Liberty has also become a fixation for the more extreme elements of the right, individuals less interested in correct symbolism than using the poem — and its Jewish author — as convenient targets for ugly anger and anti-Semitism. The same month Limbaugh spoke about Lazarus, alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer also took aim at the statue’s poem.

The Miller-Acosta spat again ignited reaction extremist commentary about the poem and its author.

The heated response to the connection isn’t new. As ThinkProgress reported Wednesday, David Duke, former Klu Klux Klan leader and current Trump supporter, spent an entire chapter in one of his books weaving anti-Semitic conspiracy involving the monument and Lazarus.

Duke wrote: “As I looked into the American fight over immigration laws during the last 100 years, the driving force behind opening America’s borders became evident: It was organized Jewry, personified by the poet Emma Lazarus.”

Lazarus is also a frequent topic on Stormfront, one of the Web’s largest white supremacist hubs. One typical post on Lazarus is “Give Me Your Huddled Masses — The Jewess who tried to destroy the US!”

And today, Stormfront’s forums were buzzing about Miller (who was raised in a Jewish home in Southern California). “Miller really did destroy them. It’s pretty much a badge of honour for a jew to jew another jew,” one Stormfront commenter wrote. “And those damn (((journalists))) are insufferable. I say free helicopter rides for them.”

“That cnn jew reporter asked ‘Are we only going to allow immigrants from Great Britian Australia in?'”another said. “It would have been great if Stephen Miller responded with YES! and every other White Country also.”

Members of President Trump’s administration: Moments that made headlines

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, takes a question during a White House press briefing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on on Wednesday, Nov.1, 2017. President Donald Trump called on Congress Wednesday to end the visa program that allowed the suspect in the deadliest terror attack in New York City since 2001 to enter the country and said he'd consider sending the alleged assailant to the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg (Al Drago/Bloomberg)

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