A week ago (sorry, I missed it earlier), The Washington Post ran an op-ed by Roberto Suro denouncing Emma Lazarus’s poem The New Colossus (“Give me your tired, your poor…”). (Hit tip Mark Krikorian.) Mark Steyn piled on here. It is indeed an awful poem. Almost everything about it is wrong, beginning with the opening spondee: “Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame.” Actually, the Statue of Liberty is obviously quite like the Colossus of Rhodes. Both are/were huge metal statues overlooking a harbor and made to strike awe in the beholder. Lazarus should have written, “Much like the brazen giant of Greek fame.” She goes on to describe Liberty as a “mother” with “mild eyes” – which is a bizarre way to describe a muscular, sexless goddess, crowned like the sun, trampling shackles and holding aloft a flaming torch. She is leading and threatening, not nurturing and welcoming.
One could go on. Still, Lazarus’s poem is beloved of many, so it’s worth pointing out that there is an alternative reading of The New Colossus. Conventionally, it is taken to be a celebration of immigration; in reality, the message is anti-immigration and anti-multicultural.
Start with the statue’s first words: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp; give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” (This is an absurdly ungrateful message for a statue donated by France to send – but let that pass.) Lazarus’s New Colossus isn’t welcoming just anybody. On the contrary, she is welcoming only peoples from “ancient lands” inspired by the achievements of the Greeks – that is to say, Europe. America in Lazarus’s vision takes the wretched of royal, feudal Europe and places them in a classless, democratic society. There is no indication that Lazarus saw America as welcoming anybody else.
Second, Lazarus’s statue only welcomes oppressed peoples – and not just any oppressed, but those who are oppressed by traditional governments of “storied pomp,” viz. hereditary monarchies. Peoples who are oppressed by other forms of government are not welcome. One presumes that they are double unwelcome if they have popular governments of their own.
Third, Lazarus’s “huddled masses” who come to America are utterly lacking in nationality or culture. They are “homeless” – that is to say, they are not tied to any place. Lazarus’s poem does not say what kind of country these people will encounter in America. Still, one can infer that America is not multicultural, as the people who come to it apparently bring no culture with them. Discarded as “wretched refuse” by aristocratic, honor-based societies, they are too poor to have known any culture before coming to America.
In short, The New Colossus envisions a very different kind of immigration than what we have now. If anything, the poem argues that America cannot welcome peoples from the Third World. First, the peoples of the Third World are not oppressed in the way that Lazarus believes the peoples of Europe were oppressed. On the contrary, they have nearly all thrown off the yoke of the “ancient lands” of Europe and set up independent governments. They have no need for America because they already are free. Second, they are not homeless. On the contrary, the peoples of the Third World have their own nations, peoples and traditions, which they retain when they come here, often with the encouragement of their home countries. Under a proper reading of The New Colossus, America has already fulfilled its role in history by taking in the masses of Europe. To create a multicultural America, another myth is needed. The New Colossus doesn’t supply it.