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.”
These lines from the most well-known and quoted The New Colossus, a sonnet composed by Emma Lazarus, are displayed on a plaque inside the base of the Statue of Liberty. They are part of America’s long discussion over immigration, restarted whenever nativism resurfaces, as during Reagan’s presidency, after Sept 11 and currently over President Trump’s anti-immigration policies. To simply invoke them as a founding ideal, however, is to overlook the fact that anti-immigration sentiments or nativism is not an aberration; it’s almost inscribed in America’s DNA.
As the historian Paul A. Kramer pointed out, “Viewed historically, the claim that anti-immigrant policies are “not who we are,” while stirring, does not hold water. American nativist politics have deep roots.” Indeed, “writing 25 years before the Declaration of Independence, in a treatise on the demographics of the Pennsylvania colony, Benjamin Franklin expressed worries about the arrival of Spaniards, Italians, Russians, Swedes, and the French, people who possessed what he called “a swarthy Complexion”; he complained that Germans were becoming so numerous that they threatened to “Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them.”
As early as 1798 Federalists passed several laws that severely limited the immigration of French and Irish revolutionaries. On the other hand, the Founders recognized, wrote Kramer, “the need for the United States to open its arms to those fleeing tyranny . . . [to] serve as what George Washington and others called an ‘asylum’ for ‘the oppressed of every Nation and Country.’” They also believed that the United States needed immigrants and their labor to build up American industry and infrastructure.” Still, their preference was for those of Anglo-Saxon Protestant stock. “Providence has been pleased,” John Jay celebrated in The Federalist Papers, “to give this one connected country to one united people—people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in manners and customs.”
This sameness was threatened in the mid-19th century by an influx of predominantly Catholic immigrants fleeing famine in Ireland and revolutions in Europe, and Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia. The Catholic influx spawned America’s first mass nativist movement, animated by fears and conspiracies of a “popish plot” to establish “despotic” control over America. The fears turned racial with Chinese immigration in the late 19th century, which was restricted by the Exclusion Act of 1882. Of course, from the onset black slaves and native Indians were excluded by the Naturalization Act of 1790, which restricted citizenship to “free white persons.”
Animating the exclusion was the myth of Anglo-Saxon racial-cultural superiority. The issue, as explicitly put by The Immigration Restriction League founded in 1894, was “whether America should “be peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin and Asiatic races, historically downtrodden, atavistic and stagnant.” The myth of superior and inferior races, was reinforced by the “new science” of Eugenics. A combination of the Greek words, “good” and “well-born,” Eugenics was concocted by Francis Galton, a half cousin of Charles Darwin, who drawing from the Origin of Species (1859) and his own “analysis” of English upper classes concluded in his book Hereditary Genius (1869) that intelligence, and “desirable” and “undesirable” traits were hereditary, and advocated the selective breeding of “the more suitable races or strains of blood.”
Eugenics or fears of miscegenation (mixing of races) underwrote not only anti-immigration policies but also white supremacy. However, for all the sciences—biology, genetics, anthropology—enlisted in the service of Eugenics or Racism, the idea of selective breeding of ‘superior’ humans goes way back to the Greeks. Sparta practiced it and Plato suggested it in the Republic. As a matter of fact, the motive force of racism came not from science, but Greek Art. Indeed, it’s very revealing that a majority of theoreticians of race, as George L. Mosse showed, were painters and writers rather than scientists. “The aesthetic . . . swamped the scientific.” Therefore, “the importance of the emphasis upon the visual for racial thought cannot be overestimated,” he said.
Racism’s emphasis upon the visual, its veneration of the Greek ideal of beauty brings us to the opening line of The New Colossus: “Not like the brazen giant of Greek Fame.” It’s polemical. Lazarus is telling us what her text is “not like,” what it negates: the brazen strength and beauty, the pursuit of glory, “from land to land” (line 2) symbolized by the ancient male Greek Colossus which stood at the harbor entrance at the island of Rhodes. On the other hand, the United States, symbolized by the new female Colossus is “a mighty woman with a torch” (line 4), but she does not use her strength for coercion and domination, but to give refuge to the “homeless.” She is the “Mother of Exiles” (line 6).
Lazarus doesn’t just contrast. If, as commentators have noted “the imprisoned lighting” of Lady Liberty’s torch recalls Zeus’s thunderbolt; in her hand, it’s neutered, transmuted. It becomes a “beacon” of hope (line 6). Indeed, having transmuted Zeus’s divine weapon, she “commands” (line 9), rhetorically turns it against the “ancient lands” of Europe, and tells them, “keep . . . your storied pomp:” the aristocrats, the powerful and the beautiful. “With silent lips” she cries (in the famous final six lines): “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!”
The pathos condensed in these lines, the emphatic tone that infuses them with such evocative fervour, came from Lazarus’s own personal experience helping recently arrived refugees at the depot on Wards Island, “who were the most impoverished, destitute, unskilled group ever to arrive in the United State.” In other words, where nativists saw a eugenic epidemic to be quarantined and excluded, she intended her readers to see, like the good Samaritan, hurting fellow humans to be embraced and uplifted. But to see the common humanity obscured by wretchedness and otherness requires an ethical insight—literally—seeing the inner nature. It entails turning one’s gaze away from aesthetics or the beautiful.
And that’s what Lazarus polemically and boldly does. She turns her gaze from the Greek ideal of beauty upon which racial supremacy was based, to the Bible’s egalitarian and humanitarian values. The Bible, to be sure, is not alluded to at all. But the final, famous six lines cannot be read without hearing the Torah and the prophets’ concern and compassion for the alien, the orphan, the widow, the poor and the weak. To be sure, Lazarus, a prolific writer and well-read member of the late 19th century literati, was certainly not unaware of how biblical ethics were being assaulted by Social Darwinists and Nietzsche, who greatly admired Ralph Waldo Emmerson, an acquaintance of hers.
The New Colossus, in other words, must be read in the larger context of the late 19th century developments, movements and ideologies, especially the eugenics movement, racism, antisemitism, nationalism, Social Darwinism and colonialism, each which subordinated the individual and sacrificed the Other to collective egoism. Read in this larger context, its The New Colossus, not nativism or exclusion that is an aberration. In its unconditional welcome and unreserved embrace of refugees, the wretched others of the earth, it was at odds with the zeitgeist of late 19th and early 20th century. By the same token, its wide reception, the degree to which it shaped America’s conception of itself, attests to the inclusiveness and novelty of American democracy, its break with the “ancient lands” of Europe.
The novelty of American democracy, its inclusive nationalism, is rarely recognized today, overshadowed by narratives of racial discrimination, ethnocentrism, sexism, nativism, and so on. Overlooked however is that the very space or freedom, to question, dissent, or inspire, like The New Colossus, is inscribed in the American Creed. No other modern nation has redefined its identity and reformed its institutions to include the marginalized and the Other like the United States. As a matter of fact, “the principles of the American Creed were the single greatest resource of those pushing for the end of racial segregation and discrimination. . . the right of all individuals to equal treatment and opportunity, regardless of race.”
And it cannot be overemphasized enough that the American Creed “was a product of the distinct Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers of America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” To be sure, the weight must be put on Protestantism, because it supplied the core values of the Creed: the primacy of individual freedom and equality, the self-disciplining conscience, the work ethic, the idea of a covenant (social contract) as a voluntary association of individuals, and the secular messianism that has animated all of America’s reform movements.
By taking the individual as its starting point the American Creed arrived at what scholars have called civic nationalism, which underwrote “an open society . . . to which people of any race or ethnicity are able to subscribe and thus become citizens. Ethnic nationalism, in the contrast, is exclusive, and membership is limited to those who share certain primordial, ethnic, or cultural characteristics.” Civic nationalism was formed in Protestant England and transplanted in toto to America, where its individualistic-universalistic and liberal-democratic principles blossomed into the “empire of liberty,” in Thomas Jefferson’s famous epithet. And proof that America is indeed an “empire of liberty” is simply the thousands of people from all over the world seeking entry into the United States.
Of course, thousands are also seeking entry into Western Europe, which already has substantial Muslim populations and has taken in more since 2015, acutely raising issues of national identity, social concord, and political stability. For Europeans these issues are existential, because unlike England and the United States, their nationalism was, at birth, ethnic and collective, premised on a homogeneous people, with unifying threads of a common language, blood and soil. As such, the burden of assimilating and culturally accommodating foreigners, placed on native Europeans is real and heavy. It can’t be simply denigrated as chauvinistic, atavistic, fascist or illiberal.
Without common ideas or culture, “no common action would be possible, and without common action, [individuals] might exist, but there could be no social body [or nation],” Tocqueville astutely noted. In other words, the far-right claims that Europe “is committing suicide” through uncontrolled immigration is not wholly unfounded. Indeed, the political polarization and paralysis in the United States patently bares what materializes when there are no shared fundamental ideas and values. To put it differently, when a people or a nation disagrees on fundamentals, compromise is impossible, passions are inflamed, problems go unsolved and the nation crumbles into anarchy.
As it is, anarchy, total breakdown of the nation-state and Western democracy is not implausible, given that precarious economic prosperity is what stands between us and anarchy. After all, it’s the economic crisis of 2008 that unleashed the populist, nativist, anti-immigrant passions that have made deliberative politics and government in terms of reason difficult and well-nigh impossible. Can Western democracies survive a 1929-like economic collapse? And should such a collapse occur, can they check the demonic forces, the scapegoating and savage ethnic cleansing that always trails extreme social and economic crisis?
The different ethnic, racial and religious peoples that now live the United States and Europe cannot easily be homogenized. And the differences have been deepened by identity politics and multiculturalism’s fixation on “difference” over our common humanity. On the other hand, conservative efforts to coerce uniformity will only create con-fusion; “Babylon.” However, an alternative to “Babylon,” one that acknowledges and respects humanity’s diversity, while offering the ground for universal harmony, is advanced in the “eternal gospel to every nation, tribe, language and people,” which calls on the world to find its unity and amity in the worship of the Creator-God (Revelation 14:6).
With its multiplicity of Christian denominations, Jewish sects and other religions, and diversity of races, languages and people, America is a pragmatic, albeit imperfect, application of this apocalyptic vision—an application inadvertently set by the founding Anglo-Protestant settlers. Samuel P. Huntington was therefore on point in arguing that Americans “recommit themselves to the Anglo-Protestant culture, traditions, and values that for three and a half centuries have been embraced by Americans of all races, ethnicities, and religions and have been a source of their liberty, unity, power, prosperity, and moral leadership as a force of good in the world.”
And the biblical humanitarian ethos of this Protestant culture, compassion for “the homeless and tempest -tost,” is what “with silent lips” the Statue of Liberty proclaims to America and the world.
Article Author: Elijah Mvundura
Elijah Mvundura writes from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has graduate degrees in economic history, European history, and education.