Scoundrel Time

I Lift My Lamp


From the Oxford English Dictionary, digital edition.

Asylum. < Latin asȳlum, < Greek ἄσῡλον refuge, sanctuary, neuter of adjective ἄσῡλος inviolable.

1. A sanctuary or inviolable place of refuge and protection for criminals and debtors, from which they cannot be forcibly removed without sacrilege.
c. 1430   Lydgate tr. Bochas Fall of Princes. A territory that called was Asile. This Asilum . . .  Was a place of refuge and succours. . . For to receyue all foreyn trespassours.

In my grade school, P. S. 166 on 89th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus, along with the unsingable national anthem with its dreaded, throat-flaying high notes, we sang a song that I thought of as the national anthem of New York. Actually, it would have been the municipal anthem, but at eight I was ignorant of the fine distinctions between the local and the national. Nor did I know that the song’s lyrics were from a poem by Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus.” I didn’t know who Emma Lazarus was, nor that the old colossus would have been the one at Rhodes that was reckoned one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. I did know that the song was about the Statue of Liberty, though I don’t remember how I learned this. What I remember are the words of the single verse, which we sang to a melody that also rose in pitch, but steadily, like one or two flights of stairs rather than an entire skyscraper of them that you start climbing with the best intentions, eager to be tested, but well before their midpoint are reduced to staggering up, or crawling, like a devotee of some saint whose worship involves ascending on one’s knees and anointing each step with a smear of blood.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shores.
Send these, the homeless tempest-tossed, to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

As it was for generations of immigrants, the statue was my earliest image of America and of the liberty that is its central premise—liberty not as an absence (of kings, for starters) but as a presence. An absence can’t be represented, except maybe by a gigantic zero. A presence can be, and its representation may reveal something about the presence that the mere word ‘liberty’ cannot. What could one infer about liberty, or the American variety of it, from the figure watching over the city’s harbor, so forbidding in its height and mass, in the green of its weathered bronze and the severity of its profile? It didn’t look welcoming. It may not have been intended to cow the newcomers who sailed beneath it, but neither was it offering them a tray of chocolates and a squirt of Purel. It was somber and vigilant, and it seemed to be simultaneously looking down, at the wretched refuse waiting for entry, and out, at the horizon where more of them were coming.

2. A secure place of refuge, shelter, or retreat.
1642   E. Dering Coll. Speeches on Relig. They have bin the Asylum for superstition.

What I learned from that song was that the place I lived was a place that welcomed strangers, even wretched ones. My people, too, had come here wretched. My father was a refugee from Austria who had gotten out when that country was annexed by Germany and lived for a time as an undocumented alien in France before being granted asylum in the U.S. Shortly after his arrival, he learned that his mother had been killed at Auschwitz. My mother’s family had sent her here from Finland during that country’s Winter War with the USSR. To the end of their lives they spoke English with embarrassing accents. I’m told that I also spoke with an accent when I was small, an amalgam of my parents’, and only began to sound like an American—that is, a New Yorker—after I started public school and began to imitate my classmates and teachers.

Count the terms in the preceding paragraphs that will become obsolete in the new America, the one slated to commence on January 20, if it isn’t here already, or the terms whose meaning will change so radically that one might as well speak of obsolescence: tired, poor, wretched refuse, homeless. The welcome implicit in the words give me. To say nothing of public schools.

3. Inviolable shelter; refuge, protection.
1725   D. Cotes tr. L. E. Du Pin New Eccl. Hist. 17th Cent. The Senate was oblig’d to confine the Right of Asylum to Nine Temples.
1814   Byron Lara. Beneath his roof They found asylum oft, but ne’er reproof.

Perhaps the new president will commemorate his accession by having a giant zero built someplace, maybe in Washington, maybe on Liberty Island, alongside the older statue or, for that matter, in its place, the old statue being a distinguished landmark but, frankly, what with being old and green, and underneath the robe thing, quite possibly overweight, not that hot. Given his well-documented taste, the zero should be made of gold, or more practically, gold-plated.

4. Refuge in a nation other than one’s own, esp. as a political refugee; the right to claim this, usually defined or restricted in law by the nation concerned.
1842   Southern Q. Rev. In cases where the offence was only politically violative of the peculiar ordinances of one nation…, the offender would be entitled to the asylum sought.
1995   Times [of London]. Those who are holed up in detention centres in this country waiting months if not years for applications for asylum and refugee status to be resolved…have a higher moral claim…than do three million Hong Kong Chinese.

I got my first look at the Statue of Liberty on a class trip in fifth or sixth grade in the company of twenty other boys and girls, almost all of whom were the children or grandchildren of immigrants: Jews from Eastern and Central Europe, mostly, but also a boy whose grandparents had immigrated from Japan and whose father and uncles had fought in the famous 442nd Infantry regiment during World War II; at that age, it didn’t occur to me to ask if they had been interned (figures close to the incoming president have cited that internment as a model for a possible registry of Muslim Americans). I don’t remember much about the trip except the endless climb up the stairs that coiled inside the statue. Being the kind of child I was, I probably groused the whole way. Only now am I struck by the metaphoric aspects of this ascent, which begins through an entrance in the statue’s base and continues up a narrow tract inside the body until the visitor emerges into the crown, from whose apertures he can gaze out over the glinting mesh of New York Harbor.

The history of our country is a history of repeated exile. Again and again, people are driven from their homes, hounded by drought, famine, plague, and war, by massacre and pogrom. They flee taxes and conscription. They flee the lagers and the freight trains that make their last stop at their gates. They flee Jim Crow and the Klan. They flee the maras, they flee Daesh. Even the most fortunate immigrants to this country came to escape failure, the miserable acres of stony ground that was all that was left after their older brothers had gotten their patrimony, the sheep with footrot, the hard apprenticeship to a grasping master: It’s what they looked back at before walking up the gangplank. One look. Then, with an inward shudder, they turned and stepped on board.

Those Americans who think of this country as theirs and voted for a man who promised to give it back to them have been here a mere fraction of the time their ancestors lived in England, Ireland and the British Isles, in Bavaria, Saxony, and Sicily. In Moravia, in Swabia, in Slovakia, Ruthenia, and Poland. All the countries that decided they were losers and filth and accordingly spat them out.

Being spat out in this manner is a constitutive part of the American experience; it’s how you become an American. The only exceptions may be the Americans whose ancestors were the first inhabitants of the country and the ones whose ancestors were brought to it against their will. And, of course, the ones whose ancestors became American by conquest. For these people, the primal rejection—the primal spitting-out—took place here, the ones who spat being the descendants of wretched English, Scots, Irish, French, Dutch, Italian, and Slavic immigrants. Considering the value once attached to black people, for instance, as slaves, as sharecroppers, as laborers in the most grueling and dangerous occupations, one could speak of filth spitting out gold. For a graphic instance of this paradox, one need look no farther than a candidate for president of the United States, a man whose qualification for that office being a history of profitable but ethically suspect real estate deals and the shrewd branding of his name, questioning the patriotism of a Pakistani-American whose son died fighting for the nation. Filth spitting out gold.

The other constitutive American experience is the amnesia that allows people to forget that they and their forebears were once—to vary the term—losers. In place of the newcomer’s cringing insecurity, this forgetfulness confers on them the amour propre of the self-made man, who believes that everything he has is his by right, rather than by the labor and blood of others, or by luck, or grace. Does this amnesia happen by itself or is it brought about by other means—say, by the act of spitting something out?

This past spring, when Donald Trump was just a joke on the Republican Party and not yet a joke on the United States, I speculated that the most effective protest one could stage against him would be to infiltrate one of his rallies with a group of accomplices, entering singly but then gathering close to the stage, without, however, acknowledging each other. Then, at a signal, we would begin to sing, in harmony:

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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Given the noise level at these rallies, the martial boom of Kid Rock, the tidal whoosh of the crowds, there was the risk no one would hear us unless we were amplified, and then we might have the shit beat out of us, and that’s if we were lucky. I still remember seeing a video of a white supporter at one rally yelling “Light her up!” at a young African-American woman who was being led away by security guards…

In the original Emma Lazarus poem, the statue is named “Mother of Exiles.”