Acting Director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli made his best effort at proving that he’s a better poet than Emma Lazarus when he announced during in interview that the third quatrain of “The New Colossus” should actually say, “Give me your tired, your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.” Setting aside the unfortunate reality that this revision lacks the proper rhythm or rhyme needed to continue Lazarus’s sonnet, it of course profoundly misses the point of the sonnet or of the Statue of Liberty itself.
Let’s set aside the irony that Mr. Cuccinelli landed his current position by exploiting a loophole. His appointment circumvented the Federal Vacancies Act and does not meet the eligibility criteria to remove the “Acting” from his title. I’m not quite sure that counts as standing on his own two feet, by which I mean he’s not standing on his own two feet all. That’s quite a leg up he’s gotten. In some corners, the first synonym for “acting” that comes to mind is “pretending”, but let’s leave that alone and get back to the poem itself.
On one level, Cuccinelli may have a point. “The New Colossus” alludes to the original Colossus of Rhodes, a massive statue erected in 305 BC to commemorate the island-city of Rhodes’ victory in repelling an invasion from the Macedonians. So that would seem to satisfy assertions from the Trump administration that there is an invasion taking place. Then again, our New Colossus, the Statue of Liberty, is a fair distance away from the border where the invasion is ostensibly taking place. Close, Ken, but no cigar.
Even if the “invasion” parallel were to hold water, the first lines of Lazarus’s poem declare, “Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,” so Lazarus directly denies that Lady Liberty has anything in common with the Colossus of Rhodes. From there, the differences become even more stark. She is the “Mother of Exiles” whose “beacon-hand/Glows world-wide welcome.” From these lines, it should be abundantly clear that Lazarus wants us to see the Statue as welcoming to exiles — people fleeing religious, racial, or political persecution, people from around the world, not just Europe.
The next few lines beg for attention even if the lines that follow are perhaps among the most famous in American poetry: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp.” For those who want to restore some kind of mythical good ol’ days, who want to harken back to an imaginary period in which classic Greek or Anglo-Saxon culture and values dominated American culture, Lazarus offers a polite but firm rebuttal. Those ancient lands — Europe — can keep their vaunted history. This is the New World, and what we want instead of fancy castles and ornate churches is “your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” It’s hard to imagine misunderstanding that. The Statue of Liberty is there as a beacon to welcome the world’s refuse, the wretched unwanted who are too tired and poor to be worthy of that “storied pomp”. Long story short, Mr. Cuccinelli, you’ve got it all wrong. Bass-ackwards, as it were.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting this wrong-er than Cuccinelli has. The Statue was first envisioned by Édouard René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye, a French abolitionist who wanted to strengthen the relationship between France and the United States. He discussed with architect Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi his desire for creating a monument to specifically commemorate the abolition of slavery. Indeed, the Statue of Liberty is wearing a shackle and broken chain, a fairly clear reference to horror of chattel slavery. That her name is what it is should make it obvious what she stands for. Just in case it isn’t, the statue is modeled after the Roman goddess Libertas who wore a pileus, or felt cap. When a Roman slave achieved his freedom, his head was shorn, and he wore a pileus. However, it was Jefferson Davis (yes, the same Jefferson Davis who would later become President of the Confederacy) who insisted that the Statue of Liberty not wear a pileus for fear that the statue’s connection to the abolition movement would be too obvious. Hence, the diadem-crown.
Emma Lazarus herself was a Sephardic Jew, also known as “The Jews of Spain”. Can you see the plot thickening, the irony becoming more delicious as we go? Here we have a statue that commemorates at least in part the abolition of slavery and the liberation of African-Americans with a bronze plaque on which appears a poem from a Jewish woman with roots in a Spanish-speaking country. It practically reads like a checklist of all of President Trump’s targets. If only someone Muslim could have been involved, we’d have checked all of Trump’s boxes or at least pressed all of his buttons.
At a risk of getting too personal, Mr. Cuccinelli should heed his own ancestry. Born to an Irish-American mother and an Italian-American father in 1968, he escaped the persecution of Irish and Italians immigrants but should certainly be aware of it. In much the same ways as Cuccinelli, Trump, and others talk about immigrants and refugees from Latin America in harshly pejorative, openly racist ways, America talked about Irish and Italian immigrants in the 19th century and well into the 20th: They brought disease. They didn’t speak the language. Their religion was different. They were rapists and criminals and would strain welfare services. They would steal jobs. Their arrival inspired nativist agendas, legislation, and even violence intended to intimidate them into returning to their home countries. While it’s true that each group has “become” white (read Noel Ignatiev’s How The Irish Became White and Jennifer Guglielmo’s Are Italians White? for more), I don’t think it’s asking too much of Mr. Cuccinelli that he consider his own ancestry and how far he has risen in a society that welcomes the poor and the downtrodden from any country. A hundred years ago, the Irish and the Italians stood on the bottom rungs of American society. Mr. Cuccinelli stands near the top, or he’s at least acting like he is.
I’m not suggesting that a closer reading of Lazarus’s poem would enlighten Cuccinelli’s politics in any way, but it is only fourteen lines, after all. Surely it’s quicker and easier to read than everything I’ve covered here.