The American ideal
Stephen Miller, an extremist Bannon-wing White House aide fresh off Jeff Sessions’ Senate staff, got the fact right but the American ideal wrong.
He held forth Wednesday in the White House press briefing room. He extolled the Trump administration’s partnership with the extremist young senator from Arkansas, Tom Cotton, on a bill to attack not illegal immigration, but legal immigration.
The bill would cap legal entry for citizenship and tie it to education level or language skills or domestic job needs. The point seems to be to make America great again by keeping people out, despite the irony that America was made great in the first place by letting people in.
A reporter for CNN, Jim Acosta, asked whether the bill—which most likely will go nowhere except deep into the hearts of Trump’s and Cotton’s angriest right-wing supporters—defied the famed message of the Statue of Liberty.
Perhaps you’ve heard of that compassion and eloquence: “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.”
Miller replied that the Statue of Liberty contained no such message when it was given by France to the United States on our nation’s centennial. He said the sonnet—by Brooklyn poet Emma Lazarus— was commissioned years later for a fundraising pedestal project for the statue.
True. The famous words are not part of the Statue of Liberty as crafted in France, but of the pedestal as applied later in America. That would seem to make the words and ideas more American, not less, as the fiery Trumpian nationalist was implying.
The poem was a liberal woman’s ode to America’s generous spirit, particularly at the time, the 1880s, when Europeans were flooding New York in pursuit of a new and better life.
Did Miller mean to say that he didn’t believe America existed to extend that generous welcoming spirit?
Why, yes, that’s precisely what he meant.
Miller asserted that the Statue of Liberty stands as an outward symbol to the world of America’s liberty. It is in no way, he said, a symbol of America’s willingness to absorb people to share that liberty.
Miller’s view—and that of other contemporary American alt-right nationalists, some of them anti-Semitic and racist—is that America’s not-sopoetic message should read as follows: “This lady here, this statue, which some other country we don’t acknowledge made for us, stands for the fact that we have liberty in America and you don’t, and that, if you want some liberty, you shouldn’t go getting the idea that you can come over and share ours, because we aren’t sharing, because we don’t want to. If you want liberty, then get busy and get yourself some of your own, wherever you are, like we did. Or, well, like our ancestors did. We’ve got ours. You’re on your own.”
It’s not as pleasant to the ear, is it? Or the heart. Or the soul.
It contends that liberty in America, like wealth, largely hinges on membership in a Lucky Sperm Club.
We’d known for some time that there were thinkers like Miller percolating in the United States. But this was the first time one of them had openly represented an American president.
All of us in America who are descended from Europeans should be thankful that our ancestors ventured bravely to the United States before the unwelcoming likes of Trump and Cotton and Miller came along.
Otherwise we wouldn’t be Americans, or else we wouldn’t exist at all, considering the poverty and illness some of our ancestors were fleeing.
Miller also went off on the CNN reporter by railing against the reporter’s “cosmopolitan bias.”
“Cosmopolitan” means a worldview that thinks in a broad context of people around the world rather than in a narrow context of people in your own country.
Nationalists like Miller don’t like cosmopolitanism, as he made clear to the CNN reporter.
Stalin didn’t like it either. He railed against it by saying Russian intellectuals, often Jewish, were insulting to fellow countrymen and unpatriotic because they looked beyond the national border to learn of and even embrace Western thinking.
I’m not likening Trump or Miller or Cotton to Stalin, of course. I’m saying that many countries with closed, selfish and resentful societies haven’t fared as well historically as the open, generous and tolerant one the United States perhaps will remain if the thinking of Stephen Miller meets its deserved fate, along with the legislation of Donald Trump and Tom Cotton.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.