The Amer­i­can ideal

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - John Brum­mett

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.

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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 jbrum­mett@arkansason­line.com. Read his @john­brum­mett Twit­ter feed.

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