The New Colossus

A colossus is usually defined as “a statue that is much bigger than life size”. There is another definition however which defines it as “a person or thing of enormous size, importance, or ability.” The Statue of Liberty is one such colossus. It is indeed a statue larger than life size, but it is also a thing of enormous importance and ability. The New Colossus is the poem which is attacked to the Statue of Liberty. The history of both is interesting, but neither of those histories is really the topic of this. The topic is that we have forgotten our American colossus, and we are the poorer for it.
A bit of history. the Statue of Liberty is the same height as the Colossus at Rhodes, thought she stands higher because of her base. Both were built a symbols of freedom and the celebration of it. The poem inside the Statue of Liberty is of course called The New Colossus in reference to the Colossus at Rhodes. Both stand in busy harbors. The point here is that this is not the first colossus to liberty that man has constructed.
Immigration is in the news a lot lately, especially immigration from certain areas that the POTUS has deemed as unsavory as nations and as people groups. There has been all sorts of talk about merit based immigration, chain migration, etc. There have been a lot of claims made. I am not really concerned with those though. I want to appeal to the great American colossus, and the poem that describes her.
Before we go any further though, consider this.  The very poem is a beautiful example of what actually makes America great. It is an Italian sonnet, on a Greek statue, made in France, by a Jewish American woman who, in the America of 1883, could not fully participate in society yet. In that year, European immigrants, mostly Italians, Greeks, and Russian Jewish refugees, were arriving in mass causing great tension between “natives” (the descendants of earlier immigrants), and those coming into the nation. In this climate, Emma Lazarus, a writer and activist from a wealthy New York family, was helping Jewish refugees from Czarist Russia. She was asked to assist in a fund raising effort for the statue still under construction, and in doing so, she invested in the poem for Lady Liberty  her own personal concerns and experiences. Her poem, The New Colossus, focused on a much different part of liberty than had been shown before. To this point, the most common depictions of liberty had been the willingness to fight for it. A great example of this is the Eugène Delacroix painting Liberty Leading the People (1830) in which Libertas (the Roman goddess of liberty that the Statue of Liberty is based on) leads the people with a battle flag and a gun. Lazarus however focuses on the most dangerous, and most important part of liberty, welcoming the stranger. Bette Roth Young, a Lazarus biographer, writes that The New Colossus was the only entry read at the fund raising gala, and James Russell Lowell, a famous author, would write to Lazarus later that year that ““Your sonnet gives its subject a raison d’etre.” Though it would not be until after her death, The New Colossus would become more than a poem, but become an idea of what America, and really what liberty itself, can be at it’s best. It is in the climate of unrest where the fear of immigrants damaging the society that had been built, taking away jobs, causing violence, and mayhem, the New Colossus is written. It is in this climate that the raison d’etre, or the most important purpose, for the existence of the Statue of Liberty is born. It is in this current climate that mirrors the past, that we need not a new colossus, but the old one that has served so well.
I am not so naive as some might think. I understand the necessity for immigration policy and law. Our system is broken and needs to be reworked badly. I am not oblivious to the reality that there are threats in the world. I am not unsympathetic to the fear that there jobs will be taken, the economy harmed, and that terrorists will attack every elementary school in America. I also understand that liberty is dangerous. As Jefferson said, “I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery.” The New Colossus was that which gave the Statue of Liberty her identity in a very real way. That identity is not some angry warrior goddess guarding the Americans from those who would come. She does not turn away those from places some might call undesirable. She does not stand to defend the “natives”. She is the mother of exiles and the one who welcomes refugees. For all the talk of merit based immigration, Lady Liberty says do not measure the worth of those coming, measure what they may become once here. To the elite she says stay away, but to the outcast she says welcome. Pretty much she says the opposite of much of the rhetoric we see today. No, The New Colossus is not official immigration policy, but any policy that stands contrary to her stands contrary to liberty.
In the midst of all the rhetoric that is going on today, we have The New Colossus (now a bit old to be sure) still lighting the way. If these words do not move us, do not stir compassion, do not motivate us to allow those who need the most to come to the place that can give the most; If these words do not stir within you the idea that we can be a part of something greater than our selfish wants and needs, to accept the risks of liberty for the sake of the exiled, the enslaved, the war torn, and the desperate; If these words do not stir within you the best things about the American dream and what it can mean, then I dare say that these words have fallen on deaf ears that never knew those things to begin with. These words, and not the words of those who stand contrary to them, are how we begin to make America great again.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
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,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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