What Did We Expect?

Who knows what the New Colussus is? I certainly didn’t remember, although I’m certain that I heard about it at some point in my life, maybe high school civics class. Here it is in its entirety:

The New Colossus

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!”

Emma Lazarus
November 2, 1883

Now I bet you recognize it, especially the last quote from the Colossus: “Give me…the wretched refuse from your teeming shore…the homeless…” This is a very nice sentiment, encapsulating the origins of so many people arriving in North America, beginning with religious zealots persecuted for their beliefs; and uneducated men and women (not needed by the pre-industrial societies of the time) signing contracts to work as indentured servants for years, arriving in the swamps of Virginia.

Naturally, they carried the memory of their previous lives into the new nation they eventually formed. I recommend a recent book called Fantasyland, by Kurt Anderson to better understand these people, the people who formed the character of America.

There’s a reason the Colossus voices her invitation. The colonists and most subsequent immigrants to America were misfits with nothing to lose. Even the wealthiest, who became the Founding Fathers, were antiauthoritarian rabble rousers who resented any power greater than their own, especially the southern slaveholders.

These personality traits became cemented in the character of every colony, later state, and then the United States. I’m not saying that a different group of colonists and immigrants wouldn’t have done the things these people did: murdering Native Americans and stealing their land; enslaving Africans kidnapped from their homes; decimating the environment, leaving scorched earth in their wake; and turning against their own government (the British Crown) over what were actually pretty minor offenses, as government’s behaved back then.

What did we think was going to happen when a national character born from fear, desperation, persecution, and superstition–reinforced by 200 years of “wretched refuse” arriving in droves–faced a challenge? Every crisis, usually of our own doing, is an opportunity to blame someone else, preferably a newer arrival.

In the words of Britney Spears, “Oops!…[we] did it again.”

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