The Others

There is a 305 feet tall monument in New York Harbor that was built as a symbol to welcome all immigrants into the United States.

It is called the Statue of Liberty and was a gift from France to the U.S. in the late 1800s to honor American values and the end of slavery (Note: Ahem) after the Civil War.  

Hey gurl

The idea for this gift came from a conversation between Edouard Laboulaye, a politician, law professor and president of the French Anti-Slavery Society, and the sculptor Frederic Bartholdi. 

I’ve thought a lot about the Statue in recent weeks as the United States continues to have a centuries old debate about immigration. 

Among the questions raised in this debate are statements like:

How many do we have to take?

– What about US, or the U.S.?

– We feel bad for “those people” but right now we don’t have enough American jobs for real Americans.

And my favorite: 

Why must we dilute American culture, religion and skin color with THEM, to the point where our very own AMERICAN culture, religion and skin color, gets watered down and rendered unrecognizable?

Seriously?

There is no point getting into the details of any one of those questions, and many more, over immigration to a country whose very existence was built on a nation full of immigrants from an oppressive society traveling to a new country where everyone from anywhere would theoretically be free to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

That the U.S. has not always lived up to its mission statement is not in debate.  But that this was always a fact of its intention is undeniable if you subscribe to historical facts, or any facts at all.

This week I watched the superb three-part PBS documentary The U.S. and The Holocaust by filmmakers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein.

A must see

It’s a riveting six hours of overtly watchable, if maddening, history that sadly feels all too contemporary.

This is not only because it gives us a painstaking account of the rise and, not necessarily guaranteed at the time, fall of the Nazi Party.

Rather it is due to the fact that with the myriad of interviews with people who were there, combined with historical footage, governmental documents, and accounts from some of those serving the White House during those years, it explains the reluctance of the U.S. to open its doors fully to Jews desperate to escape (nee migrate) here, at the time. 

Too few

As the film puts it, this was principally due to:

a. A repressively strict immigration quota system and, more importantly,

b. A nationwide resistance to allowing our country to become overrun with others who would threaten the religious, economic and social balance in the U.S.

In simpler terms, this means Jews who would be needy, Jews who would take American jobs and, mostly, Jews that were branded as inferior and responsible for the economic troubles real Germans, nee Europeans, were forced to endure during the 1930s.

It wasn’t until several decades later when America had already won the war; six million Jews, not to mention many millions of others, had been killed; and the country had fully recovered from the Depression it was still reeling from in the 1930s, that US immigration quotas were lifted.

The sad truth

Yet all the while most of the top decision makers in the U.S. government knew of the grave danger and mass murders the Jews in Europe were enduring all through the 1930s. 

Also, as the filmmakers inform us, public sentiment AGAINST welcoming any more European Jewish immigrants was well over 70% during most of that time.

This included a large and very rabid Nativist, Anti-Semitic movement dominating a significant section of public and private institutions in the U.S. being spearheaded by people like much adored, wholly American aviation hero Charles Lindbergh.

Dr. Seuss on Nativism, 1941

Well, what do you do when so many in a country don’t want to open its doors for outsiders from another country and culture to come inside?

How about when those citizens, already hurting from their own economic woes, claim there is no room for THEM? 

These questions plague us to this day.  To wit:

What can you say when people whose lives are in danger, people who have no physical resemblance to the majority of US,  literally arrive here (Note: We are more connected these days and have better transportation) by the tens of thousands?

Do you tighten the borders, raise the quotas and build a theoretical and/or literal wall to keep them out?  (Note: Also known as buying them bus or plane tickets to simply get them out of your sight and away from your town).

It isn’t a game

Or do you take history into account, visit New York Harbor (note: physically or virtually) and consider who you are as a nation and how you can learn from your past mistakes?

Here is some information about our very own Lady Liberty that might shed some light on things, as she is wont to do anyway.

Mr. Laboulaye, who as mentioned had the idea for Her in the first place, was a staunch abolitionist and supporter of the Union Army during the Civil War.  In other words, he was rabidly against slavery, especially the kind that helped build the United States.

Hey Eddie!

So when that particular form of servitude was officially outlawed here  (Note: Ahem, again) he decided it could be significant to have a proper symbol of freedom greeting all newcomers on their arrival to these shores of freedom.

It would be the first visual they saw upon arrival, an encouraging beacon lighting the road to a new life in the offing.

That sculpture, Lady Liberty, actually depicts the Roman Liberty goddess, Libertas.  She holds a torch high above her head in her right hand and in her left is a tablet on which the Roman numerals for American Independence Day, July 4, 1776, is inscribed.

Fundraising efforts included visiting the torch for 50 cents as the platform was being built (1876, Philadelphia)

But the pedestal on which she stands, which would become part of the statue we know, took more than a decade plus to finance and build in the U.S. separately through donations spearheaded by a member of the media, a newspaper publisher (Note: Imagine that!) named Joseph Pulitzer. 

It accounts for half the height of what is now one of the most iconic monuments in the world and bears a plaque of the poem The New Colossus, written by 19th century poet Emma Lazarus.

Not coincidentally, Ms. Lazarus was a Sephardic Jew from an immigrant family of Portuguese descent, as well as an activist on behalf of Jewish immigrants. (Note: Imagine that, again!).

Both icons

And though her poem was not written specifically for the Statue her words have, over the years, become synonymous with its intent.

Among the most famous is this section:

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!

This is not to say that it takes someone Jewish inside the U.S. or a foreigner from outside the country (Note: In France, no less!) to show and tell us what democracy and American values are all about.

However, it has always been of interest to me that it took Czech born film director Milos Forman to make so many great films chronicling America, including the quintessential American counterculture musical, Hair; the fictional story of E.L. Doctorow’s America in Ragtime; an unlikely depiction and ultimate condemnation of American censorship in The People vs. Larry Flynt; and a celebration of oddball American creativity in the Andy Kaufman biopic, Man in the Moon.

Amen to that

It has also not escaped me that the very, very New York Jewish immigrant, Irving Berlin, wrote one of most popular anthems the U.S. conservative movement has ever wrapped its arms around, God Bless America.

All this is to say that every once in a while, and perhaps more often than that, it’s nice to be reminded who we really are, or strive to be, by some of the OTHERS who, rightly or wrongly, admired US.

And to welcome them into the fold and learn from them the lessons we were all supposed to have known in the first place.

Aretha Franklin – “God Bless America”

What Price?

It’s been said many times that everyone has a price.

What this means is that people will do anything if they are paid enough money or given what they want.

So the question we all need to seriously ask ourselves during these very turbulent times is:

What is YOUR price?

Is it safety from real or imagined enemies, foreign or domestic?

That is to say, doing whatever it takes to bar morally unknowable immigrants (Note: nee…all of them?) from entering our country? Or is it prohibiting any morally questionable person in support of such a policy from dining in your restaurant, not to mention, continuing as president?

Perspective

What is YOUR price?

Is it about ensuring our country thrives financially, as well as ethically?

That is to say, making sure you have a president whose first priority is cutting taxes, creating old-fashioned jobs for the long ignored and appointing Supreme Court justices who will once it again make it difficult or illegal for women to get an abortion? Or is it ceasing communication with family and now former friends who believe in all of the above, while screaming at the top of your lungs in their faces, or from the rooftops or on our airwaves, to counter their selling out our most precious American ideals of freedom, equality and democracy for all?

What is YOUR price?

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

You see where this is going. I had planned on continuing but the list and the metaphors could be – and are – endless as we approach July 4, 2018 – the 242nd anniversary of American independence.

Several days ago I watched What Price Hollywood a 1932 film directed by George Cukor about a spunky waitress who serves drinks to a charming, drunken Hollywood director that gives her a bit part in his movie, guides her to stardom and then dissipates into a state of alcoholic disrepair as her life blossoms.

The plot has since been appropriated by numerous movies, including the many versions of A Star Is Born (Note: The new Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga one opens Oct. 5, and yes, I’m counting the days). Still, this does not mean it is any less ironic or timely.

Click for the OFFICIAL countdown (to the minute) #really #REALLY

There is no reality where you can get everything you want without it costing you something. It wasn’t the waitress’ fault the director became a hopeless alcoholic and ruined his life but because he was such a great mentor and friend it breaks her heart. That is the way the drama works because that is the way the world is – we achieve things and the norms and/or people we counted on and loved quite suddenly, at least to us, fall by the wayside.

A more contemporary comparison might be Indecent Proposal, a 1993 film where billionaire Robert Redford offers happily married Demi Moore a flat $1,000,000 to spend the night with him, no strings attached. After discussing it with her high school sweetheart husband, the financially strapped Woody Harrelson, and reassuring him of their forever love, the couple agrees to the Faustian bargain and… well… it goes as Faustian bargains go if not for test marketing and a somewhat tacked on Hollywood ending.

Girl how did you think this was going to pan out? #dowagergetsreal

Meaning, if someone is going to pay you $1,000,000 suffice it to say it IS going to cost YOU – a lot – and it may not be measurable by mere currency.

It certainly seems like US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, 81, has the right to retire from the bench anytime he wants. Yet when I read this week that he was not so subtly reassured of his legacy beforehand by the White House, and that his eldest son worked for years with Trump on real estate deals at Deutsche Bank, the institution that loaned Trump a BILLION dollars, I couldn’t help but cynically and rhetorically ask the justice, and myself, – what price?

Me… all week

Of course I will never know if a price was exacted or if this justice – the Republican who was actually the swing vote in making gay marriage the law of the land – was swayed by any of it, or by them.

So it’s instead easier for me to stew over the millions of Americans (Note: And perhaps a handful of Russian bots) who voted for and still support a president who consistently calls the press the enemy of the American people or very bad people on the very day that five journalists were gunned down in their Maryland newsroom by a crazed shooter with a vendetta against their paper. Did Trump’s words contribute to egging the guy on in that particular moment? Again, we’ll never know. But for any of his supporters who still get joy from and continue to revel in how he’s characterized one of the foundations of our democracy – the free press – again I ask – what price?

And then – well, there are the immigrant kids in those cages. Mostly brown. Many fleeing violence in their home country – the way my grandparents and friends’ relatives did when they escaped the Nazis and came here in the 1930s and early forties. Or the way my internist’s family did when he was smuggled out of war torn southeast Asia in the 1970s. Or how my dental hygienist managed it when her family ran for their lives from Iran in the 1980s.

Today in America

None of them were forcibly separated from their parents by the US government when they arrived at our borders seeking asylum (Note: The latter a legal right of ANYONE arriving at our shores. Asylum, that is).

So for those currently chuckling with satisfaction at or apoplectically angered by those of us marching in the streets who are outraged that non-English speaking three year olds are being forced to appear ALONE in court at a hearing where they are responsible for telling their own immigration story THEMSELVES before an adult in a big BLACK ROBE who towers above them, I ask – to every last one – again – what price?

And to consider if what they’re losing is worth what they’re getting in return. Financially, morally or, really, even in practical terms.

Broadway United – “We Are The World”