My paternal great great grandfather Gustav, a farmer, was born in the Alsace-Lorraine, a region on the French/German border that had been fought over since the time of Louis XIV. As a young man, grandfather Gustav, his two brothers, and their families emigrated to America in 1870 to avoid conscription into the armies of Napolean III during the Franco-Prussian war.
As one historian noted, the ancestors of most Americans of European descent came here as paupers, petty criminals, war refugees, draft dodgers, or religious fanatics. I certainly come from such stock. I’m alive today, in part because 150 years ago, the US was not afraid to admit refugees from conflict zones. As Bill Murray put it in Stripes, “We’re Americans! That means we’re mutts – the most lovable kind of dog there is!” Mixed breeds are often the healthiest too.
A century later, our open borders policy helped spark the technology-driven economic boom of the late 20th century. Andy Grove, one of the founders of Intel, was a Hungarian Jewish refugee who survived the Nazis and then the Russian takeover before before coming to America in 1960. Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian refugee. If you’re reading this post on a laptop or smart phone, you can thank these two pioneers, as well as the space race in the 60’s, which thrived upon a universal respect for science and affordable education which drew the world’s best and brightest to our shores. Microelectronics and the connected world were among the results.
Anyone concerned with “American greatness” should study the lessons of this and other eras when creativity flourished. Xenophobia, the denial of science, and travel bans guarantee that 21st scientific and economic breakthroughs will not happen here. Prosperity, when it appears, is a byproduct of qualities like an adventurous spirit and curiosity about what lies over the mountains, inside the atom, or on the dark side of the moon. It derives from hope, rather than fear. From an open, generous spirit.
We must not forget that economic greatness is only the tip of the iceberg. Our true greatness lies in the ideals symbolized by Lady Liberty: here is a place where you can change your life. Here is a place where you can become what your spirit drives you to be.
Symbols matter more than we know, especially in a times of upheaval. The thinkers who shaped my worldview – people like Jung, Campbell, and James Hillman – all stressed the numinous power of living symbols. Hillman railed against the literalism of those who would measure greatness only in terms of money and power.
A light in the darkness, safe harbor, a haven in a broken world – that is what Lady Liberty meant when these ideals shaped our nation’s thought and action, however imperfectly. Remove that ideal, turn off the light, and the Statue of Liberty is just another picture from a bygone era, in a text book that students regard for a moment before turning the page.
The 45th president and his minions are engaged in a mad rush to turn off that light. My fear is, to paraphrase the British Foreign Secretary on the eve of World War I: “The lights are going out all over the nation; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”
Here is the dream drew our ancestors to these shores – the Statue of Liberty Poem:
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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”