That Big Green Lady

Could America possibly have a more relevant poem right now than this one? 

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!”

Image by H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to a wonderful article* by Walt Hunter in The Atlantic, “The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty–and thanks to a very un-wonderful comment by the president–I’ve been thinking a lot  about Emma Lazarus’s poem.

Hunter’s article points out many features of  poem which I had never thought about before: its unusual structure (Petrarchan Sonnet–can I get a “yeah” from my English nerds?); its usage by various politicians in underlining our favorite dream of American exceptionalism; the nuance of the statue’s gender in contrast with statues of yore.

But here’s the passage of Hunter’s that really sticks with me:

The philosopher Simone Weil argues that the impersonal cry of “Why am I being hurt?” accompanies claims to human rights. To refuse to hear this cry of affliction, Weil continues, is the gravest injustice one might do to another. The voice of the statue in Lazarus’s poem can almost be heard as an uncanny reply, avant la lettre, to one of the slogans chanted by immigrants and refugees around the world today: “We are here because you were there.” The statue’s cry is a response to one version of Weil’s “Why am I being hurt” that specifies the global relation between the arrival of immigrants and the expansion of the colonial system.

“We are here because you were there.” America has immigrants because the global system we benefit from displaces people. But lucky us–we BENEFIT from those desperate people.

Raise your hand if you’re a child of immigrants. Thought so. Can’t find a way to talk about this with your anti-immigrant neighbor? Yeah, I struggle with that too. Meanwhile–stay involved. Stay heartened. And VOTE.

*Note: shout-out to Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings for bringing this article to my attention.

John Oliver, Edward Snowden, and Us: Why Does a Brit Seem to Care More About American Freedoms Than We Americans Do?

Quick: Turn to someone near you and tell them who Edward Snowden is and why he matters to Americans.

If you’re like the folks Comedy Central’s John Oliver interviewed on the streets of Manhattan, you will either a) draw a blank or b) confuse Snowden with Julian Assange, the “Wikileaks Guy.”

Hopefully you’re not like those folks. But if you suspect you might be, watch this breathtaking interview conducted in Moscow with what Oliver calls “America’s most famous patriot and/or traitor.” When I say breathtaking, I mean that literally: breathtakingly bold, breathtakingly honest. Oliver asks Snowden the questions most of us would want to ask.

But in so doing, he also turns the camera on us, in effect asking Americans, “Why don’t you care more about the real effects of the Patriot Act? Why don’t you care more that your government has been proven to have the capacity to spy on you?”

A quick warning, before you watch this episode from Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight”: if you’re offended by casual profanity and excessive references to male body parts–don’t. This ain’t the New York Times, remember–it’s Comedy Central.

But in my opinion, it still deserves a Peabody Award.

So, you watched? Is John Oliver brilliant or what? Tell me what you think.

The Sanctity of Human Perseverance: Why Nelson Mandela Should Not Be Beatified

I realize that no one’s going to make me Pope anytime soon. (My not being Catholic is only one of the many reasons.) But WERE that ever to happen, down the road, and were I ever to come under pressure, as I am sure a future pope will, to declare Nelson Mandela a saint, my answer would be a thoughtful No.

Not because he doesn’t qualify. Sacrificing his entire life to the cause of justice, including 27 years suffered in prison; knitting together a country on the verge of bloody explosion; living as a constant symbol of hope, love, and reconciliation–those are indeed saintly qualities. Performing a miracle? How about getting Black South Africans to cheer for the all-White Springbok rugby team? That beats walking on water any day.

I would also not beatify President Mandela merely because he himself protested that people should not call him a saint. Humility is, of course, one of those saintly qualities.

I would not declare Saint Nelson because to do so would be to distance him from the rest of us, to make his example, for future generations, less “relatable”*…and less effective.

*one of those words with which this former English teacher maintains a hate-love relationship: can’t stand its overuse, but haven’t found an equally effective synonym

(orig. image courtesy blackpast.org)

(orig. image courtesy blackpast.org)

Saints suffer, of course. But the word “saint” implies–to this non-Catholic, at least–a certain inherent holiness, a kind of built-in insurance against ultimate suffering. “Well, jeez, he’s a saint,” my brain says. “Of course he sacrificed; he knew he was going to end up at God’s right hand, didn’t he?” And I don’t think my brain is all that different from other people’s brains.

What made Mandela great is the same thing that made Jesus great. But it’s also the same thing that makes cancer patients great, or anyone who gets up each day to face enormous burdens of pain or responsibility but does so with the pure energy of love and generosity toward others.

Human perseverance. Not the grit-your-teeth-and-suffer-through-it kind. The kind which makes it seem as though your burdens weigh nothing at all, because you’re constantly offering to carry the burdens of others.

I know some of those people personally. I might think of them, briefly, as saints, or even call them that, jokingly. But inside I know that what I love and admire them for is the fact that they are very, very, very human–they are flawed just like me!–and yet they STILL act so nobly.

Nelson Mandela was flawed. Nelson Mandela still managed to be an icon for all of us. It helps me to think of humans as having that potential even in the face of other humans’ evil. His very human-ness is what we need to hang onto, as we look for ways to apply his approach to other ugly parts of the world.

How about you? Do you know any human “saints”? Do you think the title of “saint” distances a person from the rest of us? Or does it bring him/her closer as a role model?