Gary Horton | Continuing the Dream of America

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It seems to me, the greatest challenges of our time can all be rolled into one, giant over-arching concern:  That through recession recoil or internet onslaught burn-out or a recent decay of civility, we’re experiencing a growing isolation around our own immediate self-interests. 

Nationally, and even individually, we’re turning inward.

There’s shock and awe burnout at all our social challenges and many have thrown their emotional hands up at the notion that they, or even all of us together, are equipped to take on our current problems and actually effect positive change. 

A common theme is that of being overwhelmed and a temptation to turn inward, to isolate, protect, and preserve whatever good we have for ourselves. It’s natural. That, under threat, we form our packs, our teams, our parties – we unite, circle the wagons, protect, and preserve – what’s ours. We protect, even hoard, at least what we think should be “ours.”

Meanwhile, over in New York on Liberty Island, our Statue of Liberty enduringly bears the words of a remarkable poem, words that almost everyone knows: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” This was America’s legacy, our reputation. “Come to America, you poor; those yearning for freedom.”

Emma Lazarus originally wrote “The New Colossus,” as a fundraiser for the Statue of Liberty. Later, after her death, the famous last lines were engraved at the base of the statue. Christmastime is a great time to brush up on the full poem:

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-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

“l lift my lamp beside the gold door!” 

America has changed, haven’t we? Today, we’ve largely closed our borders to refugees. We’re building physical and legal walls — to any form of immigration; legal, illegal, or humanitarian. 

Interestingly, Lazarus wrote, “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.” Homelessness has plagued the downtrodden for ages… 

Poverty.

Homelessness.

Crushing health care problems.

Inequality.

Incivility.

Global competition.

Environmental stewardship over climate change, if you believe it.

Drug abuse unabated, and even increasing.

Eternal wars.

These are enormous problems we face. But:

Emma Lazarus was born in 1849. A Jew in an America not known for kindness toward Jews. She lived through the Civil War. Through Reconstruction. She died at the young age of 38, as was not uncommon at the time. Today, most live twice as long…

Global and domestic disease, war, poverty, inequality, ignorance, injustice – all this that plagues us now, were in far greater force in Lazarus’ America in her time. Lazarus’ America was under strain far worse than any in our time. 

Still, even with all the enormous problems of Lazarus’ days, the New Colossus reached outward. Still, the Lady Liberty held her lamp brightly by the golden door, inviting the lowest, most humbled of the world inside.

Thank God we’ve not yet removed the Statue.

Let’s not be overwhelmed. We’ve seen all the challenges of our time, far worse in the past. Pressing challenge can be the crucible that eventually forges something far better: The Civil War ended slavery. Crushing Depression-era poverty gave us the security of the New Deal. Civil unrest gave us long-overdue civil rights. 

Let’s not be discouraged now.

Christmas and the New Year are great times for both introspection and social awareness. We can commit continued positive works for ourselves – and to demand and enforce positive works by those elected representatives we hold accountable to continue that dream that was and, must always be – a compassionate and loving America.

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.

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