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The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty

Why so many of the people who quote Emma Lazarus’s Petrarchan sonnet miss its true meaning.
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Pelosi and Comey, however distinct they are as political figures, quote Lazarus to support a liberal narrative of American exceptionalism, based on multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusion. Yet the collective, immiserated masses invited and welcomed by these lines are tired, poor, and huddled—and at odds with the empowered, individualized “hard worker” that Comey and others reproduce as the ideal image of the immigrant.

It is not that people shouldn’t be acknowledged for their hard work, of course; it’s just that that shouldn’t be the most relevant criterion for the performance of political and economic justice. The language of diversity and inclusion has become one of the prominent means by which the nation currently manages its political and economic crises by seizing the power of moving bodies as human capital. If the justification for managing borders relies entirely on the recitation of liberal values—however necessary it may be to continue to affirm them in the midst of their relentless negation—there is no guarantee that “liberty” will be fully realized.

Lazarus’s poem begins by repudiating the greatness to which Comey summons the poem as witness. It continues with a denial of nationalist narratives that are based on historical claims of ancient possession: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”

What might be more important than the values that the New Colossus speaks—ethical claims to rights, liberty, and hospitality that, despite their reiteration, have hardly succeeded in preventing the worst violence of the late 19th and 20th centuries—is the silence that the poem refuses. And to hear this silence is to read the poem’s sonnet as voicing a cry that those who passionately recite its words, from Pelosi to Comey, as well as those who violently deny them, might well train themselves to hear.
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