I was reminded today of what the phrase “a nation of immigrants” means. We throw it around too easily, so easily that it means nothing. But in the first episode of former national security advisor Ben Rhodes’ podcast “Missing America,” I understood its significance again.
Unlike most other countries, this nation is predominately populated by people who don’t come from here. Not really. Only the native people are “from” here. They were here for 15,000 years. This was their land.
The rest of us are latecomers. Only a few of us can even trace our roots here to the original European settlers who got here in 1492. We just got here, in relative terms.
“Go back where you came from” is a remarkably stupid thing to say to anyone here, as practically every single one of us came from somewhere else. Unlike people in Italy or in England or Spain, you cannot trace your ancestors back to this land very far, unless your people were native. Your relatives moved here from somewhere else. So did mine. And many people were brought here against their will, enslaved and used as free labor. But this is their children and grandchildren’s country now, too.
“Missing America” explores the impact of this country’s sudden withdrawal as a world leader, and why our involvement in what was a global community was so vitally important.
It wasn’t because we were perfect. We never were. Nor was it just because we were big and industrial and rich and well-armed. It was, according to Rhodes, about who we were as a country – a big, messy, flawed collection of people who threw their arms open, promised opportunity in this place for anyone who worked hard, and who always tried to be better.
That big statue in New York harbor was given to us by France, and it wasn’t because we were tough. Or rich. It was because we were inspiring. That’s the country I’m proud of. That’s the country I’ll fight for. That’s a model for a world worth living in.
The New Colossus
by Emma Lazarus
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!”
Read more installments of Village Voices by Susan Barnett.