Today, the Statue of Liberty shrugs.
Some of you have family somewhere overseas. I do not.
I do not, because four generations ago my great grandfather came here while his sister chose to stay behind. Her name, to the best of our knowledge, was Peltia Wollach (née Winokur) and she was lucky enough to die before the Shoah. As far as I could tell from the records digitized by JewishGen.com from Bialystok, Poland, and from documents in Yad Vashem, everyone else was murdered. Her husband Itzchak, and (I believe) five children — Chasia, Riwka, Tauba, Avram, and Jehoszua.
I am lucky that my ancestor, Szimon Winokur, came here in 1925. I am also lucky that he was white. If he had been Chinese, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 would have kept him out.
He brought his family here. One of his sons, my grandfather, was a small business owner. His son, my father, received a free education in New York, then went to Caltech. My father was, until his retirement, a doctor in a small town in Texas. He has six children — One is a Christian pastor. One is an executive director at a medical technology company. One is a conservative political philosopher, one is a chief technical officer in silicon valley, and my little sister is a doctor in Louisiana. I’m the one black spot on this record because I write books for a living.
We are all here, all contributing to this country because in 1925, a boat passed Ellis Island and nobody told the ill-clad funny-accented people in it to turn around because they were too poor or not Christian enough, or that they hadn’t been vetted properly. You all know the poetry — give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The green lady’s tablet doesn’t say a thing about whether those huddled masses were Chinese or Muslim or Jew or Arab. And, it specifically enjoins us to take those who yearn for freedom. It doesn’t say take a highly educated European or Indian on an H1-B visa. It doesn’t say take a Christian or a rich business owner or a diplomat.
But, look east, and you can see Libertas shrugging. There are weights around her robes, and her torch is flickering in New York Harbor.
And the politicians who had the poverty of spirit to diminish her poem by knicks and cuts, and now slashes, could at least have the honesty to add their caveats and fears to the tablet she carries before it sinks to the bottom.
This nation is supposed to have been founded by pioneers. People like Franklin, who defied a Crown. People like Lewis and Clark who went west, not knowing exactly what they’d eat or what they’d find. People like Teddy Roosevelt, who took a bullet, then smiled through a speech.
We’re supposed to be a culture of people who are rugged and risky and independent. And yet, when you are more likely to be killed by a shark attack than a terrorist, we are told that we need protection. We are told we should be afraid. And the people who are telling us we need to be afraid are the very people who benefit most from our fear. Fear is their currency. Don’t make a deposit.
I want to quote at length from the book The Moon is Down, by Steinbeck, written in the midst of World War 2. This passage is from the end of the book, when Mayor Orden is going to be executed for not capitulating to the conquering authority. The people of the conquered city have gotten access to explosives from the British, and the conquering enemy (in the person of Colonel Lanser) wants the mayor to tell his people not to use them.
The Mayor spoke proudly. “Yes, they will light it. I have no choice of living or dying, you see, sir, but — I do have a choice of how I do it. If I tell them not to fight, they will be sorry, but they will fight. If I tell them to fight, they will be glad, and I who am not a very brave man will have made them a little braver.” He smiled apologetically. “You see, it is an easy thing for me to do, since the end for me is the same.”
Lanser said, “If you say yes, we can tell them you said no. We can tell them you begged for your life.”
Doctor Winter broke in angrily, “They would know. You do not keep secrets. One of your men got out of hand one night and he said the flies had conquered the flypaper, and now the whole nation knows his words. They have made a song of it. The flies have conquered the flypaper. You do not keep secrets, Colonel.”
From the direction of the mine a whistle tooted shrilly. And a quick gust of wind sifted dry snow against the windows.
Orden fingered his gold medallion. He said quietly, “You see, sir, nothing can change it. You will be destroyed and driven out.” His voice was very soft. “The people don’t like to be conquered, sir, and so they will not be. Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars. You will find that is so, sir.”
Lanser was erect and stiff. “My orders are clear. Eleven o’clock was the deadline. I have taken hostages. If there is violence, the hostages will be executed.”
And Doctor Winter said to the colonel, “Will you carry out the orders, knowing they will fail?”
Lanser’s face was tight. “I will carry out my orders no matter what they are, but I do think, sir, a proclamation from you might save many lives.”
Madame broke in plaintively, “I wish you would tell me what all this nonsense is.”
“It is nonsense, dear.”
“But they can’t arrest the Mayor,” she explained to him.
Orden smiled at her. “No,” he said, “they can’t arrest the Mayor. The Mayor is an idea conceived by free men. It will escape arrest.”
Steve Bannon, who is now inexplicably advising the president on matters military, reportedly said he wanted to bring our entire system crashing down. But our system — our system of free people who do not want or need to be ruled — is like Mayor Orden. It can’t be destroyed, because you can’t destroy an idea. The idea may be silenced. It may leave its home, for a time. But, as long as people can think, no idea can die.
The Statue of Liberty may step down from her podium, she may sink below the surface, but will still be there. And, when the moon is up, you will see her shining through a rippling surface, ready to stand again.
I should end on that note, but I want to close with something pragmatic, because this can’t all just be talk. Barney Frank — the first openly gay congressman in US history — gave an interview to New York Magazine shortly after he retired. He said something that I’ve never forgotten:
I believe very strongly that people on the left are too prone to do things that are emotionally satisfying and not politically useful. I have a rule, and it’s true of Occupy, it’s true of the gay-rights movement: If you care deeply about a cause, and you are engaged in an activity on behalf of that cause that is great fun and makes you feel good and warm and enthusiastic, you’re probably not helping, because you’re out there with your friends, and political work is much tougher and harder. And I think it’s now clear that it is the disciplined political work that we’ve been able to do that’s won us victories. I am going to write about the history of the LGBT movement partly to make the point that, in America at least, this is the way you do progressive causes.
For a lot of us, in recent times politics has gotten a lot less fun and a lot more scary. I know we have to buoy each other up, but I say this as a professional writer of jokes — let’s take politics to an even less fun place.
When I heard about the immigration ban, the first thing I did was to order 400 sheets of paper, a giant roll of stamps, and a bulk box of envelopes. I will be writing letters as frequently as possible to all of my representatives. And, if they do not stand against this prodigy of indecency, I will personally donate to whoever opposes them. And, if Trump defies a federal judge’s order, I will join those calling for an impeachment.
You cannot arrest the mayor.
January 29, 2017
PS: I’m declaring this document public domain. Feel free to share any way you like.