Monday, September 7, 2015

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Simon Schama is among the most prolific and fascinating writers of our time. He has written sweeping histories of the Jewish people, Great Britain, and the slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. He's written and produced sweeping documentaries for publish television. He wrote this for the Financial Times. 

And lest we think this has nothing to do with our faith, I would point you to the biblical commands in Deuteronomy to welcome the stranger, and care for the poor, the widows and the orphans. 

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National perceptions swept away by the flow of humanity

Before our eyes, as drowned children are washed up on the shores of our shame, two great nations are undergoing historic role reversals. The mass movement of peoples lies at the heart of both American and German history. But faced with immigration crises they have responded in ways very different from what those histories might have predicted.

In the U.S., Emma Lazarus’s lines, which transformed the Statue of Liberty, originally designed as a symbol of international republicanism, into a beacon of hope for “the wretched refuse of the teeming shore” still face New York harbour. And yet today the country’s activist president is uncharacteristically quiet on the plight of refugees. Meanwhile Republican contenders to succeed him in the White House, including those of immigrant background, compete to denounce illegals, issuing proposals to “secure” a border already defended by some 20,000 personnel, a budget of $3.6bn and hundreds of miles of fence.

In Germany, on the other hand, where a mere three-quarters of a century ago the most pitiless campaign of dehumanisation and extermination was executed in the name of racial purity, the chancellor has been a tower of moral decency. The country’s people have, by and large, responded to the plight of refugees with heartwarming humanity. Across the Atlantic, the talk is all of walls and mass deportations (in Donald Trump’s case of fully 11m souls) in Germany it is of making arrangements so that 800,000 desperate people might find asylum.

Our world is facing three overwhelming problems. There is the relentless degradation of the planet’s ecosystem; then the monstrous, ever-widening inequality between rich and poor. And then there is the big one, which those of us born at the end of the second world war did not see coming and which has proved intractably murderous. It is the division between those who want to live with people who look and sound pretty much like themselves, and those who think differences of skin colour, faith, language are no bar to sharing the neighbourhood — provided that newcomers subscribe to the same tolerant principles which brought them there in the first place.

Though since its foundation America has celebrated its exceptionalism as being the first nation of immigrants its attitude has long been fickle. One of the great eulogies of American life, Hector St John Crèvecoeur’s Letters of an American Farmer, published in 1782, lauded the young republic for being the only place in the world where, regardless of one’s origins, race or language, subscribing to the common democratic ideal was enough to make a citizen out of an immigrant. But a century later, with hundreds of thousands pouring in from Italy and eastern Europe, the New York Times sounded a proto-Trumpian alert. In May 1887, seven months after the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, on a day when 13 steamers landed 10,000 immigrants on a single day, its editorial writers fumed “shall we take Europe’s paupers, her criminals, her lunatics, her crazy revolutionaries, her vagabonds?”

Yet millions continued to come, laying down the rich loam of ethnic diversity from which 20th century America drew its cultural and economic nourishment. This changed after the first world war. In 1924 the aptly named Ellison DuRant Smith, senator for South Carolina, in a speech to Congress insisted that “we now have sufficient population in our country for us to shut the door and to breed up a pure unadulterated American citizen.”

Sure enough a brutal quota system, based on tiny percentages of populations already in the country, began to close the gates. During the 1930s they slammed tight against Jews desperate to exit the Reich dooming them to destruction. In the same decade, violent attacks on Mexican workers in California persuaded them to flee back home; tens of thousands of others were deported. Worse still the US sponsored two conferences on “the refugee problem” in Evian in 1938 and Bermuda in 1943 (when the horror of the holocaust was known) in which the wringing of hands and the shedding of crocodile tears was followed by stony inaction.

How remarkable, then, that it is Germany which has been most receptive to the plight of Syrian refugees — not just through the forthrightness of Angela Merkel (who was also exceptional in tackling resurgent anti-Semitism) but the generosity of its people. Perhaps it is precisely her demonisation as the tormentor of the long-suffering Greeks which has made Ms Merkel realise that if it is to survive at all the EU is in need of some other raison d’être than as the superintendent of fiscal rectitude. Or perhaps this moment of truth has just come to her and to Germany and for that matter to all 28 states of the EU inadvertently.

Either way it is this issue, not the question of sovereign debt that will decide whether Europe lives or dies as something other than a fine tuner of the business cycle. Doubtless there will be a conference. Pray it is not an empty charade like Evian and Bermuda. Pray again that it might be the moment when Europe — including Britain — finally discovers that long lost item of its political anatomy: moral backbone.

The writer is an FT contributing editor