Happy birthday, America! This is still the greatest country on earth.
It’s the greatest not because we have the best roads and bridges and airports. We don’t.
And not because we have the best healthcare system in the world, or the cleanest air, or even the best broadband internet or cell-phone systems. We don’t.
And not because we have the best education system or the highest literacy rate. We don’t.
And not because we have the highest standard of living in the world. We don’t.
And not because we score very highly on the “Social Progress Index” which attempts to aggregate most of these measures, including medical care, sanitation, shelter, education, access to technology, life expectancy, personal rights, freedom of choice, and general tolerance. We barely squeak into the top 20.
And not because all twelve men who have walked on the moon were Americans. They were, but that’s not it at all.
America may not be the best place to live, using any truly objective measure. And we may be causing as much misery in other parts of the world as we’re preventing.
Worst of all, we may not be living up to own ideals.
But it is those ideals that make us the best. If we come up short in trying to make those ideals reality, that’s one thing. But if we abandon them altogether, we are lost.
Emma Lazarus was born in 1849, the fourth of seven children. She died at age 38 of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Her interest in her Jewish background and in the idea of Zionism was raised by the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, and the terrible anti-semitic pogroms that followed.
Tens of thousands of destitute Jews fled the “Pale of Settlement” because of these events and Emma tried to help them and advocate for them as much as she could. She helped establish the Hebrew Technical Institute in New York in order to give new arrivals useful training so they could have a way to support themselves in the new land.
Most of all, Emma Lazarus understood the vital importance of the American promise to these unfortunates and others, and the role it played in giving them a home and life itself. Her most famous poem, The New Colossus, was written to help raise money for the construction of a pedestal for the newly acquired Statue of Liberty, and, since 1903, has adorned the inner wall of the pedestal.
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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
In America, it doesn’t matter who your parents were, or where you came from, or how or even if you worship God. Everyone is free to pursue their interests and strive to achieve their goals. Everyone is protected by the same law and everyone has the same rights.
In America, anyone can become the President, the most powerful and influential position in the world. Even someone who has never held any elective office at any level. Even someone who is ignorant of all our history and traditions. Even someone who doesn’t understand the basic principles of our founding, or what “Mother of Exiles” means, or where it is inscribed, or who wrote the words, or why. Even a childish and vindictive demagogue who would use the privileges that have been freely given by our country to abuse and abolish those same privileges.