Back in the 1960s, there was a weekly political satire on British television, That Was The Week That Was (TW3), which succinctly skewered politicians through highlighting the absurdities of their actions and their words.
Over the past few days, I couldn’t help but feel that we are living in a permanent TW3 parody.
This was the week that the Trump administration rolled out a set of “public charge” rules that, by bureaucratic sleight of hand, rewrite more than a half century of American immigration law. Public charge definitions have been on the books since the late nineteenth century; but they have historically been interpreted narrowly, excluding would-be immigrants who are so manifestly unable to work that there is virtually no doubt they will become an instant cash burden on the state, and denying permanent residency to those already in the country who end up reliant over the long-term on cash benefits. In recent decades, they have been used only sparingly.
The new rules, by contrast, essentially give immigration officers the discretion to deny visas to anyone they deem might at some point in the future have to rely on public benefits; and they allow the government to deny permanent residency or citizenship to any immigrant who enrolls any family member in non-cash benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps, and public housing, even if only on a temporary basis.
It is an entirely vicious policy shift, and, if the courts don’t intervene and side with the numerous cities, states, and immigrants-rights groups who have already sued to block implementation, it will negatively impact millions of people over the coming years. It will make it harder for poorer, especially non-white people from the Global South, to migrate into America, and will also make it harder for poorer, non-white immigrants already in the country to gain citizenship and thus to be able to participate politically in elections. It is, in short, a brutal power grab intended to shore up a minoritarian, conservative political power structure.
Not surprisingly, administration officials were promptly challenged by political critics and by journalists to justify the scope of the changes. Their responses were utterly Orwellian.
Witness this exchange between National Public Radio’s Rachel Martin and Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services: “Would you also agree that Emma Lazarus’s words etched on the Statue of Liberty, ‘Give me your tired, give me your poor,’ are also a part of the American ethos?” Martin asked Cuccinelli. Cuccinelli’s answer ought to win awards for sheer Orwellian chutzpah. “They certainly are: ‘Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,'” he replied. “That plaque was put on the Statue of Liberty at almost the same time as the first public charge was passed — very interesting timing.”
Cuccinelli then compounded the butchering of Lazarus’s poem, The New Colossus, by stating on CNN that things were different back in Lazarus’s day because it was only European immigration that was under discussion. “Of course that poem was referring back to people coming from Europe where they had class-based societies, where people were considered wretched if they weren’t in the right class, and it was written one year after the first federal public charge rule was written.”
In short, Lazarus, in the new literary interpretation, was both a Randian pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps gal and also a George Wallace-type of white supremacist. In actual fact she was nothing of the kind: she believed that America ought to provide refuge not only to Europeans but to people from around the world; and politically she was a humanist, sympathetic to socialism and fiercely protective of refugees fleeing violence and pogroms. Nothing in her poem lends itself to Cuccinelli’s interpretation.
In fact, if I were a teacher and had assigned The New Colossus to my students to read and to comment upon, and had received from one of them the sort of response Cuccinelli gave, I would give that student’s essay an F and urge him to actually read the original text. In fact, I’d make it easy; I’d read it aloud to the class and then ask the lazy student for a new, more thoughtful answer:
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!”
I’d ask what the phrase “From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome” means. I’d ask him to parse the last five lines, just to see if he had basic interpretative skills. And if he still insisted that what she actually had written was about standing on one’s own feet and avoiding public charge, I’d send a note to his academic adviser gently suggesting that he take an easier class before trying to complete an upper division course that he so clearly wasn’t intellectually equipped for.
I might also put together a reading list on the dangers of manipulating language and of engaging in unabashed propaganda exercises. I’d suggest that for his intellectual development he might want to read George Orwell or Aldous Huxley, Hannah Arendt or Margaret Atwood. And finally, I’d urge him to do some volunteer work with refugees or asylum seekers, or, simply, poor, vulnerable people needing a little bit of help as they try to navigate an all-too-often unforgiving world.
If I were looking for a note of optimism, I’d say at least the good news is that a literary critic such as Cuccinelli is starting from such a mediocre, mendacious base that he can only improve intellectually with time, with practice, and with the repeated interventions of well-meaning teachers and fellow-students. And, in the meantime, he has provided grist to the mill for every political satire that exists today as a descendant of the original That Was The Week That Was.
— Sasha Abramsky