"Give us your poor, your tired, your hungry... "
It is that promise made to people from all nations that we think of when we see the long arm of Lady Liberty reaching out, holding up the welcoming torch to all wayward citizens, everywhere.
They have poured in to America, those lured by her bold invitation, buoyed by the notion that they might rise up, that they might move beyond their prescribed stations elsewhere, beyond religious persecution, beyond binding rules and beyond the stultifying sameness required in so many places.
I ask the question all the time of those who've come, Yemeni deli owners and Egyptian clothing salesmen, cab drivers all over the city from Pakistan and India, Israelis looking to scoop up real estate, the English style-makers and media mavens; I ask them: Why did you come here, to America?
They look at me then, like an alien, like the foreign entity I obviously am if I even have to ask. I was born here, though, too close to America and its rituals to even understand them without pretending I am Other, without adopting a wholly outsider perspective. It is simple, though, after all.
Money, they say. Money.
They are not necessarily happier here, they are homesick. But they send money home, visit loved ones there if they can, as often as they can. Some cannot even go, having fled against government orders from places that sent them here for an education and expected them to return, to put their learning to work in a specific way, for a specific regime.
If they are lucky, these men and women end up on or near Wall Street, in these climate-controlled office buildings, amassing the wealth they dreamed could be theirs one day, buying the things they'd seen only on the TV shows and movies we export en masse overseas.
It is The Dream that drives people, the possibilities available for ALL not just SOME, that makes this great country great, that feeds the imagination and, often, the mouths of so many all over the world.
We are still great but we have become unbalanced, our greed -- every single one of ours -- has now grown into a ferocious beast that threatens to tear at the very foundation built by a handful of hopeful intrepid settlers, themselves greedily taking what was arguably already inhabited. And so it goes.
It seems easy to cry foul, to point to Them as the problem, to kick hard at the capitalist system that has not worked sufficiently for so many while so many others seem to be sitting pretty. But that is far too simple. We become Them so easily, so handily, without even noticing. We are, each of us, corrupt in our own little ways, selfish and blind to the issues of those around us as we struggle with the unique burdens of our own families. That, sadly, has become the American Way, community so often relegated to the virtual world while neighbors go hungry, go homeless, too ashamed to let on and we too busy, too blind to notice or help.
We scream at our government, at those among us who have succeeded on the backs of so many others, as the successful often do, as is the nature of the beast. THEY OWE US.
But what of our individual responsibility? We are not victims in this country, we are strong, we are smart, but we forget this, made afraid by news reports that scream out dire predictions and weather warnings that keep us huddled inside, separated from one another, separated from the reality that there is so much we can do if we band together, if we help one another, work in tandem as brothers and sisters instead of pitting one against another based on the differences between us, on the slight semantics that divide one party from another, on the seemingly great divide between rich and poor.
It was not long ago that we cried over the tragic deaths of men and women who worked in the very area now "occupied" like a senseless war, that we watched with horror as they were forced to jump off buildings on fire, towers that housed businesses built by people who came here with a dream, businesses that grew and grew and employed so many beautiful young dreamers.
On 9/11, we stood in solidarity against a common external enemy, and now, it seems, we have forgotten. The handmade signs and jeering cries vilify so many hard-working people, blaming them when it is really all of us who have run scared and alone smack dab into trouble. WE DIDN'T PAY ATTENTION and, yes, capitalism is a slippery slope.
Change is a necessity, surely, but it will not come only from the handful of people whose gargantuan homes stand as a mockery to those who sleep in the dust. We will never put an end to greed nor do we want to completely for with it comes the drive necessary to keep building businesses and jobs, to keep moving forward with great hope. Socialism, Communism, Revolution... all great in theory but Capitalism is a necessary evil, the only -ism that can accommodate a society free and open to all people such as America is and shall remain.
Hope is what got our president elected, it is what makes the stock market surge, draws new immigrants to our shores every day to work toward their dreams. Hope is what we cannot lose and what will make us great, again, still.
The assignment then is to truly have Hope, to appreciate what is still quite possible in our communities, and to gather and talk and inspire. Find 10 neighbors this beautiful fall and, with them, harvest ideas on what can be done, how together you might take advantage of the great bounty of our rich soil, the soil that is intended to be shared with all the world, a safe haven for people of all races, creeds and colors, for the rich and poor alike, for everyone. We have to restore our faith that the promise of America is still possible and, maybe, we have to realize, money isn't all we have to offer.
We are free.
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