Did you see that a Trump administration official dismissed the notion that the famous "give me your tired" poem on the Statue of Liberty applied today, by saying it was only about "people from Europe"? It's true! A guy from Talking Points Memo said so, and a whole bunch of objective journalists and serious politicians repeated it!
Here's the tweet I'm talking about, a clip of Director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli being interviewed by CNN's Erin Burnett Tuesday. Per Josh Marshall, the clip shows Cuccinelli saying "That statue of liberty poem was about ‘people coming from Europe.'"
Cuccinelli: That statue of liberty poem was about "people coming from Europe." pic.twitter.com/nrDcUGJsU3
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) August 13, 2019
That clip's 14 seconds long, so in fairness to all involved, here's the full context of Cuccinelli's remark. The bolded section is what Marshall included in his clip:
BURNETT: The poem says, ‘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.' ‘Wretched,' ‘poor,' ‘refuse.' Right? That's what the poem says America is supposed to stand for. So what do you think America stands for?
CUCCINELLI: Well, 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 introduced — it was written one year after the first federal public charge rule was written that says, and I'll quote, ‘any person unable to take care of himself without becoming a public charge,' unquote, would be inadmissible. Or in the terms that my agency deals with, they can't do what's called ‘adjusting status,’ getting a green card, becoming legal permanent residents. Same exact time, Erin, same exact time. And the year it went on the Statue of Liberty, 1903, another federal law was passed expanding the elements of public charge by Congress.
You don't have to agree with Cuccinelli's argument here. In fact, I think it's ridiculous. There's no evidence that "wretched" ever took on a specifically class-based meaning in the 1890s, or at any point in history. Besides, the preceding clause says "poor," "wretched" is followed by "refuse." The point of the poem is pretty obvious: America welcomes poor, uneducated, unwanted, unworthy losers. If people attacked Cuccinelli on that basis, I wouldn't be writing this blog.
But it's also pretty clear what point Cuccinelli isn't making. He wasn't saying that poor immigrants were good when they came from Europe, but are bad today. He was doing a tortured reading of the poem to argue it didn't really mean what it obviously means, and "people coming from Europe" was just a preface to "where they had class-based societies," the actual thrust of his argument. It's a dumb argument, but the overtly racial interpretation Marshall is obviously pushing is just transparently bad faith.
The thing is, usually these 14-second clips go viral because they omit the context. But it was just Marshall's wording that was horribly unfair. The clip is fine, all things considered. It included the class argument and it should be pretty obvious to anyone who watches it that Marshall was taking Cuccinelli badly out of context.
But people didn't seem to notice. We had three separate presidential candidates pushing the nonexistent race angle…
This administration finally admitted what we’ve known all along: They think the Statue of Liberty only applies to white people. https://t.co/kTLl50yCmw
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) August 14, 2019
The poem reads, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." It doesn’t say "but only if they’re white."
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Cuccinelli is a brazen racist and shouldn’t be leading our nation’s immigration system. https://t.co/qBC9qbrJ9y
— Jay Inslee (@JayInslee) August 14, 2019
This administration’s America is white.
I’m not saying that—they are. And we need to beat them. https://t.co/OLaJdPKyWp
— Seth Moulton (@sethmoulton) August 14, 2019
… along with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has never found an invented online left-wing freakout that she didn't dive headfirst into…
This man is acting Director of Citizenship & Immigration Services.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) August 14, 2019
… but also, quite a few journalists!
The whole point of the Trump political experiment has been to make subtext text. This is just the latest installment.
(P.S. It's funny how now all of Europe is okay, but 100 years ago, a man with a name like Cuccinelli was from the "wrong" part of that continent.) https://t.co/5b4NA1WoJi
— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) August 14, 2019
This needs to be getting *WAY* more attention https://t.co/aOJGU8XmyP
— Chris Cillizza (@CillizzaCNN) August 14, 2019
Pretty much couldn’t be more explicit? https://t.co/68jjjO33l1
— Rosie Gray (@RosieGray) August 14, 2019
quiet part so loud it registers on the richter scale https://t.co/PMQBC11ohs
— Eric Geller (@ericgeller) August 14, 2019
just say "white people" you fucking racist https://t.co/aSog2mwpN1
— Alex Thomas (@AlexThomasDC) August 14, 2019
At this rate by tomorrow he’s just gonna say the thing. https://t.co/GSgWaDMSBb
— Brandy Zadrozny (@BrandyZadrozny) August 14, 2019
Amazing to me that i’m seeing this clip while watching the NYT #1619Project event that examines the primacy of black bodies in the founding/growth/independence of America, even as we negate them in 2019 https://t.co/sXpz3sulnK
— Katie Benner (@ktbenner) August 13, 2019
And this is omitting journalists from overtly left-wing outlets like Media Matters and HuffPost, commentators, low-level Democrats, comms staffers, activists, random celebrities, etc. Hundreds of "bluechecks" fell for this. The question is why?
Some are probably being knowingly deceitful, that's politics for you. For others, you have to assume laziness: someone tweets out a video saying what's in it, a bunch of people are spreading it, eh, it's probably accurate and there's no need to click. A good chunk are also probably rather dim and have trouble with nuance. They clicked on the video and heard exactly what Marshall told them to hear. I'm not talking about Ocasio-Cortez here. I, repeat, I'm not talking about Ocasio-Cortez here.
So when the AP headline is "Trump official: Statue of Liberty’s poem is about Europeans," the question is whether journalists are lazy or stupid. Because there's that first option, where they know they're spreading a false controversy and taking a man badly out of context, and don't care because he's a Trump administration official pushing a policy they don't like. But c'mon, what are the chances of that?