Brian Arsenault Takes on: The Wretched Refuse



By Brian Arsenault

There is a picture I can’t find online any more. There are so many. Those wretched Syrians fleeing the hell that was their country. Huddled masses on undersized boats, tempest tossed, frequently capsizing. More drowned children.

This one particular picture: a father seen from the back embracing his two children. The only face that can be seen is of the younger one and he is just screaming. He is the same age as my youngest grandson, who will be warm in my house later today.

Is this little one hurt? Is he scared? Is he cold? Is he hungry? All of those things? I don’t even know if he is still alive. Many aren’t. I swear if I could find that family I’d raise the resources to fly them here.

But could I? Has fear closed the borders in effect if not in law?

We have always been afraid haven’t we? Of Catholics. Of eastern Europeans. Of non-English speakers. Of slaves, especially after they weren’t slaves any longer. Go back far enough and the “natives” of Missouri hated German immigrants. The early Puritans didn’t want any of those sinful Quakers around.

Yet that inscription on the Statue of Liberty invites us to take in not only “the poor,” it goes so far as to urge the acceptance of the “wretched refuse” of the world. That old curmudgeon of a brilliant “realist” political thinker Hans J. Morgenthau would growl “and that’s who came.”

And it was who came. As an old Irish-American businessman I knew said to me once: “Princes don’t emigrate unless there’s a guillotine.” Usually it’s desperate people.

Those desperate people from Sicily, Athens, the west of Ireland, the Jewish sections of so many Russian villages, poor fishing towns in Portugal, China, Vietnam, genocide plagued African nations . . . make your own list. History tells us they came and mostly became fervent Americans, believing in the dream, striving for success, making huge contributions.

Don’t think for a minute I’m an idealist. I’m a cynic who thinks the human condition is largely putrid and not likely to get any better.

Don’t think I’m a liberal. I’m amused that we all want to win a lottery with tens or hundreds of millions of dollars yet despise those who have achieved great success by their work. Thinking that poor people are morally superior to the wealthy is just silly.

I think it is undeniably true that we do better by letting people in than by keeping them out. Better economically. Better socially. Better culturally. Better for our souls.
Yes, some terrorists will come with them and I pray we always find them before they strike but we won’t. Some criminals will come. Some truly wretched, even depraved humans. That is part of the human condition. As is war.

I know a Marine. There are no ex-Marines. There are Marines on active duty and Marines who are not. As simple as that.

We were having a casual conversation at a family gathering and he said, just as casually as commenting on the weather: “The US is at war somewhere in the world every day.”

I’d never heard it put quite that way. I’d never thought of it quite that way. He didn’t say it to shock or in regret. He simply said it because it was simply true.

And is it true? Did two World Wars and Korea and the Cold War and Vietnam and more take us so deep into the circles of the Hell of militarism that it is now the way of our national life. Because if we are at war every day somewhere then somewhere we have an enemy. After a while, is there an enemy everywhere. Whosoever’s fault it is. However we got involved. It just is.

Still what are we to do? Tolstoy asked that question about the brutalizing poverty of the slums of 19th century Moscow, but he might have been in a great city anywhere.

What are we to do about a world in which we are always fighting? If your village in Afghanistan is blown to pieces by an American airstrike do you really feel better that the US is “fighting for you?” If you’re a kid of 19 from Farmington, New Hampshire who has all four limbs blown off on patrol in the ME, do you really care that the guy who set the IED thinks God wanted him to do it?

Yet are we to simply stand by unmoved by the unending butchery of ISIS while its victims have on the other side the tender mercies of Hassan and his Russian overlords?

There should be a better way but I’m darned if I know what it is other than a change of heart that I’ve already said I don’t expect.

We could start maybe by not conducting our politics like an endless game of offense (or is that offensive) and defense. Points scored and tallied by a slavering media. Sound bites instead of discourse. Impulse instead of reason. Arrogance over humility. I don’t expect that to change either.

If you despise Donald Trump in politics, consider if the other candidates aren’t simply paler versions of him, unbridled ambition wrapped in the cloak of populism and patriotism.

Distrust anyone who seeks political power over others. They mostly seek their advantage. Not yours. Not the nation’s. Watch them very closely. The truth is usually in the shadows.

It’s been said that we get the government we deserve. Maybe deserves got nothing to do with it. More perceptively, Churchill said that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others. Not much comfort there.

So let in the huddled masses . . . yearning to be free. They might, just might, make us a bit better. That would be good.

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To read more reviews, essays and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


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