When Emma Lazarus first wrote The New Colossus, in 1883, America was entering the Industrial Age with vigor. Immigrants from across the globe traveled to these shores for freedom, for opportunity, for a better life for themselves and their families. America represented that hope, that bastion of freedom and liberty. It remained so for more than a century.

Today, however, the world is a vastly different place than the world in which Lazarus welcomed the exiled, “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”

When Lazarus wrote Colossus, the American ideals she spoke of still meant something. Opening our country to those oppressed, exiled, and forgotten was second nature to us. The United States, after all, had been built by individuals such as these. Those willing to sacrifice, to work hard, to pledge themselves to freedom and prosperity, not at the expense of others, but alongside them.

Today, the history of Ellis Island, the history of immigration, the history of America itself is not taught from a place of respect and pride in our heritage, nor as a means of attaining wisdom from generations past. Rather, it is undermined at every turn; ridiculed, debased, and debunked.

And that is sad. Because we, those of us actively pursuing and those of us permitting this defilement have reaped the benefit of those past generations. The ones who sacrificed, who suffered, who fought, who bled, who died, who stood up, who led, who gave all to ensure the ideals upon which America was built were not merely words, but a living reality drawn ever closer to attaining.

We have lived under the umbrella of those ideals, raised our children under it, and put our faith in it. We have long enjoyed the freedom and the liberty that underpins it.

But what will we leave them? The ones who come after us? The same opportunities? The same freedoms? The same ideals?

Today, unlike in times past when I could raise my voice with conviction, surety, and faith, I have no answer to those questions. I only have hope that truth will prevail and that our better natures will win. And I have history.

I have the history I was born into, the history of my family, and the one I’ve studied and taught for over three decades, American History. And I have belief in and respect for them both.

Because in retrospect, they truly are one and the same.

The New Colossus, originally written by Lazarus to raise money for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, was cast into a bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal’s lower level in 1903. | Immigrant children, Ellis Island, New York. ca. 1908 | Image by Everett Collection, Shutterstock | Licensed for use

The Land of Opportunity 

In the early 20th century, Ireland was embroiled in religious and political turmoil and war. On the heels of WWI (1914-1918), a war for Irish independence broke out between the British state and its Unionist forces in Ireland and the Nationalist forces in the Irish Republican Army (IRA). 

A largely guerrilla war, the conflict ensued in 1919 and continued through 1923. However, violence from both sides preceded and continued after these dates. 

Aside from the military confrontation between the groups, the absence of effective government and policing throughout the conflict saw a great deal of social and criminal violence. The death toll on both sides was significant, as was the destruction of property and livelihood.

This does not sound that much different than what is going on in our country today, does it? 

However, this was the Ireland my Nana, Mary Murphy Chaknis, was born into in 1911. It is also the Ireland her parents sent her and her two siblings away from in the hope that they would enjoy opportunity, freedom, and above all safety somewhere else. 

Where were they sent? To America, the Land of Opportunity, as it was commonly known. 

Newly arrived European immigrants at Ellis Island in 1920-21. | Image by Everett Collection, Shutterstock | Licensed for use

A young girl at the time of her journey, Nana embraced this country as her new home. She worked hard, met and married my grandfather, Peter Chaknis, an immigrant from Greece, raised six children, became an American citizen, and lived a grateful life until her death in 2004 at the age of 93. She never returned to her native Ireland, “America,” she’d proudly say, “was home.”

Her parents, my great grandparents, eventually joined their children here, living out their lives in peace. Nana and her parents and siblings are lovingly buried together on American soil, in the cities they called home and loved so much. 

Nana’s is not a unique story. Generations of Americans can trace their lineages across the oceans, to places as far away from America in distance as they are in ideology. 

What makes them unique, however, is the spirit, fortitude, and faith they brought with them. They were not afraid of hard work. They welcomed it as an opportunity. They stood strong in their faith and welcomed the gift of freedom. They did not take freedom for granted, for they had come from places in which they had been afforded none. 

They were proud to learn about their new home, to become citizens of this great country, to enjoy the rights and privileges citizenship provided them, and to pass that pride down to their children, along with their work ethic and patriotism. 

I come from stock such as this, and I married into a family much the same. A family where hard work, respect for God, family, and country, and belief in the same, formed the foundation upon which we were raised and from which we prospered. 

We may live in changing, chaotic times, but these tenants, embedded in our Constitution, that founded our Nation, are not obsolete. They were true then. They are true now. Because they are the truth. And truth does not alter or diminish no matter how masterfully it is manipulated or ignored. 

The American dream comes from opportunity. The opportunity comes from our founding principles, our core values that are held together and protected by the Constitution. Those ideals are neither Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal, white, or black. They are American ideals.

Ted Yoho, U. S. Congressman, 3rd District, Florida

Seated in the center are my grandparents, Pete and Mary Chaknis; from top left, clockwise my Aunt Bessie, Uncle John, Aunt Mary Ann, Uncle George, Uncle Nick, and next to her father, my mom, Penny, circa 1950s

And the truth is this.

We are all given an opportunity. In America, no matter who you are, where you come from, the color of your skin, your religion, or gender, opportunity exists. 

That is what this country was founded on. The idea that with freedom, the freedom to exercise your basic human rights, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” you can create your opportunity, your destiny, and your prosperity.

That is why generations of immigrants sacrificed everything to make it to these shores. For themselves, their children, their grandchildren, so that they could live this dream. 

It was never a given, and they understood this. Once here, they knew they would have to work to realize that dream. But they were eager to do just that. Because they understood that here, in America, and nowhere else, they could. That here, in America, and nowhere else, the fruits of their labor would be realized. It was their dream. It became the American dream. And regardless of how very different things are, that dream remains, even now.

You can go live in France, but you cannot become a Frenchman. You can go live in Germany, or Turkey, or Japan, but you cannot become a German, a Turk, or a Japanese. But anyone from any corner of the Earth can come to live in America and become an American.

Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States

That spirit, that fortitude, and above all that faith has been lost.

Not because it has disappeared, but because it’s been attacked, overshadowed, villainized, and weaponized. 

How? When politics becomes a means to gain and maintain wealth and power through manipulation. When justice becomes truly blind, not impartially or objectively as that moniker indicates it should be, but rather, to truth itself. When education becomes a tool for indoctrination rather than learning. When freedom of the press becomes a breeding ground for misinformation, deception, and censorship. And when political correctness becomes more important than conviction and faith. 

This is where we are. This collective identity of “them” or “us”.

This divisive group-think mentality that pits gender against gender, race against race, class against class, politics, power, and wealth above service.

This pervasive fear that demands we derive our sense of self from a collective identity narrative that requires we view ourselves as victims or oppressors rather than conscious individuals, responsible for our own choices, our own actions, and our own destinies. 

An entire generation has been raised on this philosophy. And they have bought into it completely. And that is the scariest thing of all. For theirs is the generation of the future. And they are not concerned with generations past, or the values held by Americans as a whole. They have been taught to vilify America, that they are deserving of everything while having to work for nothing, and that they are victims of an antiquated system that needs reimagining. 

They do not know what it means to stand for something because they have not been taught the heritage that is the history of this Nation and so their own. They do not value freedom, because they have never experienced a world without it, nor do they acknowledge or remember those that have. 

They do not believe that hard work is the answer, because they glorify those who portray success as a right, rather than an objective to be earned. And they support an ideology that at best relies on their vulnerability and naivety, and at worst, manipulates and profits from it.

The current conflict of visions will likely soon determine the future of the United States. The country will remain one inhabited by millions of quite different-looking Americans, unifying and coalescing as citizens of one culture. Or, it will become something quite different, something far more typical of nations abroad that are defined by either race or chaos.

Victor Davis Hanson, The Dying Citizen, 2022

This is where we are. 

And I think about my Nana. All that she valued about being an American. And I wonder, is this Land of Opportunity destined to become like so many before it, where opportunity is truly only held by the few at the expense and peril of the many? 

Where freedom is given over for a free ride? One, that as we have seen in the past in countless countries around the world, eventually turns into despotism and totalitarianism. 

But by then it is too late. The die has been cast. And that free ride? It did not take us as far or even where we were promised it would. Because that is the thing about free rides, they are not free. And eventually, we will be called to pay for it. And the price will be no less than the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” of us all.

You want to reclaim your country? You got to go back to the first men who started this country, the founding fathers, and this is going to be shocking for the liberal professors out there that are indoctrinating our kids, but the founding fathers believed in the Judeo-Christian god that believes we have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! You can pursuit it! If you don’t get it, it’s your fault! You messed up. Go back to work. Work harder.

Brad Stine, Live from Middle America: Rants from a Red-State Comedian, 2006

by JN Fenwick, former U.S. History teacher and editor/contributor, In the Eye of the Storm

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