How naïve he'd been, thought the Optician. How naïve. Because there would always be greater sorrow, deeper and more unfathomable than any of us could ever imagine.
Emma Jane Kirby, The Optician of Lampedusa.
* * * * *Nobody's ever accused me of being a glass-half-full kind of guy.
Years ago, at a meeting to determine whether an organization should or should not embrace a particular and potentially problematic position (the details don't matter here), the chair asked everyone to say what they brought to the table.
I'm good with crunching data, said one. I can design a web page, said another. Someone liked to canvass. Others could raise funds or organize demonstrations or arrange mailings or write press releases or whatever. When it was my turn I said,
I bring cynicism.And so I'm known, at least in some circles.
Obama talked a good game, but mostly he figured that if you just explained things calmly, everyone would get it and sign on.
Come, let us reason together.
People liked him. His popularity is great. His party lost power, more and more during his presidency. Then all of it as he asked for Hillary to be elected to protect his legacy. Calm. Rational.
Come, let us reason together.
You saw how that worked.
Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day. Donald Trump issued a statement.
It is with a heavy heart and somber mind that we remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes of the Holocaust. It is impossible to fully fathom the depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror.
Yet, we know that in the darkest hours of humanity, light shines the brightest. As we remember those who died, we are deeply grateful to those who risked their lives to save the innocent.
In the name of the perished, I pledge to do everything in my power throughout my Presidency, and my life, to ensure that the forces of evil never again defeat the powers of good. Together, we will make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world.
No mention of 6 million Jews there, pointed out many reminding us (some specifically, some only by allusion) of apparently (though he denied it) anti-semitic tweets during the campaign and of the anti-semitism of the alt-right folks he sometimes channels. Of course, the Nazi's committed genocide against the Roma, too. And he didn't mention them, either.
But it's the other part, that
pledge to do everything in my power . . . to . . . make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world
That's the part that interests me. Not in and of itself, of course. It's all pretty much standard political mouthing. Nice words with little or no substantive content.
But at the same time, on the same day, Trump did provide some substantive content. On the day he claimed to think of the
depravity and horror inflicted on innocent people
on the day that he would
remember and honor the victims, survivors, heroes
on that day, he shut the border to victims, survivors, heroes, who didn't happen to share a particular sort of
racial religious purity - at least if they came from a particular subset of the countries (not from those with whom he does business, as more than one wag has pointed out) from whence come "radical Islamic terrorists."
* * * * *
In October 2013 a boat carrying somewhere over 400 refugees, mostly Eritreans, capsized as it was nearing its goal, the island of Lampedusa. 366 or so drowned. The details are horrific. A small group of friends, eight of them, sailing out from Lampedusa for a late season pleasure trip, heard the screams from across the water.
They didn't know what those sounds were, seagulls perhaps. But they went to investigate. And there were desperate people in the water, trying not to drown. They managed, heroically though they reject the designation, to save some 47. Plucked from the sea. 55 on a boat designed to hold 10. It was an amazing effort.
But, 47 is not 400.
Among the rescuers was Lampedusa's lone optician, Carmine Menna. It is his story, with his permission, that BBC Radio 4 reporter Emma Jane Kirby turned not into a novel but a parable. The Optician of Lampedusa. Told from his point of view, though he's never named, just referred to as "the Optician," an ordinary man, everyman. He knew, of course, of refugees and that some didn't make it. Lampedusa is a small island, but a goal for many because of its location. But knowledge doesn't necessarily inspire action. He was, after all, an optician, not a lifeguard.
But when they come upon Thrust into the position where he could act, had to act.
Before their small craft came, the 8 rescuers are told, another boat came by and ignored the desperate men and women and children. Let them drown. The woman whose body was found recovered (this is true) clutching her newborn baby, still joined by umbilical cord to the child.
There are, you see, fine (and not so fine words). And our history welcoming (or too often not welcoming) those who would come to our shores (or those who were here first) rarely matches those fine words of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.
“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!”
It was 1882 when Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Roosevelt did not open our doors to the Jews fleeing the Nazis. Obama's administration set records for the most people deported.
It is said that when Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, he said, "So you're the little lady who started this big war." Because the story.
Because reason isn't enough. Because knowledge is too often abstract. Because as Stalin is said to have observed to Averill Harriman, "The death of a million is a statistic." On the other hand, as the first part of that Stalin quote goes, "The death of one man is a tragedy."
Our President doesn't read books so he surely won't read The Optician of Lampedusa. Damned shame. He should. You should.
Consider it an act of rebellion.