It is a small victory for the sisterhood that it is the words of a female poet – Emma Lazarus – that grace the pedestals of the Statue of Liberty in New York’s great harbour.

What a shame that those words have come to represent an ideal that, in practice, America may never reach. Because the fact is, however much we idealise  equality among all people, regardless of their backgrounds, and however much we believe that we must protect those at the very bottom of society, we are still shamefully unequal. And for all the rhetoric of “difficult times” and “making do” used by politicians, our inequality is unjustifiable, indefensible, immoral.

Not long ago, Jon Ronson from GQ Magazine drove across America to interview some of the richest and poorest people in the country. In this striking story, the comfortable, protected life of a Forbes billionaire is put in contrast with a migrant from Haiti who lives in a slum and washes dishes for a meager wage. Inequality in America is, actually, still as bad as, if not worse than, it was in 1774. And that’s got to be bad, considering slavery was still in operation back then.

Today, we still live in a world where inequality prevails, where the rich hold power, and where the poorest masses are silent in the face of injustice.

In a world where those who dare to show us the truth – like Assange or Manning – are held captive by authorities that have long exceeded the powers granted them by constitutional law.

In a world where the tired, the poor, the huddled masses find no ‘world-wide welcome’ in the countries that hold equality ideal.

In a world where they find themselves, instead, destitute, and this destitution is more appalling in America and in Western cradles of democracy than it is in countries poorer, because it is here in the West that so many others bask in needless wealth, and in the greed that justifies holding on to it.

And here in London, in Stratford where I live and work, at what was the heart of the pomp and the glory of the 2012 Olympics, the homeless men and women still sit silent on the benches in the mall, wrapped tight in tattered clothes, smelling of garbage, a few bags of belongings tucked under their legs. In a country where £11 billion was spent on the games, how can it be fair that these unwanted castaways are no closer to decency and dignity than they were before?

If the West is really a ‘Mother of Exiles’, why did it not build shelters, open kitchens, create jobs and education programmes for its homeless?

And in its blind celebration of needless expenditure why, why can it not see the homeless, the tempest-tost on whom it treads?

 

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame.
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“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!”

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)

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