Monday, February 11, 2008

George Lantos

Many of us don't dive into our political environment with both feet and therefore miss out on a lot of the nuanced aspects of our federal government, both from a policy perspective as well as a personal perspective. The name George Lantos might not mean much to most Americans, save the wonks and the people who elected him as a Representative from northern California.

Lantos passed away early Monday surrounded by family. The New York Times reports that his children, 18 grandchildren, and 2 great-grandchildren were by his side as he lost his battle with cancer. He was 80 years old and served in the U.S. House of Representatives for nearly 28 years, most recently sitting as the Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. I thought it would be interesting to cut and paste a few paragraphs from the Times article as a tribute to a life of meaningful service.

"Lantos, who referred to himself as ''an American by choice,'' was born to Jewish parents in Budapest, Hungary, and was 16 when Adolf Hitler occupied Hungary in 1944. He survived by escaping twice from a forced labor camp and coming under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who used his official status and visa-issuing powers to save thousands of Hungarian Jews. Lantos' mother and much of his family perished in the Holocaust."

This, on its own, is the most remarkable aspect of Lantos' life and service. The only Holocaust survivor to serve in the U.S. Congress, Lantos spent a lifetime working to build after experiencing so much destruction. In the heat of the ugly immigration battle currently being waged from the Right, Lantos' life serves as an example of the fuel that immigrants bring with them from their trying circumstances at home. The debate is about illegal immigration right now, but it only starts there. Emma Lazarus wrote in her poem "The New Colossus," a tribute to 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!"

The battle against illegal immigration is simply a gateway to a lockdown on all immigration. Once the battle has been won by the Tancredo crowd, it won't stop there. Immigration to the U.S. will become a quagmire of epic proportions with a wealthy elite determining who can come in and see the light of our lamp beside the golden door. Representative Lantos was one of the huddled masses during the 1940s, when the Greatest Generation was engaged in a war that truly confronted tyranny and genocide. He was, of course, privileged in his acceptance to the United States as he entered via a scholarship to the University of Washington. He understood, however, the greatness of this nation and its generous and compassionate hand for those in desperate need. How likely is it that the humanitarian reach of our nation will extend to those silently dying in the genocide of Darfur, for example? A question that must be asked.

The Times further writes of the Representative, "Lantos, who was elected to the House in 1980, founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1983. In early 2004 he led the first congressional delegation to Libya in more than 30 years, meeting personally with and urging the Bush administration to show ''good faith'' to the North African leader in his pledge to abandon his nuclear weapons programs. Later that year, President Bush lifted sanctions against Libya."

So much for the notion that speaking with "people we don't like" is the wrong way to conduct foreign affairs. The Clinton camp and the GOP opposition have been waving that stick at Barack Obama as an example of his inexperience and naivete. Sometimes good faith can be rewarded with success, and that success can often spell the difference between protracted violence and the loss of life, treasure, and prestige. Something else to think about.

"''Morally, you are pygmies,'' he berated top executives of Yahoo Inc. at a hearing he called in November 2007 as they defended their company's involvement in the jailing of a Chinese journalist."

We can only hope that our elected officials, and those of us in the private sector, can find this measure of moral fortitude in our daily lives. It's up to us to cry out at injustice when we see it. The guardians at the gate of our national character are the people. We've lost one of the greatest guardians on this day, but we look to his life as an example of the extraordinary possibilities afforded us as the privileged few to be born under the protection of the American flag. Let's not forget that and extend its goodwill and compassion to as many in need around the globe as is humanly possible. Our resources are best spent in this way, rather than for the benefit of a privileged few.

No comments: