(Note: Due to my inability to correctly schedule future posts on wordpress, an incomplete version of this blog post went out last week. Sorry for the confusion to those of you who saw it. This is the real version.)
I want to talk about American symbolism. I think these symbols say a lot about who we would like to be—what we aspire to as a nation. But they’re also pretty telling in terms of who we actually are.
This is important in the wake of a couple of whirlwind weeks that have been identity-shifting for many of us. People are insisting that the recent behavior and executive orders from Trump are not who we are as a country, that America is better than this. Just as many are citing the ways in which we have similarly fallen short in the past, coupled with the accusation that, for all our talk of “never again,” we haven’t actually grown very much as a society.
As a nation and as individuals, we have been engaged in some soul-searching, and I think that bears contemplation.
Despite the fact that these aren’t necessarily things we think about in our daily lives, I think they have a lot more cultural resonance than we maybe realize. For example, in the wake of the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which allowed states to not-recognize same sex marriages from other states, this cartoon by Nate Beeler was published in the Columbus Dispatch.
As you can see, it depicts Lady Justice and Lady Liberty embracing in a moment of true, unequivocal joy.
I love this image because of its honesty. Justice, who has obviously gotten word of the court ruling, first, has thrown down her sword and scales to leap into the arms of Liberty, whose smile is genuine and indulgent at the same time. Liberty, I imagine, cared less about what was legal—she stands for freedom, after all—but is nonetheless pleased to finally be recognized. And it clearly means so much to Justice.
This image is deeply personal for me, and it garnered a lot of attention because it is personal to all of us. It is not just that the court ruling is about justice and liberty and this was a convenient and clever use of our anthropomorphized values. These values-made-human mean something to us. We are connected to them in a way that is visceral.
The nation had a similar reaction to the cover of the New Yorker, also in the wake of DOMA being overturned, depicting long-time male roommates and friends Bert and Ernie curled up together, watching the ruling come in.
This image was criticized by the right as sexualizing children’s characters and by the left as infantilizing an important Civil Rights issue, but I didn’t see it that way. Forgive me for the generalization, but the right is always so worried about things being sexualized that they end up doing the sexualizing, and that was true with this image as well. It spoke about love, not about sex.* Alternately, the accusation of infantilizing the issue disregards the significant cultural resonance of the image.
Inherent in the depiction of roommates as lovers is a callback to times in which hiding was necessary. To take “roomates” who hide their love and put them on the cover of the New Yorker is hugely significant in terms of a cultural shift. Just as important, Bert and Ernie mean something to us. They’re beloved childhood friends, which makes them real to us. And there is something about this image that resonates as real, too. It would not have been the same to depict Big Bird and Elmo cuddled together, because that does feel like twisting children’s characters to fit a political agenda, but for Bert and Ernie, this genuinely could be part of their story.
All of which is to say that cultural figures and symbols don’t have to be real to carry real, personal significance to us. So what do our symbols say about us?
The Statue of Liberty is a representation of the Roman goddess Libertas. Libertas was worshipped in particular by emancipated slaves. Our Lady Liberty was inspired by the Civil War, and she stands atop broken chains. Her torch and her crown are meant to shine the light of freedom around the world—the seven points of her crown evoke the sun, and represent spreading that light to the seven continents and the seven seas.
The inscription at her base was a sonnet donated by Emma Lazarus to the project, inspired by her work with refugees fleeing anti-Semitic pogroms in eastern Europe. Titled “The New Colossus,” the poem invoked the memory of The Colossus of Rhodes, a large state of the Greek titan-god Helios on the Greek island of Rhodes that was roughly the same size as the Statue of Liberty and also stood in/near a harbor. He is sometimes depicted as standing astride the harbor.
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!
So from her very earliest conception, Lady Liberty was not about this vague sort of “freedom” that we talk about at 4th of July barbeques, by which we mean that we think ourselves superior to other nations who do not have this nebulous concept that we have not clearly defined to ourselves. If pressed, it has something to do with taxes and throwing tea in the ocean.
But Lady Liberty’s freedom is clear and grounded in history. Her freedom is about people who are literally in bondage. She lifts her light for slaves, and the chains at her feet are not merely metaphorical. She lifts her light for refugees from the “old world,” asking for none of their history, fame, or culture, but rather their exiles–those who do not fit and have nowhere else to go. Her crown, shining light to all seven continents and all seven seas, quite literally means that no one is excluded, regardless of where they come from.
The refugees who inspired her inscription were Jewish refugees, and yet just over 50 years after the statue was erected, the United States turned away nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. This story has been shared a great deal in recent days, meant to evoke sympathy for today’s refugees who are also fleeing the very real threat of death in their home countries. What is often missed in this retelling, however, is that they were turned away in large part because it was feared that Nazis would infiltrate the country by posing as refugees. During Hitler’s reign in Germany, the U.S. turned away tens of thousands of Jews who applied to immigrate here.
According to this enlightening article from the Smithsonian, these fears have existed from the very earliest use of the term “refugees”—that spies, or terrorists, or anarchists, would try to disguise themselves as the persecuted and gain entry through subterfuge. It’s like a heartless game of fill in the blank where the threat is always what we’re most afraid of at a given time, and the answer is always to close the gates. And a lot of work has gone into making Americans afraid of terrorists.
The truth is that we are more likely to be killed by a number of ridiculous things—including cows, falling out of bed, our own clothes, vending machines—and some not-so-ridiculous things—like toddlers accidentally firing guns—than by a terrorist. The likelihood of being killed by a terrorist posing as a refugee who can pass the extensive background checks necessary to be allowed into this country is astronomical. What this really means that Trump’s Muslim ban isn’t about safety, it’s about fear.
Which doesn’t really seem to be a trait of Lady Liberty, but that’s just me.
I think if you were to look at Lady Liberty and ask who we want to be, as a country, the answer is pretty clear. We welcome in the outsiders, the rebels, the desperate, the downtrodden, the fearful, the lost, the broken. Our harbor doesn’t feature a conquering warrior, but rather a woman who seeks to lift up those in bondage, a woman who breaks chains and spreads light into every last inch of this planet. We want to be the open arms to the rest of the world; that desire is an essential part of our being.
Our failure to live up to that desire, evidenced on page after page of our history books, does not change the fact that we want to do better. I mentioned in my last post that I’ve started watching The Newsroom. There’s a great moment which doesn’t get as much attention as the famous America-Isn’t-The-Greatest-Country-In-The-World speech. Will McAvoy is arguing with his executive producer/ex-girlfriend, and she says: “You know what you left out of your sermon? That America is the only country on the planet that, since it’s birth, has said over and over and over that we can do better. It’s part of our DNA.”
Right now, we aren’t who we want to be. But as intrinsic to America as our desire to be a refuge and our star-spangled puffery is commitment to working towards progress. Below is The New Yorker cover for next week, John W. Tomac’s “Liberty’s Flameout.”
We can do better.