Skip directly to content

An Open Book: The Statue of Liberty

on August 10, 2017 - 4:29pm

Los Alamos

Although I grew up just outside of New York City, it was only when I returned many years later with my wife and children that we made a special pilgrimage to visit the Statue of Liberty. An immigrant myself, my port of entry was JFK Airport, not Ellis Island, but nevertheless, my call upon that symbol of welcome to America was important to me. So the recent proposed changes to national immigration policy, and a certain TV conversation about the Statue of Liberty and what it might or might not symbolize, made me reminisce about that visit. It brought to mind as well how symbols that tie us together as a society, whether they be statues or other cultural touchstones, might change in meaning and significance over time.

“Liberty Enlightening the World”, or since the French paid for it, “La Liberté éclairant le monde,” started out as testimony to the common struggle of America and France to establish liberty on their respective soils, but as immigrants approaching Ellis Island glimpsed the statue in the distance, and especially once Emma Lazarus’ poem was placed at her pedestal almost twenty years after the statue’s dedication, it emerged as an emblem not only of the struggle for political freedom, but also an emblem of American opportunity and welcome to those seeking a new life on our shores.

That a symbol might evolve in meaning over time is to be expected. When the United States Declaration of Independence was composed, the phrase “all men are created equal” did not include enslaved blacks or even free women. The contradiction of the accommodation of slavery and belief in this assertion was apparent and noted by many, even in the early days of the Republic, and it was only in the 1850’s when abolitionists appropriated the phrase to support their efforts that the Declaration became a powerful argument, most famously used by President Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address. So the meaning of statues, of phrases, of many symbols may change over time. That TV exchange I saw, when the questioner was lectured on the late addition of “Give me your tired, your poor...” as a revisionist appropriation of Lady Liberty’s original message, really disturbed me. Was the Statue of Liberty to be no longer a symbol and call to welcome those of poor circumstances seeking a new life?

It seems to me that the current proposal on immigration is unabashedly geared toward the immediate economic value that immigration can bring. Its purpose as succor for the refugee or family reunification is to be ancillary and diminished. Even the economic benefit due to the disproportionate number of small businesses started by immigrants is not part of the conversation. If you are already blessed with the ability to speak English and can program a computer, or if you have $500,000 for an EB-5 visa, please come in. Huddled masses need not apply. How many of us share the family story of an ancestor working for years as a lowly laborer so he could pay the steerage ticket of his brother, his wife, or his elderly mother? When did that story lose its eminent place in America’s narrative?
Maybe it is for those of us who are immigrants ourselves, new Americans with a special relationship with that famous lady, to work to highlight the promise made by the equally famous poem. I spoke at a naturalization ceremony at Bandelier National Monument this past July, and in my remarks, I asked the newly confirmed citizens to contribute to their new country something that they uniquely bring. I asked them to share their perspective, because they have seen America from afar and have yearned to enjoy the ideals that she represents.

I asked them to share their wisdom, because they have lived without America’s blessings and know how precious and fragile they can be. But I also asked them to share a compassion and generosity toward the stranger who arrives after them, because they know what it is like to be a stranger themselves, and to be bestowed with words of welcome like those of that day.
The meaning of many famous statues change with time and circumstances. Michelangelo’s David was originally purposed as the first of a series of religious statues, but after it was completed, it morphed into a symbol of the Florentine republic and its stubborn resistance to enemies, especially the more powerful and encroaching city of Rome. The youthful David, representing the people of Florence, was confidently preparing to fight against overwhelming odds, and the statue was purposefully oriented so that David’s defiant gaze was directed toward Rome.

I suspect most residents of Florence no longer see David as a symbol of subversion against Roman politicians, and statues and poems should not define government policies, but in current as in olden times they can be the source of inspiration for the fundamental societal values that these policies should implement. I would like to think that the tired old lady holding that lamp still raises it not only as a sign of Franco-American friendship, but also as a beckoning to those seeking opportunity to come and make our country greater still. Not just for Ph.D. engineers and real estate magnates, but also for those of humble circumstances who dream of a better life and bring the work ethic to make it so, should Lady Liberty lift her lamp beside a golden door.