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statue of liberty weeping

Statue of Liberty Weeping

Note from the Editor: Donald Trump has won the presidential election. To read why, click here.

It is with mixed feelings (and some actual emotion) that I watched our cruise ship pass the Statue of Liberty as we exited New York harbor on our way to Halifax.

A musical group on open deck 12 of the Norwegian Gem was singing Lee Greenwood’s “I’m proud to be an American, for at least I know I’m free,” increasing my feelings of joy and sadness.

The Iron Lady’s torch was lit and clearly visible a quarter-mile away, even on this dark and cloudy morning. This gift to us (the Statue, not the clouds) from France was clear acknowledgment by the old world of the promise of the new. It was our goodness and wisdom in accepting the “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,” according to Emma Lazarus’ sentimental and powerful words, that France was recognizing.

We had our economic and political reasons for doing this, to be sure, but we also had to overcome the chronic xenophobia in American culture to open our doors to those ancestors of so many of us alive in the USA today.

So the mixed feelings I experienced mirrored, I suppose, the feelings of many others. We are proud of being free, we say, and we are delighted that others recognize that, as the French did over a century ago.

Yet we are too often arrogant and confused about what freedom really means. George W. Bush famously (or infamously) said after the attacks of 9-11-2001 that others hated us because they were jealous of our freedom. Then we demonstrated our power and fear (not the same as real freedom) by invading two countries in the Middle East, an action which, instead of destroying our enemies, simply created more of them.

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I can imagine Lady Liberty wincing at our mistaken view of liberty that prompted those wars and the arrogant Jingoism that still flourishes as we try to extract ourselves from them.

The dark side of America has emerged powerfully over the past generation. We are proud to be Americans . . . and free, and we encourage others outside our borders (and please stay there!) to be free as well, but only on our terms, using our definition of freedom.

The dark side of America has emerged powerfully over the past generation. We are proud to be Americans . . . and free, and we encourage others outside our borders (and please stay there!) to be free as well, but only on our terms, using our definition of freedom.“Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” sang Kris Kristofferson 45 years ago. But now many Americans define freedom as not having to lose anything—this includes our level of comfort, our power over others economically and militarily. Many of us have said that for others to be free, they must accept our values, even though we are not always in agreement on what these values are. We are, of course, now suspicious of those “huddled masses,” wish they would huddle up somewhere else, and keep their alien religious and terrorist tendencies far away from our shores.

So Liberty still has her torch raised toward Europe (or Eurasia) but maybe it is now more of a warning light than a welcoming one. Karl Marx said over a century ago that things happen twice, the first time as history, the second time as farce. Maybe that is what has happened to the meaning of our beloved statue in New York harbor. Has it now become, not a symbol of hope for the poor and oppressed of other lands, but a lighthouse warning alerting others to the greed, anger, and oversimplified, narrow-minded thinking and prejudices they are likely to find in this “land of the free and home of the brave?”

I write these words on Columbus Day, a holiday commemorating the first serious arrival of Europeans in the New World in 1492. Some now want to change the title of this holiday to “Indigenous People’s Day” or “Native American Heritage Day” to help us remember the intended or unintended consequences of Columbus’ arrival for those who were here first. Many of the original human inhabitants began to lose their freedom and their lives in 1492; for them Lady Liberty has always had a bittersweet or even reverse meaning.

Indeed, it might be said that we are all now “yearning to be free,” but now we seek freedom of more than a material sort; we all seek—even when we don’t acknowledge it—a freedom from fear even as we indulge ourselves in our fears. We seek freedom from the inevitable uncertainties of human life, even as we claim to have clear and certain answers to all our problems, social and political.

And deep down, many of us really do want to welcome those huddled masses that included the ancestors of 60% of today’s Americans who came through Ellis Island and passed the Statue of Liberty. A decade before Lady Liberty was built and shipped here, an American president called us to listen to “the better angels of our nature.” That hope still shines from the torch of the Lady of the Harbor in New York.


Ken Wolf