Recently, I visited Liberty Island for the first time. Seeing photographs of the statue is no substitute for experiencing its imposing presence firsthand. Context is also important. One may look to the north and see Ellis Island, the port of entry for millions of immigrants who endured a level of hardship that few of us comfortable 21st century Americans would be willing to endure, and gave more to this country than we can readily appreciate.
Looking a little further east, there is the skyline of lower Manhattan. It is now proudly rebuilding itself following the terrible tragedy that occurred on September 11, 2001, and the new One World Trade Center, although not yet complete, positively gleams. A few blocks further east are the buildings that overlook Zuccotti Park and Wall Street.
Visitors to Liberty Island speak French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese and other languages that I couldn’t identify. A tour group of teenage Muslim girls in headscarves posed for photos, unmistakably excited to see the famous landmark. The night before, on the Staten Island Ferry, I’d observed that the boat actually listed from the press of passengers gazing at the statue.
Still, from the perspective of long-time residents of this country, the Statue of Liberty likely suffers from over-exposure. Barrymore Scherer, writing in the Wall Street Journal, observed, “Familiarity does have a way of breeding, if not contempt, then a kind of numb oblivion … we take the Statue of Liberty for granted, too often glancing at it without actually seeing what it represents as both a monumental work of sculpture and an allegory of national and international significance.”
When I was an adolescent, I held the Statue of Liberty in disdain along with triumphal depictions of eagles grasping arrows in their talons, the Stars and Stripes, and the marble monuments ringing the Washington D.C.’s National Mall. The source of my disdain was the belief that patriotism inevitably leads to blind patriotism. When the expression “my country, right or wrong” was still in vogue, spoken earnestly by jingoes and sardonically by anti-jingoes, the smart set consisted of people who rejected kitsch and cant and sat out the Pledge of Allegiance.
A pattern of anti-patriotism began in the 1960’s and flourished in the 1970’s. It arose, in part, as a result of anger toward apologists and perpetrators of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and racial inequality.
At the time, flag-waving patriotism appeared to mean that one ought to meekly accept the status quo. As frustrations flared, too-frequent episodes of flag-burning, vandalism, and rioting ensued. In retrospect, the anti-patriotic pattern may be viewed as an example of emotivism: that is, choosing to use words and actions to express feelings and separate interests instead of using one’s words and actions to articulate a set of rational principles. Older now, I no longer scorn the statue for being bombastic. I am instead glad that Lady Liberty stands watch in New York Harbor, sharing her message with anyone who is prepared to receive it.
The statue, officially titled ‘Liberty Enlightening the World,’ is rich with classical symbolism. It explains what American patriotism means. The woman herself personifies Liberty. Her crown represents Enlightenment, the tablet Truth, and the lamp “the illuminative powers of Faith in dispelling ignorance and superstition (Tractenberg, The Statue of Liberty).” There are broken chains at her feet; these signify the defeat of Tyranny. The statue, a gift from the people of France, recalls a time when that nation venerated the United States. For the French, and many others in Europe, the United States embodied the Republican ideal: a government based on Liberty and Reason, outshining the crumbling Old World aristocracies.
John Locke was – as I have discussed in earlier posts – an inspiration to the Founders’ philosophy of classical republicanism. He said, “self-love will make men partial to themselves and their friends: and on the other side … ill nature, passion and revenge will carry them too far in punishing others; and hence nothing but confusion and disorder will follow, and that therefore God hath certainly appointed government to restrain the partiality and violence of men.” And so the contrast is drawn: on one hand, the Apollonian virtues of public-spiritedness, enlightenment, impartiality and reason; on the other hand the Dionysian vices of self-love, private interest, egoism, and unrestrained emotivism.
To understand how great of a danger emotivism presents, the words of Benjamin Britten come to mind: “The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.” As the economy continues to falter, and America’s standing in the world continues to decline, emotions will flair and the capacity to exercise reason will be strained. Self-love and ill nature will cause individuals to look out only for themselves.
Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” He said this in the context of slavery, understanding that as long as some inhabitants of America are not free, perfect freedom cannot exist. He recognized the error of supposing that self-government is an absolute and perfect right, because human beings are prone to self-interest and cannot judge fairly on their own behalf. If any one of us is to enjoy liberty, we must all enjoy liberty.
Political cartoonist Thomas Nast portrayed Lady Liberty gagged and stifled by the influence of monopolies
Occasions will arise when, in order to promote liberty for all, each of us may need to refrain from certain acts, obey certain laws, and pay certain taxes. If members of society want to enjoy the right to own property, then they must agree not to steal from one another. If they wish to be free, they must not encroach on the freedom of others. As Lincoln explained, a reckless and exaggerated belief in self-government boils down to the idea that, “if any one man, choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object.”
During the earliest days of our Republic, the Founders understood that reason and selfishness would be perpetually at odds with each other. In 1779, John Adams said, “We have so many men of Wealth, of ambitious spirits, of intrigue, of luxury and corruption, that incessant factions will disturb our peace.” Today, the private interests of the affluent are set against the interests of the poor; the interests of blacks are set against those of whites, men against women, urban against rural, union employees against non-union employees. It is almost universally accepted that the blessings of liberty and prosperity only belong to those who know best how to fight for them.
Let us pledge, then, to resist the follies of partisanship and self-interest; instead, let us strive to achieve unity. Let us strive to achieve a form of government in which the owner of a hardware store has the same chance of becoming a Senator as a wealthy lawyer backed by Wall Street money; let us ensure that every American child receive a high-quality education; let us put an end to the cruel practice of forcing American workers to compete against Chinese slaves in order to earn a living. Let us rise as a people to ensure that the flow of Judas money into the hands of corrupt political leaders ends once and for all.