February 14, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Lady Liberty’s Torch
IT WOULD BE INTERESTING to perform an analysis of the various writings challenging Trump’s executive orders on immigration, to see what percentage of them make reference to the Statue of Liberty, or quote the most celebrated strophe of the poem which stands at the Lady’s feet. I suspect a high proportion. The symbolic importance of the Statue of Liberty cannot be overestimated, and as a rhetorical device she is golden, quite despite her verdigris.
The history of the statue itself is well enough known that I see no need to sketch it here. Less known perhaps is the fact that the original symbolism behind the statue had nothing whatever to do with immigration. None of the rhetoric expended in celebration of the Statue’s opening mentioned immigrants: the Statue and its patrons were advocating the benefits of republicanism abroad, in nations that had not yet adopted it. The date inscribed on the Lady’s book, is naught but the date of the Declaration of Independence, when the United States proclaimed its own liberty from foreign rule. La Liberté éclairant le monde was she called by her very builder—Liberty enlightens the world.
Far from “Mother of Exiles”! Far from “world-wide welcome”! The famed poem by Emma Lazarus that everyone now associates with the Statue, was penned originally to raise money for the pedestal upon which she stands, but was thereafter promptly forgotten by one and all, and was consigned to a verging oblivion. And had it not been for a mere accident—namely, a zealous art collector’s discovery of Lazarus’ poem in a used bookstore some decades on—the poem might have vanished to the graveyard of second-rate verse.
There is a sense that the Statue’s present meaning was stamped onto it by nothing other than the poem. It is hard to resist this conclusion. Yet it is remarkable: the poem was affixed to the Statue years after its construction, on a date that no one remembers, without any fanfare whatsoever, and largely thanks to the efforts of a single woman alone, who was not even the poetess. And now that same poem, for its rhetorical accessibility and its popular sentimentality, has come in its way to outshine the very torch the Lady holds.
Yet it is unbecoming to be blinded by mere rhetoric. One also wants the substance of the thing. Let us consider the best-famed verses of the poem, the ones which make their appearance beneath the Statue of Liberty:
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!
Lovely sentiments, no doubt. But it is permitted to ask—does our country, does any country at all, truly desire the “huddled masses,” the “wretched refuse,” of any other nation’s “teeming shores”? Have we so few problems domestically that we can afford to assume the troubles of foreign peoples, as well? And—to risk the wrath of our contemporary pluralistic faith, which sees all the world as nothing more and nothing less than an undifferentiated mass of perfectly identical human beings—does it not matter decisively just which nation’s “teeming shores”? Does it not make a fundamental difference if these “huddled masses” derive, as they did in Emma Lazarus’ day, from Ireland or Germany or Italy—which is to say, Europe; which is to say, nations not so very dissimilar to our own in custom, tradition, history, and habit—or if they come, say, from Syria, Somalia, or Haiti?
Arguments, arguments! And yet, one knows they will never suffice. There is something insidious in this confounding of the concept of liberty with open borders and open arms: yet that is precisely what has been accomplished by the left. It has been accomplished, note this well, not principally through arguments; it has been accomplished through a higher expression of the liberal worldview, an expression in poetry, in literature, in cinema—in short, through art; a broad, uninterrupted, and rich artistic expression which does not find its analogue in conservatism. Conservatism restricts itself to arguing the matter out; and that is a great failing, as the present story reveals.
What can be done by art can be undone by art. One wants, however, the artists; more than that, one wants the soil from which they might spring. It is high time that the right asked itself just why the arts have for decade on decade now practically the exclusive preserve of the left—why the left has dominated the arts, or to say it more precisely, why the vast majority of artists have chosen to dominate the left. And this despite the fact that the right, more than the the left, is the final fortress defending our Western artistic heritage.
There is nothing for it: we must look to the meaning attached to “art” in modernity if we are to understand this constant forward-pressing “progressivist” tendency in our art. Until that critique is made, and made in such a way as to open the possibility of a new art, conservatism will always be playing second-fiddle in this orchestra. What is emphatically not needed now is “propagandist art”—that is, “art” which takes its task as “changing hearts” by making them into “right-leaning” hearts. Art which does not grow naturally and ruthlessly for the sake of its own independent vision, is no art at all. We cannot begin all at once to simply “make” such art; but we can begin to ask why the conditions for it have so far been lacking.
To anyone who believes that this is a secondary issue—who believes that culture itself is a secondary issue, and far less important than the intellectual question—well! I invite such a one, to revolve his attention once more on this revaluation of the meaning of Lady Liberty, this revaluation of the meaning of America herself—and how that change of meaning makes itself felt almost every time anyone affirms the sweet old thoughtless “narrative” of America as a nation of immigrants.