I read an article last week about a debate in American political circles over the true significance of the Statue of Liberty.
Apparently a CNN journalist was taking an aide of President Trump to task over the administration’s proposals to tighten immigration laws. The journalist was suggesting that limiting immigration was against the spirit of the iconic New York statue, as expressed in a poem inscribed on its pedestal. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The poet, Emma Lazarus, was addressing the nations of Europe, the tired old world with its hereditary aristocracy living in luxury on the backs of its oppressed people. The United States, by contrast, was a brave new classless world of opportunity and equality where merit would rise to the top.
The Trump aide, it seems, wisely avoided entering into a debate about whether such egalitarian ideals formed part of his boss’s plan to make America great again. He diverted the issue by pointing out that the Lazarus poem was not part of the original statue, and was, in fact, added twenty years after the unveiling of “Lady Liberty”.
So, what was that “Liberty” thing all about then? The Time article claims that the original idea in the mind of the French government when they gifted the statue was to congratulate the United States for their moral fortitude in abolishing slavery. There is also an implication that there was a diplomatic purpose tucked away – to cement the alliance between France and the US. France, of course, had supported the American revolutionaries in their independence war, and later backed the fledgling republic in the War of 1812 – both fought against Britain. Maybe there was a smidgen of imperialist rivalry going on behind the façade of altruism.
Certainly abolishing slavery in the United States was a worthy achievement – but it’s worth remembering that it wasn’t a unanimous decision. 750,000 lives were lost in the Civil War of the 1860s before the issue was decided; and the USA certainly wasn’t in the forefront of slave emancipation. Just as a matter of interest, here’s a timeline of when slavery was abolished in certain key countries:
1811 – Spain, 1813 – Sweden, 1833 – Britain, 1848 – France, 1851 – Brazil, 1858 – Portugal, 1861 – Netherlands, 1865 – United States of America
A century later civil rights activists were still being imprisoned or assassinated; and some might argue that race relations in the land of the free are far from perfect even today.
And another thing. The driving force behind slavery is economics. If you don’t have to pay your work force, your profit margins are going to look a lot healthier than if you have to pay a living wage to your workers and PAYE income tax to your government. The United States economy must have taken a hit when all those slaves were liberated. Certainly the poor huddled masses from Europe had to be paid to work in the industrializing powerhouse they had come to for a better life, but I imagine there was a lot of competition for jobs keeping the price of labour to a minimum. Health and safety regulations would have been pretty lax, and social services, hospitals, schools and so on, not much in evidence. Need a new source of cheap labour to replace those liberated slaves? Why not import a few million desperately poor Europeans and exploit them?
We might think that both the CNN and the Trump guy were haggling over historical details and losing sight of the real issue. Whatever shenanigans may have lain behind the erecting of the Statue of Liberty, generations of US politicians have made local and international capital out of peddling the concept that America is a shining beacon of equality, freedom, democracy and hope in a corrupt and dangerous world. The American people have been encouraged (brainwashed?) to believe that these qualities are best exemplified by their own political system and way of life.
I don’t have time to write a poem to the United States of America, but listen, people. You’ve got poor tired huddled masses of your own that need your attention. You may not want the poor tired huddled masses from elsewhere any more, but at least stop bombing them and exploiting them, so they can get on with the business of living and raising their children in their own countries.