What the Statue of Liberty Represents Is As Relevant As Ever

HOST INTRO: The Statue of Liberty is an international symbol of freedom and democracy. But how the country defines those ideas now is in flux. Last week, anonymous activists hung a sign that read “refugees welcome” on the statue’s base. A week before, a cartoon with graffiti covering the statue’s pedestal that read “Statue of Open Borders” made the rounds on conservative blogs. And the cover of The New Yorker depicted her holding a torch of smoke. When political rhetoric changes, so does the symbolism we see in historical icons. And Lady Liberty is a great example. She is one of the few national monuments that people can pin their own opinions on. Kristin Schwab reports.

 

SCHWAB 1: It’s a bright, cold day in Battery Park. But that hasn’t stopped tourists from lining up for the Statue of Liberty ferry. Boat after boat shuffles passengers bundled in wool scarves and hats, and clutching steaming cups hot chocolate. (0:14)

(Sound: boat horn and announcement under tracking (0:25))

SCHWAB 2: Travelers are here to see one of America’s most iconic monuments. And whether they’re from the U.S. or abroad, they’ll tell you the statue represents a value Americans take great pride in. (0:10)

 

WORKS 1: Freedom, definitely.
VANLOUWE 1: Freedom. Freedom of religion, freedom of speech.
MIRACLE 1: Freedom for the immigrants. And America, I mean…what America I guess used to be. (0:09)

SCHWAB 3: That was Nadia Works, Karl Vanlouwe and Jamie Miracle. 26-year-old Miracle from Florida is worried that because of immigrant and refugee bans, freedom might mean something different in the future. (0:13)

 

MIRACLE 2: In like 10 years from now people are going to go to the statue and it’s going to mean something else. Cuz not everyone has the same freedoms anymore. (0:06)

SCHWAB 4: When our democracy is in flux, icons like the Statue of Liberty take on new meaning. Ed Berenson is author of The Statue of Liberty: A Transatlantic Story. He says Lady Liberty is the perfect example of that shifting symbolism. The Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Holocaust Memorial—these all signify people or events. But the Statue of Liberty? Fluid symbolism is ingrained in her history. Today we think of her as a welcoming sign for immigrants. But that’s not what she was built to represent. (0:30)

 

BERENSON 1: The first meaning was to commemorate the abolition of slavery. And in fact the first sketches of the Statue of Liberty had her holding broken chains in one hand. (0:11)

 

SCHWAB 5: Berenson says people didn’t associate the statue with immigration until floods of Europeans came to America in the 1880s. And back then, the statue wasn’t depicted by artists as the uplifting icon that we know now. (0:16)

 

BERENSON 2: You have all kinds of political cartoons where you see the Statue of Liberty holding her nose and hiking up her skirt because the garbage of Europe was being dumped at her feet. The garbage of Europe, of course, being human beings who were immigrants. (0:15)

 

SCHWAB 6: Lady Liberty didn’t become a welcoming sign for immigrants until the start of the 20th century. Emma Lazurus’ famous poem, the one that reads “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” It was inspired by her own Jewish heritage. And thanks to the immigrant-friendly sentiment of the times it was added to the statue’s base—17 years after the Statue of Liberty’s unveiling. Steve Brodner, who has been sketching political cartoons for publications like The Nation, The L.A. Times and The Washington Post for 45 years, says yes, Lady Liberty’s symbolism is fluid. But that’s not the only reason we’re drawn to her. (0:39)

 

BRODNER 1: She’s a human being, a character, you know. You can look into her eyes. That has a kind of remarkable power. (0:08)

SCHWAB 7: Brodner says people connect with Lady Liberty more than symbols like the bald eagle or the stars and stripes because she is human. Artists can give her expression and movement. And he says those tangible qualities help us dissect and communicate heady political issues. (0:17)

 

BRODNER 2: That’s what we do when we look for symbols we try to find a way to make human, make flesh an idea. It’s a good thing in that you can start the conversation. (0:13)

 

SCHWAB 8: Back at the ferry landing, Chelsea Tracy, 28, is visiting from Detroit. The Statue of Liberty is a must on her list of sights to see. Tracy doesn’t agree with President Trump’s recent ban on immigrants and refugees. (0:14)

 

TRACY 1: Everyone has a chance to have that freedom to come to this country to get another start and to live your American dream. That’s what it’s here for.
SCHWAB 1: Do you think what’s happening now politically changes how you look at the statue?
TRACY 2: For me it does. It makes me wanting to see it again and get that boost of remember this. This is a sign, a symbol, of what we were supposed to stand for. (0:26)

 

SCHWAB 9: For Tracy, what was once a symbol of opportunity is now a symbol of hope. Kristin Schwab, Columbia Radio News. (0:08)

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