I don’t like the thing. I hate what it stands for, and I respect the givers even less than I respect the gift. Most of the problems we face today can be traced to the Statue of Liberty. If we’d just send it back to the French, crime in the streets would disappear, we’d have a surplus in the federal treasury, and teenage pregnancies would be a thing of the past.
But instead of behaving in a sensible fashion we’re going to replace the torch and reinforce the joints and stress points. After we’ve finished the job the strengthened structure will probably last another hundred years. By then, however, the survivors of our civilization will be living under bridges like trolls, clubbing everybody who wants to cross the river, free at last, free at last.
My chief objection to the Statue is not to its vulgarity (its ersatz classical pretension) nor to the pietistic doggeral associated with it. Bad art has its uses. There’s something to be said for spray-paint crucifixions on imitation suede; they may provide solace for good, kind souls despite their tastelessness.
The problem with the Statue is the fact that it is an idol, and not in the broadest sense, but indeed the kind of idol that the Israelites were warned against by a more hard-headed God than the one we believe in today. It is a man-made figure which represents a people’s “ultimate commitment,” their highest good — wrought in metal and erected as a holy shrine for all to see. It stands at the doorway of America like a Roman household god.
The Statue was given to this country by The French, a people who since the eighteenth century have been confused and rendered impotentby ideology. From the day they guillotined their king they have been a divided nation, head severed from body, their intellectuals tyrannizing their fine, pious peasants until these too have begun to succumb to a pagan rationalism. As a result of this division between heart and head Hitler rolled across the French countryside in less than two weeks, found his traitors to rule, and had very little trouble controlling the subjugated nation. Winston Churchill — the clear-headed, clear-hearted embodiment of England—begged the French to fight on, and when he could not prevail he told them between clenched teeth that his own people would never surrender, “Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.” And all this Gallic faint-heartedness despite the fact that Liberte is the First Person in the modem French Trinity.
Most of what is bad in the American Founding can be traced to the influence of the French Enlightenment, and the trouble we find ourselves in today can in turn be attributed to flaws in the Founding. Our early official commitment to God is a little too vague, our commitment to the idea of freedom too dreamy and categorical.
Freedom, to be sure, is essential to the good life, as God suggested in making man ‘ ‘free to fall. ” You cannot, after all, make a moral choice if the option for immorality is not real and present. Likewise no society can be good unless it is free, since without the unbridled assent of the corporate will all programs, however beneficial, are finally mechanical and perfunctory, like acts performed in a behavioral science laboratory.
Yet we must never forget that while freedom is the necessary precondition of all moral choices, the greatest liberty lies in absolute subservience to the will of God, and that those who disobey God’s will ultimately find themselves ruled by a tyranny greater than any they could have dreamed up themselves. Notice, for example, the Supreme Court of the United States in the name of Liberty, imposing new strictures on religious worship with each new ruling. Soon we will be so free that it will be illegal to pray in a supermarket parking lot, while it will be perfectly permissible to have sexual intercourse there, since to forbid such activity would be a violation of the First Amendment. In the America of 1984 such a decision would be informed by a kind of mad logic.
For it is in the name of Liberty, after all, that Americans are bringing millions of illegitimate children into the world, flooding the marketplace with obscenity and overturning most of the nation’s laws designed to make unruly people behave. The truth is we no longer believe we have to conform to statutes that we find repugnant or even inconvenient. In fact, our young people keep telling us that if another war is fought they simply won’t go, not even to protect the freedom that they are so much in the habit of exercising. Unless we come to terms with those sightless eyes staring across New York harbor, we won’t be around much longer as a nation.
As for me, I’d just as soon let the elements do her in as a reminder of the absolute monarchy of time, but there is an alternative solution, that might be even better: If we could just get rid of the flamboyant torch, restructure her so that she had legs, and put her down on her knees then we’d have a more appropriate reminder of where freedom really comes from and how it should behave.
This article was originally published in the 1984 Summer issue of Southern Partisan magazine.