Friday, December 23, 2011

Beacon vs. Sentinel

One of the greatest bellwethers of our nation stands over 300 feet over New York Harbor. Right now, no one is allowed inside the Statue of Liberty (or Liberty Enlightening the World, to call the piece by its official name) as she is undergoing her third refurbishing period in her 120 year existence, but normally over 3 million people visit Lady Liberty every year.

The statue was originally intended to be seen as a joint symbol of the French and American pursuits of democracy, but that was all changed by a poem submitted by Emma Lazarus for an arts fundraiser for the building of the statue's pedestal (the US was responsible for the base while France funded and built the statue) in 1883.  The poem, "The New Colossus", promptly disappeared from history until it was discovered again and re-published in 1903 by a friend of Lazarus. In it are the now-popular lines:

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "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-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Because of the words above, as well as it being one of the first distinctly American sights people would see on their way to Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty now represented a welcome for immigrants to the Land of Opportunity. As its hammered copper gleamed across the waters, it was seen as a beacon of Hope, an icon of Potential: however transient these ideals may have been to the international masses just stepping off the boat into the maw of one of the world's busiest, and most ruthless, cities.

Fast forward to today, the Statue is still a symbol for how we see ourselves as a nation, and how we present ourselves to to the rest of the world. Given the fractious upheavals that rippled through our society in the second half of last century and the beginning of the current one, what have we done to this lightening rod of our self-consciousness? Why, beat the snot out of it, of course.

Perhaps the most memorable abuse of the Statue of Liberty comes at the hands of the makers of the 1968 release Planet of the Apes. If one sees the film, the image of Charlton Heston staggering to his knees in front of the head and arm of the Statue of Liberty emerging from the beach serves as an indictment of the immediate threat of nuclear holocaust. In 1981, John Carpenter decapitated the statue and placed its head behind Snake Plissken for one of my favorite movie posters of all time: Escape from New York. In this movie, the Statue of Liberty represents the degradation of a once great society and the triumph of chaos over cosmos ("order" in Greek, the opposite of chaos). Hollywood did not stop there, 1998's Deep Impact and the 2008 Cloverfield, both depict the destruction of Lady Liberty as a reminder that there may be forces at play in this universe that are larger than our lowly human society.

While the Statue of Liberty still stands as a reminder of some of the best ideals that our nation is based on like integration, the pursuit of happiness, and freedom, it has now acquired an added patina of watchfulness, caution, and the importance of self-awareness.

Can anyone think of other images of our society that have changed in meaning through the years?

PS. I wish all of our PES readers warm hearths and giving hearts this holiday season. Happy Hanukkah and/or Merry Christmas!

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