As we have heard for the last couple of weeks, financial straits are dire for our friends in Europe. Plagued by years of fiscal mismanagement and overspending, Greece essentially went bankrupt. Portugal has seen its sovereign bond rating fall by two levels, from A-plus to A-minus. Other European states such as Ireland, Spain, and Italy also face similar problems. The net result has been a dramatic loss of confidence in the Euro and the possibility of massive bailouts organized by the European Union. Yet in the face of this situation, the United States continues to spend profligately as if there are no consequences. Former Federal Reserve Chairman and current Obama economic advisor Paul Volcker recommends that we institute a “Value-Added Tax” on goods and services, just like they have in Europe. Many who supported the health care overhaul based their support on the alleged wonders of Europe – New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman went so far as to say this:
Europe is often held up as a cautionary tale, a demonstration that if you try to make the economy less brutal, to take better care of your fellow citizens when they’re down on their luck, you end up killing economic progress. But what European experience actually demonstrates is the opposite: social justice and progress can go hand in hand.
So is Europe a model to follow or a “cautionary tale?”
* * *
In New York Harbor, there stands a statue. Its name is “Liberty Enlightening the World,” better known today by its colloquial name – the Statue of Liberty. Almost everyone has seen at least a picture of this world-famous structure. But how many of you have ever really looked at it and the symbols it contains?
The statue is, of course, a woman. Her image was meant to evoke the Roman goddess Libertas who, for the Romans, was the embodiment of freedom. In her left hand, she holds a keystone, a symbol of knowledge, marked with the date “July 4, 1776.” In her right, she elevates a golden torch above her head. Her head itself is crowned with a seven-rayed crown, meant to evoke the image of Helios, the Roman god of the Sun. Lady Liberty does not stand still like a sentry in the harbor – her right foot is raised as if advancing forward. Beneath her left foot lie the broken chains and shackles of the old continent from whence she came – Europe.
What are the chains and shackles of Europe upon which she tramples? They are many – they are the shackles of government telling people which god or gods they may or may not worship, of a class and social structure so suffocating that those who were not born in the right place or time had little chance of success, of politicians (and formerly kings and queens) who think they know how to run peoples’ lives better than they can run themselves. They are the chains of stifling taxation, constant warfare, colonial domination, and all of the other problems that have plagued Europe for centuries. Lady Liberty advances, torch held high, away from the trappings of the old continent and leaves Europe’s problems beneath her feet. The symbolism would, perhaps, be even greater were the Statue facing westward, away from Europe. Alas, that would not give as good a view from the harbor.
In 1903, a poem was affixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The poem, called “The New Colossus” and written by Emma Lazarus, is one of my favorites:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“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!”
Like the statue itself, the poem is rife with symbolic meaning.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land . . . .” The very first line of Lazarus’s poem indicates a firm break with Europe. The “brazen giant of Greek fame” refers to the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world which once stood in Greece. Unlike the Greek version, our Colossus was not “brazen” and “conquering” from “land to land,” but was a “mighty woman” called the “Mother of Exiles.” Our Colossus “glow[ed] world wide welcome” with her “mild eyes.” The symbolism is clear – this is not Europe we are talking about.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips. Yet another clear symbol of our break with Europe. Our Colossus looks squarely at the shortcomings of Europe and says “no thanks.” Through the eyes of Lady Liberty, this country says “no” to everything that haunted Europe then and, in large part, still does today – the lack of true religious freedom and free speech, an overreaching government that tries to command all people about all things, a social system that operated more like a caste system. Europe can keep their “storied pomp” and all the baggage that goes with it.
But what do we welcome from the old continent? “Bring 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.” We didn’t want the “pomp” that Europe thought made it great. We wanted, instead, the poor, the tired, and the homeless as long as they yearned for the things that Lady Liberty symbolized.
Have you ever taken the time the really consider this language? At the time this poem was affixed to the Statue of Liberty, in 1903, Europe was the undisputed center of the world. Great Britain was the world’s foremost economic and military power and had no rival. And here was the United States – an upstart – telling Europe that we wanted no part of Europe’s alleged “greatness” and would instead take Europe’s rejects – the people that Europe believed were unworthy to play a role in its own great “success” story. We threw down the gauntlet to the greatest power in the world and told them we would take their wretched refuse and then far surpass their greatness. Europe’s high society must have found this challenge humorous. But in 1945, when a shattered Europe became fully dependent on the United States for even basic necessities, the United States surpassed Europe and never looked back.
An amazing thing happened here – this country took Europe’s worst and allowed them to become the world’s best. How did this happen? Because Lady Liberty kept her foot squarely on those chains and shackles. In this country, every person was free to chase his or her dreams, to speak his or her mind, to worship in whatever way he or she chose, and to work and keep the fruits of his or her labor. In other words, the government stepped aside and allowed the wretched refuse of Europe to become the world leaders of tomorrow in every possible way. The federal government needs to do the same today. It didn’t make us great. It, to its credit, allowed a country made up of the tired, the poor, and the wretched refuse from around the world to be great. What a wonderful story. It demonstrates conclusively that people can accomplish great things when they are left alone to do so.
For many decades, Lady Liberty has confidently led the way away from Europe, from its problems and its failings. With the chains and shackles of Europe underfoot, we, as a people, rejected Europe’s “storied pomp” and forged our own path. When people today suggest that we adopt the ideas and ways of Europe from its taxes to its spending habits and social programs, they suggest taking away Lady Liberty’s compass. And if she cannot tell which way she is going, how can liberty continue to enlighten the world?
Andy Quesnelle spent most of his early childhood in Cincinnati, Ohio and moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1992. He has lived in Pittsburgh ever since, except for the 7-year period during which he was in college and law school. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 2003 with a B.A. in History and Political Science. His primary areas of concentration were Colonial American History, 20th Century U.S. History, and American politics and government. He received his J.D. from Villanova University School of Law in 2006.
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