Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Our statue

When Mom was growing up on 71st Street in Bay Ridge -- and years later when I was growing up in the same house -- the Statue of Liberty was an unchanging part of the backdrop of our everyday lives.

Our house was located just to the left of the "W" on the compass of this map:

From the shore, a block and a half from our house, if it wasn't too smoggy, you could see the statue in the distant northwest. Knowing it was there made it a constant presence: when we watched the big ships coming and going through the Narrows during World War Two, and later in the 1940s when we'd hop the black wrought-iron fence and play ball in the park bordering the Belt Parkway and the Narrows. And on steaming-hot summer days or evenings, we could walk over to 69th (Bay Ridge Avenue) and take the ferry to Staten Island, just for the breezes. (Fare: one nickel.) Then we'd get a good view of the statue, smog or no smog.

If the two family photos below had been taken using super-extra-wide-angle lenses (a magnifying glass would also come in handy) you'd see the statue way out there in the harbor.

Here's Mom in 1933 at the 69th Street ferry pier:

And here I am in 1947, in the long, narrow park along the shore:

We kids took pride in our proximity to the Statue of Liberty; it was one of the niftier features of the neighborhood -- a bragging-point. Of course our ability to see the statue, however faintly, from the shore (on a smog-free day) didn't make it our statue, any more than Sarah Palin's ability to see Russia from her house makes her an expert on foreign policy. In our defense, though, we were eight years old at the time, and not one of us was a candidate for Vice-President of the United States.

The special relationship we felt we had with the statue didn't depend on proximity alone; it was based on what we were taught in school. Unlike my Democratic parents, the teachers at P.S. 102 were Republicans to the core (not surprising in Republican Bay Ridge) and they made no secret of it. But when it came to the statue, politics didn't matter; we were all of one mind. My fourth-grade teacher, Miss Hannigan, used to remind us how lucky we were to live within sight of this welcoming American icon. She used to recite, in reverent, hushed tones, the Emma Lazarus sonnet engraved on a tablet within the pedestal.

I remember Miss H telling us that we're all immigrants in this country, that immigration is a source of strength for America, and that the statue represents hope for a better life.

I've been to Liberty Island twice, once just after the war (we couldn't go all the way to the top of the statue; the upraised arm was closed for repairs) and again, memorably, almost twenty years ago, a combined visit to the statue and the newly renovated Ellis Island Immigration Museum.

So naturally I thought I knew something about Miss Liberty and what she stands for -- that is, until recently when Sarah Palin blew in from Alaska, and Glenn Beck arrived from whatever planet he calls home, to set me straight.

Beck has had a lot to say about the statue lately. In his alternate universe, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi's creation isn't about welcoming immigrants at all. (How can it be, given Beck's views on immigration?) The statue, he informs us, is actually an angry statement of defiance. "We have so misunderstood the Statue of Liberty," he says. "You think that it's a protection of those 'poor, tired [sic], huddled masses'? Let me tell you the truth about the Statue of Liberty... The French were actually using us... It was actually a slap in the face to the old world..." (Those perfidious French; even when they give us a gift, they're using us!)

Beck also has unorthodox views on the sonnet by Emma Lazarus. He says it must never be recited in hushed tones; that's because it's so angry. He proceeds to justify his novel interpretation by reciting it very loudly and very angrily. The whole performance is readily available on YouTube for viewing by anyone willing to take the punishment. Back in P.S. 102, the staunchly Republican Miss Hannigan would not have been pleased with eight-year-old Glenn or his bilious reading of the poem.

Then Sarah Palin arrived on the scene, in the course of her bus tour of national landmarks. Summoning all the eloquence at her command, the ex-half-term governor said: This Statue of Liberty was gifted to us by foreign leaders, really as a warning to us, it was a warning to us to stay unique and to stay exceptional from other countries. Certainly not to go down the path of other countries that adopted socialist policies... It’s also a “warning” of sorts, as France encouraged us to keep democracy alive as the recipient of this gift… basically telling us not to blow it!"

In Palinland, the mother of exiles with mild eyes is no welcoming figure; she's actually a massive policewoman. That upraised torch? Not a beacon of hope but an enforcer's flashlight, strip-searching all newcomers for alien ideas.

And what of all those pictures of excited immigrants of yesteryear seeing the statue for the first time? What are they looking so happy about? They should be cowering in fear. The Great Warning looms ahead in the harbor, flashlight in hand, admonishing them with silent lips: Don't blow it.

As I re-listen to Palin's exegesis on the statue, my thoughts wander back again to fourth grade. I can hear the staunchly Republican Miss Hannigan saying, "Sarah, stand up and tell the class what the Statue of Liberty means to you." I guarantee, if Miss H had gotten a response remotely similar to Palin's, she'd have interrupted with great annoyance and said, "Sit down, Sarah. Doris, can you do any better?"

1 comment: