The Statue of Liberty

I’m typing this on an airplane flying from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to Orlando, about 45 minutes from where I live in Central Florida. I had a wonderful time in New York – so good, in fact, that I can’t pick one event and call it the highlight.

My first priority on this trip was to see a performance of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering. A secondary one was to check off yet another item on my gotta-go list of New York attractions. That one I chose this year didn’t quite get done, for a happy reason: There was so much to see at Ellis Island (former immigration station for New York) that I’ll have to go back.

Small groups of people are permitted to don hardhats and visit the decaying buildings that comprised the immigration hospital at Ellis Island. I was one of the lucky few yesterday, and it was an amazing glimpse at what our forebears went through to enter this country – and the services that were provided for them. My grandparents came through Ellis Island, and I wish – I wish – I knew what that experience had been like for them. (Everybody: Please write your memoirs. Don’t worry about punctuation or organization, and don’t try to write a besteller. Just write them down.)

But today’s real topic is the Statue of Liberty, which we passed on the ferry that took us to Ellis Island. I’ve been to Liberty Island several times to make the wobbly-legged walk up the spiraling stairs to the Crown on Lady Liberty’s head.

Her real name is Liberty Enlightening the World. She was a gift from France honoring the friendship between our countries and America’s commitment to freedom. The French, having endured their own bloody struggle for liberty, were impressed by America’s determination to allow ideas – all ideas, including the scary ones – to circulate freely. It’s still a strongly held value: No matter how bone-headed your thoughts are, no one can stop you from expressing them.

There’s a nice tie-in here with my previous post on dissemination, but I’m going to swerve in a direction you might not be expecting. Instead of talking about the importance of free speech, I want to use the Statue of Liberty as an example of Derrida’s ideas about dissemination.

As I pointed out in that earlier post, you can’t control what happens to a message once you start disseminating it. It can be misunderstood or misquoted. It might be mistranslated, shortened, or lengthened. It can fall into the wrong hands. There’s no way to predict the journey a message will take once you open your hands and allow it to fly away.

The Statue of Liberty is a perfect example of the unpredictable nature of dissemination. In 1886, when Liberty Enlightening the World was dedicated in New York Harbor, it bore an intellectual messsage: Lady Liberty’s torch symbolized the quest for wisdom.

But the immigrants who passed by that statue as they made their way to Ellis Island saw something different:  A loving mother whose torch lit the way to the Golden Door. In 1903, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus was inscribed on the statue’s pedestal:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Within a few years the statue’s meaning changed yet again: Her image was emblazoned on war bonds and patriotic posters to inspire Americans to fight a treacherous enemy in two world wars.

Could her meaning change again? Of course. There’s no telling what thoughts and feelings she will inspire 100 years from now – or 50, or 10.

The same holds true for our own messages. No matter how clearly you think you stated it (think of Auguste Bartholdi and  the years he spent designing and sculpting his famous statue), there’s no telling what message will be conveyed to those who behold it. Such are the marvels – and frustrations – of our wonderful language.4066553303_dd5401d1a0_o


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