They sent their republican heroes and friends a statue of monstrous proportions. It was assembled twice, once in Paris, then again upon arrival in New York, where it first lay in sections under giant sheds along the shoreline. People would come to be photographed (an expensive luxury at the time) standing stiffly next to a hand, an arm, the head or the famous torch. It wasn’t easy getting the enormous pedestal financed. After all, a pedestal is the least romantic part of a work of art. Mr Pulitzer needed to appeal to his compatriots’ “fundamental” values as well as their deep pockets before the massive foundation of the statue was ready to receive M. Eiffel’s skeleton and M. Bartholdi’s gleaming copper skin. Same years before the largest waves of immigrants and the creation of the processing site on Ellis Island to receive them, the statue was already a powerful symbol of what those new arrivals needed so desperately to believe: “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.”
Lady Liberty was almost universally well received at the time of her construction and is now accepted generally as the very logo and symbol of all that is, or at least should be, American. But the dream of liberty, of breathing free, has always had a dirty downside. It implies free market liberalism and a greater freedom from taxes and tariffs. Though in itself perhaps honourable, and understandable, given the structural history of their European homelands, this economic dream of the new migrants opened the door wide to a brutal form of capitalist exploitation, in its essence harsher, deeper and more successful (because self-perpetuating) than anything enacted by ancient feudal lords, absolute monarchs or those who had most stood to gain from slavery.
The American dream is its own nightmare, naturally benefitting the possessor of two pence over the possessor of a penny, permitting by default the extension of his liberty into your pocket and hampering by default your ability to extend your own liberty into his pocket. There is a political reason for this crass lack of equality before the laws of economics. A significant element of American republicanism was the idea of classless access to power. But access to power has to be regulated in some way, otherwise institutions become overrun with pleas and plaintiffs, as Dickens and de Tocqueville had both observed in their time. Money became the most obvious, most democratically republican of gatekeepers.
Since neither blood nor title (at least not ostensibly) could grant admission to the top table, money, or influence with those who had it, become the natural regulator of access, the sesame oil of political leverage. This single and most characteristic truth of American libertarianism, its incestuous marriage to that nation’s political structure, has shaped the history of policy ever since. From the early 20th Century to the present day, this relationship, this power-defining machinery, from lobbying to campaign funding, has expanded unceasingly the yawning gap between the disgustingly wealthy and the broad mass of working and middle class people. The republican ideal of classless access has culminated in the creation and automatic reproduction of a system under which the most flagrant badge of class, wealth, becomes the sole defining value of influence and its prime vector.
But it’s important to put even this into context. The mould of have and have not had already been cast. Men had, women had not. White men had, black men had not. Anglo Europeans had, Italians, Irish and Romanians had not. Lady Liberty and the wives of Eiffel and Bartholdi were the only women allowed to attend the inauguration of the statue in 1886. Not even Emma Lazarus, author of the lines quoted above, was permitted to be present as the colossus of New York was dedicated. And The Cleveland Gazette
, a predominantly African-American newspaper wrote scornfully:
"Liberty enlightening the world," indeed! The expression makes us sick. This government is a howling farce. It cannot or rather does not protect its citizens within its own borders. Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the "liberty" of this country is such as to make it possible for an inoffensive and industrious coloured man to earn a respectable living for himself and family, without being ku-kluxed, perhaps murdered, his daughter and wife outraged, and his property destroyed. The idea of the "liberty" of this country "enlightening the world," or even Patagonia, is ridiculous in the extreme.
By the second half of the 19th Century, the Land of the Free was already a land in which you were free to sink or swim, but not free to climb on board the ship of state. That boat had sailed and was smoking off into the blue distance with its contented inventory of millionaires and billionaires. The remaining flotsam was left to cope as it could. The situation has only got worse, never better, since then. Even the rise of the middle class, mass production and the New Deal have not diminished the steadily growing gap between the average Joe and the well to do, nor between them and the obscenely wealthy. Rightly has the freshly elected mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, chosen to address his constituents from Brooklyn, rather than Manhattan. Rightly has he referred to a “tale of two cities”. Rightly has he said that NYC has had its mayor for the rich for twelve years, now it’s the turn of the rest. But also, he quite rightly pointed out that such changes as he envisions may take a long time, as their causes are deep-rooted. This is politico-speak for “don’t hold your breath”. He knows that nothing other than the purely cosmetic is going to happen. He understands who his real constituents are. They are the same for either party. Their pockets are deep enough to back both horses in any race, anywhere.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, France, the Great Republic, has outgrown its revolution and sobered into a welfare state nation of typically European profile. While US millionaires and billionaires grow wealthier by the hour, while the top percentile in that country holds more wealth than a majority of US citizens think
the top 20% have, in France the picture is different. Because years of socialist and even communist regional governments in the last 60 years have radically altered the economic landscape of a nation that was already shaken by revolution and stirred by war upon war. France is haemorrhaging millionaires. They are leaving a ship they believe to be sinking in a sea of socialism where the have nots are buttered up between elections, fattened on state largesse paid for by overworked plutocrats who never get a break (not even for coffee) from the merciless exploitation of a heartless bureaucracy bent on driving them into destitution or exile. To hear them bleat, you would think the nation of Voltaire was now run by Robin Hood.
How is it possible, you might ask, that millionaires are fleeing France for fear of being down-graded from super-rich to merely wealthy, while in the US, the top 1% now have 40% of the nation’s wealth, substantially more than the next 9% and substantially more than their share even a decade and a half ago in the greedy nineties and noughties? This phenomenal pile of cash, so great that no one could conceivably spend it in a dozen lifetimes, contrasts with a middle class (historically the nation’s PRIMARY SOURCE of economic growth
) that is finding it year by year harder to make ends meet. Indeed, the situation is so grave, that according to a chart of wealth distribution based on Internal Revenue figures for 2011 and 2012 and drawn up by the socially critical website motherjones.com
, a vast 80% of Americans currently own a mere 7% of their nation’s wealth! If you then add the 40% owned by the top 1% of ultra-rich I just mentioned, you are left with a wealthy and super-rich bracket of 19% who can divvy up the remaining 53% of wealth between them as inequitably as they like and still be stunningly over-endowed with cash. If Robin Hood has taken over France, surely Gargantua and Pantagruel have taken over America.
The lack of love between these two formerly friendly nations, which came to a head when the one intelligently declined to follow the other into a bitter and endless conflict in a part of the world the French understand and the Americans do not, has little to do with cheese and fries and everything to do with philosophy of governance. The French actually practice the idea of government of the people by the people and even for the people (as long as the people we’re referring to can be expected to vote the government back in again), whereas the US only recommends this concept as something that ought to appeal to others more benighted than themselves. They have not personally tested it in well over a century. Observation of congressional voting records for the last three US administrations shows that, Democrat and Republican Senators and Congressmen alike consistently
vote in the interest of their wealthiest
constituents, hardly ever in the interest of the middle class and never, yes, you read that correctly, NEVER solely in the interest of the poor.
If the French of the 1880s had filled their Trojan statue with armed revolutionaries, huddled in there and yearning to breath free, things might have turned out better for the wretched refuse of other teeming shores who have since spent their lives, generation after generation, building America with the strength of their backs, only to have it stolen from them, dollar by dollar, dime by and dime, at the voting booth … the one place they thought they were all equal.
Maybe those poor, harassed French millionaires will find a sympathetic ear on Ellis Island. They can but try. It’s an immigrant nation after all, or so I’m told.
1. The Cleveland Gazette
, 27 November 1886.
© Edwin Drood
, November 2013
Illustration: A boy and his parents view the Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island, circa 1930.
Source: Library of Congress