What Trump Doesn't Get about the Statue of Liberty

It's a monument to slavery’s end and the rise of a liberal democracy.

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I’m late to this, so you’ve seen already plenty of commentary about Ken Cuccinelli’s rewrite of the poem etched on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

The government’s top immigration official said last week that Emma Lazarus’s famed lines about “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” were not about immigrants the world over but instead white Europeans “who can stand on their own two feet.”

Editor’s note

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This, naturally, set off salvos of outrage, not least because the government policy Cuccinelli was announcing was proof that Donald Trump’s real goal is policing authorized immigrants, not just unauthorized ones. I’m not going to add to the pile. Instead, I see this as a movement to talk about history and about American democracy, but especially what the Statue of Liberty was originally intended to memorialize. 

The man who came up with the idea of the Statue of Liberty was Edouard de Laboulaye. He was one of the most prominent French liberals of his time (1811-1883), in large part because of the setting in which he was working: the tyrannical regime of Napoleon Bonaparte III. The nephew of the original Napoleon, Bonapart III rose to supreme power in the bloody aftermath of the French Revolution. His government was something new at the time, but familiar to us today. It was a collectivist police state, authoritarian but democratic. Worse, to liberals like Laboulaye, it was also popular

To French liberals, the US Civil War proved something they had faith in but had never seen.

To Laboulaye and other liberals, Bonaparte’s dictatorship illustrated a fundamental flaw in democracy—its tendency toward despotism. While he suppressed dissent and jailed rivals, the emperor subsidized bread, funded festivals, and provided tax credits for housing. To Laboulaye, the problem wasn’t so much about democracy (liberals had come to terms with it). The problem, or rather the question, was how to liberalize it. 

What did that mean?

Liberal democracy called for representative government balanced with individual freedoms, specifically the right to speech, press, assembly and religion. But Laboulaye and his network of associates were not laissez faire liberals. They were republican liberals (with a small “r”). Rights and freedoms were never for their own sake. They were primarily instruments by which the people of a nation morally improved themselves and their communities. “To improve himself, even at the cost of suffering,” Laboulaye wrote, is how to fight greed and corruption, and ultimately liberalize democracy.

For a model, they looked to the US and Abraham Lincoln (among others). From the point of view of French liberals living in an authoritarian regime, the 16th American president seemed an ideal leader. This admiration was rooted deeply in his abolitionism. Liberals hated slavery. They were flummoxed by a nation founded on equal parts human dignity and human bondage. With Lincoln, the liberals saw a leader who could prove their argument—that liberal democracy possible as well as inevitable.

“Could Americans dedicate themselves to such a noble ideal as the abolition of slavery and pursue it to end?” wrote the peerless Helena Rosenblatt in The Lost History of Liberalism, from which I am drawing all this history. “Were they capable of sustained courage, patriotism, and self-sacrifice. Through his inspired leadership, Lincoln proved that they could. Under the right leadership, a liberal democracy was possible.”

To liberals, the American Civil War proved something that they had faith in but had never seen—greed, stupidity, decadence, and moral decay being overcome in order to build “the most inspiring and most promising idea of modern Christian civilization—the true brotherhood of man,” wrote American liberal Charles Eliot Norton in 1865, the year the war ended. “That same year,” Rosenblatt wrote in her book, “Laboulaye conceived the idea of a monument to the United States—the Statue of Liberty.”

The meanings of monuments change over time. The Statue of Liberty has come to symbolize the United States as a beacon of hope to the world’s persecuted and poor. That alone is reason for outrage over Ken Cuccinelli’s rewrite of Lazarus’ poem. 

But as we face a 21st-century variation of Bonapartism, it’s good to remember what Laboulaye intended to celebrate—slavery’s end and the rise of liberal democracy.

—John Stoehr

White Envy of Black Patriotism

Reaction to 1619 Project reveals love of country built on sand.

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You may know about the Times’ 1619 Project, a major endeavor published last weekend to reframe the citizenry’s understanding of the role of slavery in the founding of America. You may also know about the white conservative reaction to the project. Perhaps the most fascinating take came from the Cato Institute’s Ilya Shapiro

A project intended to delegitimize mankind’s grandest, experiment in human liberty & self-governance is divisive, yes. I know it’s unwoke of me to say so, but so be it. I’ll take reality, warts and all, over grievance-mongering.

I’m not going to defend the Times, because I think the scholarship, commentary and reporting speak for themselves. (I will single out for praise, though, Kurt Streeter’s piece about the NBA’s very slow evolution into a black business enterprise.) I’m not going to critique the white conservative reaction either. That, too, speaks for itself

Editor’s note

Hiya! Today’s edition goes out to everyone. But please, pretty please, if you can afford to, subscribe ($6/mo.) and support my work! Just click on the red button. Many thanks! —JS

I do want to point out what these white conservatives (all men, of course) who are expressing anger with the 1619 Project are saying: they love their country. But their love seems provisional to me, like it depends on clear terms and conditions that if unmet will trigger some kind of escape clause. Love, when real, doesn’t work that way.

Moreover, they seem unwilling to recognize the deep abiding patriotism of black Americans. Love, when real, is unconditional. It can endure anything. But these men can’t endure even the truth. Maybe they’re less upset about the 1619 Project than they are about the probability that black Americans love America better than they do.

Take Shapiro’s claim that the Times, in speaking the truth about slavery, and in saying that the African-American experience is central to comprehending America, is an effort to “delegitimize” the US. That’s so interesting. I mean, it’s false. In no way does a country’s history delegitimize it. That’s just silly, and Shapiro should know better.

I also mean that nothing in the 1619 Project says America is not “mankind’s grandest, experiment in human liberty & self-governance.” It does say that that was true in the beginning only for property-owning (rich) white Protestant men. It does say that the country was built on the perverse paradox of human equality and liberty as well as human bondage. It does say that slavery, as well as the racism that justified it, have continued to shape our ways of thinking. Only with time has America come closer to “mankind’s grandest, experiment in human liberty & self-governance.” 

The fact that America is an ongoing experiment, not a state of being perfected at the beginning, is lost on some conservatives. And because it’s lost, they can’t and won’t tolerate the truth. Because they can’t and won’t tolerate the truth, they search for other motives for truth-telling, malevolent motives that are cynically political, having nothing to do with the altruism of correcting an error in our understanding of our history. 

That wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t so sad.

America is an ongoing experiment, not a state of being perfected at the beginning.

Again, these white conservative men profess love for America, but when pressed, it’s clear they don’t love their country. Not as it was. Not as it is. Not as it may be in the future. And not when the truth does not satisfy clear terms and conditions. They love something else, something unreal. And that’s what’s really being delegitimized—an infatuation with a myth, a fable, a tall-tale that makes them feel oh-so-good. 

And even that wouldn’t be so bad if clinging to the myth of America, rather than the fact of it, did not also deny the deep abiding love felt by the people who fought so hard and died so much to be thought of as real Americans. As Adam Serwer said, in a different context, a peculiar irony of our history is that “the American creed has no more devoted adherents than those who have been historically denied its promises, and no more fair-weather friends than those who have taken them for granted.”

I’m not suggesting Shapiro and others are taking the American creed for granted. But I am suggesting their patriotism is built on sand. And perhaps they well know it. Indeed, it would be hard not to when compared to black Americans treated so badly and for so long in this country, and who still love America, and make it better. 

—John Stoehr

'He's so insecure'

You hear it all the time.

“He acts that way because he’s insecure.”

Take guns, for instance.

He bought a gun because he feels insecure. He acted out because he feels insecure. He did terrible things to others because he feels insecure. So if he felt more secure, he wouldn’t do that?

I’ve always felt this has things backwards. Genuinely insecure people do not act violently. People secure in the belief that they are entitled to act violently, however—well, there’s your problem.

Arrogance explains violence or violent outbursts much better than “insecurity.” In other words, let’s be careful about what we mean when we say violent men are “insecure.” As Alessandra Tanesini put it:

It is precisely because deep down those who are arrogant know that they are not superior or uniquely authoritative that they feel the need aggressively to defend their fragile status by bullying other people. Hence, the arrogant are often engaged in elaborate rationalisations. They constantly need to feed their egos, in order to suppress the suspicion that they might not be that special after all.


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