In the United States, our annual holiday celebration of freedom has come and gone. This year, it was a holiday of mixed emotions: a celebration of the survival of our democracy tinged with anxious awareness that as much as a third of the population supports a conspiracy to overturn it; a celebration of release from pandemic lockdown muted with grief over those who did not survive to celebrate it with us.
The imagination throws up myths, that is, symbolic images and narratives awakened by human primary concerns, and freedom is one of the primary concerns, universal beyond all cultural relativism, as defined by the critic Northrop Frye. Not to mention the words of the Declaration of Independence, ratified on July 4, 1776, saying that “all men are created equal,” even if the true myth of progress in this country has been one of expanding that statement, already radical in its time, beyond the limits of gender, race, and social class that the Founding Fathers left in place. The Statue of Liberty is a striking example of the power of the mythmaking imagination in the modern world.
It began around 1870 as an idea in the mind of a Frenchman, Édouard René Laboulaye, who was the president of the French Anti-Slavery Society, and the original conception included broken chains as an image of release from slavery. The tensions and tumults of Reconstruction, so parallel to our own, as Heather Cox Richardson’s Substack newsletter vividly illustrates week after week, caused a retreat from this imagery. What no one seems to have planned or expected was that the meaning of a 151 foot-tall statue was recreated (to use a word from The Productions of Time), transformed dramatically by a 14-line poem, a sonnet called “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus. Those who deny literature any role in the realm of history and power politics may pause to consider how one small poem, by re-defining an image that came to represent the identity of America itself, became a force for positive social change.
I doubt if Emma Lazarus herself predicted such a role for her poem. Writers, always put your work out there, despite your doubts about whether anyone will read it or care. Lazarus wrote the poem in 1883 as part of a fundraiser: who knew the Statue of Liberty had to be crowdsourced? But by 1903 it became so identified with the Statue that it was affixed to it on a plaque.
In “The New Colossus,” Lazarus, an immigration activist with a Sephardic Jewish background, is quite explicitly creating a modern, revisionist myth, by contrasting our new Colossus with the traditional one, the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The old Colossus was a representation of Helios, the sun god (one of several), erected in honor of a military victory. Here we have an example of the kind of ideologically appropriated mythological imagery described in the previous newsletter, with the symbolism of a higher order, both politically and religiously, associated with the heavens—the top of the vertical axis mundi—and in particular with the sun. But our new Colossus is a woman rather than an imperial male. She too is a light-bearer, but her torch of “imprisoned lightning” (which means it was electrically powered) is a beacon welcoming “Exiles.” As an Italian sonnet, the poem splits into octave and sestet, units of eight and six lines respectively, the sestet responding to the octave. Quotation marks indicate that the sestet in in fact a speech of Liberty, championing the “lower orders” rather than the power elite at the top. Many Americans know some of the lines by heart without ever having tried to memorize them. Liberty welcomes “your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore… / the homeless.”
In 2019, the Trump-appointed acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, revised those lines to read “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.” I will not name him, but it is easy to discover that he is of Italian and Irish ancestry. If he does not know American history, does he not know at least the history of his own forebears? As someone of Italian and Polish family background, I can tell you that it was our immigrant ancestors, barely a hundred years ago, who were the object of the same panicked, exclusionary anger. The derogatory nicknames—Dagos, Polacks, Micks—were shorthand for “loud, uncivilized, lazy, drunk, sometimes violent, do not belong here.” It is no accident that Lazarus’s poem was quoted in A Nation of Immigrants, by John Fitzgerald Kennedy, an Irish Catholic who became president, like Joseph Biden.
The acting director claimed, correctly, that the poem’s sentiments were not the original meaning of the statue anyway. But if it is easy enough to reject the revisionism of a minor poem, it is another thing to reject the much more radical revisionism of the greatest of Christ’s parables, that of the Good Samaritan. When Jesus said that we should love our neighbor as ourselves, he was asked, well, who is our neighbor? The answer is, the stranger who is lying in need by the roadside.
To call this revisionism is not just cleverness. Traditional ideology in many cultures confines the demand for altruism within the boundaries of family, tribe, or at most medium-sized social units such as city-states, duchies, principalities, of the sort eventually glued together to form the first nation-states on the verge of modern times. Empires and superpowers are able to sustain themselves only by collectivizing the consciousness of a mass population through charismatic dictatorship, ideological fanaticism, or both. But they are inherently unstable, and when they collapse, the old, smaller tribal, ethnic, and national units emerge immediately, together with a great deal of genocidal hatred, as we have witnessed repeatedly since the end of the Cold War.
Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene and elsewhere, claims there is an evolutionary reason for this. Altruism is necessary because species preservation has as much importance for evolution as self-preservation. But our altruistic feelings are limited to those who share some of our genetics, so that, if we die, the same genes may be passed on by kindred. Any attempt at universal altruism, then, goes against human nature, and is something of a tour de force. Traditional bonds of loyalty were modeled in the formula for sacrifice to the gods: “I give, so that you may give in return.” The kind of loyalty or love that makes sense to us is one based on a cost-benefit analysis. The question is, what do I get in return? Nowadays we may call it networking, or simply say that what goes around comes around. Even in relationships, the normal mode of love is Eros, based on desire and the hope of gratified desire: not just in erotic but in companionate love and friendship, we give expecting something in return. In this context, those who give without receiving are in fact neurotic, co-dependent.
The love exemplified by the Samaritan is not Eros but what the New Testament calls agape, translated by the King James as “charity,” but more clearly understood as empathy or compassion. And I think we should grant in conversations with conservatives about subjects like immigration that it is terrifying. We are all afraid of this kind of love, which, as the Bible makes clear, only God is fully capable of. We are afraid of being overwhelmed materially by the sheer endlessness of human need, of being overwhelmed emotionally by the amount of human suffering in the world. It makes us want to avoid reading the news, or to skim it quickly in a detached way. It is a demand to give unconditionally, without demanding a return. It provokes a reflexive panic over the prospect of being overwhelmed, and, to do conservatives justice, this feeling is not just selfish. If charity is not limited, we understandably feel we may be drowned—and the symbol of that limitation is another kind of erection, the opposite of Liberty’s welcoming gesture: a wall.
Not all walls are metal and concrete. All the usually false stereotypes about other people are walls against empathy. If African Americans are typified by dangerous teenagers wearing hoodies, if immigrants at the Mexican border are criminals and rapists, if people in poverty are parasites who just want a handout at our expense, then we need not feel obligation, or, what is more threatening, compassion. Ayn Rand-style libertarianism is in fact a defense mechanism, assuaging guilt by assuring that selfishness is in fact a virtue and a sign of strength. Perhaps it was no accident that Rand’s most famous protagonist was an architect, a builder of walls.
We speak of feeling another’s pain, but empathy is in fact threatening to us. It does not take huddled masses to provoke our anxiety. To have one person’s life or well-being on our hands can be an agonizing emotional burden, especially if we are helpless, as we so often are, to protect them. A parent’s anguish over a seriously ill child shows us that love, about which we speak glibly sometimes, is a burden. Not only that, but it shows the paradoxical limitations of freedom as a value. If I care, that limits my freedom, which is why some people fear “commitment” in relationships. Socially, to the extent that I modify my behavior for the benefit of others, it also limits my freedom. The refusal to wear a mask during the pandemic was a symbolic gesture. Wearing a mask is no great inconvenience, but it signified giving up personal freedom for the benefit of others. The refusal to grant refuge and social services to others is a declaration of independence from the burden of responsibility for those who are lying needy on the roadside. “Triggering the libs,” which may seem like sheer meanness, is apotropaic, meaning a ritual for warding off danger, a way of saying, “You think I care? I refuse to care about all those causes and people you say I should care about. And I refuse to feel guilty for refusing.”
Empathy or compassion is in fact irrational, and I think we should admit that there is no rational justification for it. To the ordinary self or ego, it makes no sense. To act as if we are caught up in a lifeboat drill, with ethics as a rational calculation of who “deserves” to be saved, should not be sneered at—because we all do it, except for rare self-sacrificing heroes and saints. Still, most of us are conflicted, feeling compassion even as we try to be one of the fittest that survive, and we may ask whence this irrational empathy derives. My suggestion is that it is the imagination’s intuition of a greater freedom than the common kind, the latter being what we might call “freedom from.” Physical, legal, and emotional walls may shield us—but in the end, they wall us off. It is not freedom to live inside a wall. Someone who lives inside walls is in prison.
When the “wall of partition” (Ephesians 2:14) is broken down, what the imagination intuits is a greater self, a deeper level of identity in which we are “members of one another,” what Paul in the New Testament called a mystical body because it is beyond all “realistic” possibility, though it may redefine what we think is possible. Such an identity is free from the illusions of the ordinary self, which can think only in terms of an either-or choice between isolated, paranoically anxious egos and the melting down of egos into a mindless collectivity, as in fascism and various religious cults, which achieve social oneness but only at the expensive of individuality. The self-protectionism of the selfish ego is not true freedom, but neither is the unity of the collective, whose beehive uniformity promises “freedom” only at the price of becoming a mindless drone.
Is the notion of a deeper, universal self a mere abstraction, or a wish-fulfilment descending as a deus ex machina to resolve the argument? I do not think it can be proved, perhaps not even “believed in.” But the experience of empathy or compassion is real, and produces just about everything that makes life worth living in this world. It may lack a reason or a ground—but it is a declaration of freedom from the ultimate prison, the insidious message that there is no escape from the solitary confinement of our lives.