I first visited the Statue of Liberty in 1982 with my friends and classmates from graduate school at Northwestern University. We spent a quarter reporting from Washington D.C. (my newspaper was the Rapid City Journal), covering the Congressional delegation. We also traveled on the East Coast, by Amtrak or Eastern Airlines, to entertain and educate ourselves.
This week’s trip to New York is a vacation but also a “field trip” for our son, so the Statue of Liberty, 9/11 Museum, United Nations and New York Stock Exchange, among other places, are all on the list.
A lot has changed since 1982. Back then I toted around a Canon AE-1 for photography. It was a 35 mm single-lens reflex camera and the first microprocessor-equipped SLR. Now visitors carry handheld digital smartphones with 8 megapixels (on an Apple iPhone 5, for example), and the wi-fi is strong enough on Liberty Island to post your photos of Lady Liberty to a Facebook page in real-time via Instagram.
Many visitors were carrying telescoping arms that drop low to the ground to allow for angled “selfie” and group shots with Lady Liberty. Otherwise, you’d be flat on the ground in “30-something” degree weather, pointing your camera up, to get that shot.
Security is much tighter because of 9/11. In fact, you go through two security scanners — one to get on the ferry and another to climb to “the crown” of the Statue. Both 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy led to temporary closure of Liberty Island and the Statue.
The 377 stairs to the crown have been redesign to a sleek double-helix staircase. All reservations must be made online well in advance; otherwise it’s a “sell out” to walkup visitors, or at least it was this week.
A museum in the base of the statue is interactive and informative. A highlight for me is the bronze plaque of the famous “New Colossus” poem by Emma Lazarus in 1883: “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-tost to me; I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Our family stood there for a while and read the poem and marveled at its words.
Another exhibit shows “Exploitation of Liberty,” such as the statue wearing a pair of Levi jeans. Exploitation of Liberty continues — not just in commercialism but in political rhetoric.
New Colossus 2.0
Along with the Statue, Liberty Island and the Museum itself, our world has changed. It was coincidence that our visit coincided with President Obama’s executive order on immigration this past week. We are a much more polarized nation now:
1. The world “liberty” has become a sound-bite for tea-party and hard-right politics. “The party of anti-history” is here.
2. Our nation’s immigrants also are from Mexico, Central and South America, Asia and Africa — not just Northern Europe. We are no longer a “WASPocracy.” To me, that is often the hidden — or not so hidden — concern of those who are angry about immigration reform. For the first time, we have an African-American President. “We’re changing, so people are angry” is here.
In this morning’s New York Times, the Sunday edition, Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof has an article titled “Immigration Enriches you and me.” “To me the outrage seems driven by three myths,” he writes, elaborating on each myth. “Immigrants threaten our way of life; immigrants are different today because they are illegals; and immigration reform is an unconstitutional power grab by a dictator.”
He concluded: “What most defines the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America is not illegality but undaunted courage and ambition for a better life. What separates their families from most of ours is simply the passage of time — and the lottery of birth.”