How do you define American values? This ghastly election season has shaken our faith that we all share a set of core beliefs, regardless of where we live, what we look like, how we worship (or don't), or who we love. Our democracy has weathered some awful turbulence in the past and yet we've remained a beacon of hope and inspiration for millions around the world. Can we survive this latest crisis intact?
Let's ask the Statue of Liberty, who turned 130 last month and knows a thing or two about American ideals. If only we could! I imagine the conversation would go something like this:
Me: Happy Birthday, Lady Liberty! That's a long time to be carrying the torch for freedom and democracy. Does your arm ever ache?
Liberty: Well, that's just part of the job, I'm OK with that. You know what aches? My heart. Honestly, this presidential campaign has got me fantasizing about retiring and moving back to France, where I was born.
Me: Oh, that's right, you're an immigrant yourself! Why would you leave now?
Liberty: First, I'm worried about deportation. I never got a green card. Sure, I have a green patina, but that's just a façade. I came over as France's gift to America. I was young and beautiful, a real hottie, and everyone was just so happy to host me that no-one thought about the paperwork. Now, some people are questioning whether I have a leg to stand on, which is pretty disconcerting for a statue.
Me: That's terrible! Like who?
Liberty: OK, I don't want to name names, but some politicians are disputing my whole raison d'être, if you will. By the way, that's French for "reason for being," not "raisin for being." Everybody associates us with grapes, and I get that, but I'd like to do my part to preserve America's rich multicultural vocabulary, to the extent that I'm able.
Me: You're a fan of poetry, too, is that right?
Liberty: Oh my goodness, yes! The bronze plaque at my base is engraved with a sonnet from the American poet Emma Lazarus. I think everybody knows its most famous lines:
"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!"
So, I've been saying this for over a hundred years now, right? But all of a sudden, these people want to extinguish my flame, like I'm just attracting moths and mosquitos, or something. They complain that I'm inviting all these 'low-energy losers', if I can say that without violating any trademarks? You know, the homeless, the poor, the refugees. They even claim that "teeming refuse" is just a fancy way of saying "human garbage."
Me: That seems awfully harsh.
Liberty: I know, right?
Me: But re the 'yearning to breathe free' part, I have to say, historically, it's been hard enough for us native-born Americans to breathe freely. When I was a kid growing up in LA, we used to get smog alerts all the time warning us not to go outside and play. They were a part of the regular weather report!
Liberty: That's horrible. But it's so much better now, isn't it? It may sound like science fiction to young people today who've never seen our two major parties team up to solve a problem, but in 1970, Republicans and Democrats worked together to establish comprehensive federal and state regulations to limit air pollution from both industrial and mobile sources. They called it the Clean Air Act Extension, because it finally gave real teeth to earlier legislation that hadn't done enough to actually clear the air.
Me: Yeah, it took a while, but the air quality got so much better! LA even has a working subway now. I never would have believed it. It just goes to show that we can still solve problems when we get past the partisan obstructionists and muster the political will to tackle them.
Liberty: The problems, or the obstructionists?
Me: I meant the problems.
Liberty: Well, you might have to tackle the obstructionists first! Air pollution is still a huge problem, damaging lungs, young and old, and it may be causing brain damage, too. And yet we've got a presidential candidate who wants to abolish the protections we've fought so hard for over the decades. Are we really going to let this happen?
Me: You know, for someone who talks about being burned out and wanting to retire to the Riviera, you sound pretty fired up about this election.
Liberty: Well, I'm thinking about the last time I found myself lying on the beach. It's not a happy memory. It was in 1968, in the final scene from Planet of The Apes. By the way, did you know that whole Planet of the Apes thing started with a 1963 French novel by Pierre Boulle, La Planète des Singes? The UK translation was called Monkey Planet, but in the US, the publisher called it Planet of the Apes. So much better!
Anyway, it's a really famous scene, set in some apocalyptic future after we've apparently destroyed civilization through our stupidity. Charlton Heston is on a horse with his girlfriend, galloping along the beach, and they come across what's left of me, sticking out of the sand. He jumps off his horse and pounds his fist in the sand. "We finally, really did it!" he yells. "You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!"
Kind of a cautionary tale, huh? Look, I've watched over this harbor long enough to know that political tides rise and fall, but I can't remember a time when I've been so afraid for our democracy. To quote James Taylor, "I've seen fire, and I've seen rain." I'm talking 9/11, Hurricane Sandy. We live in troubled times. But we can't let our country be destroyed by hatred, fear and ignorance. This election is not about party lines. It's about fault lines.
Me: Oh, you're reminding me of my LA childhood again, with the earthquake drills.
Liberty: Sorry! But please don't duck under your desk! The great thing about metaphorical fault lines is that we can still stop them from turning our future into rubble. Please, everyone, pledge to vote on November 8th and elect politicians who will uphold our right to breathe freely. Vote with your throat!
This post was produced with support from Clean Air Moms Action. All opinions are, of course, my own.