Lady Liberty’s Cloak of Darkness

Why technological failures are such handy metaphors

A stereographic image of the torch and part of the arm of the Statue of Liberty, on display at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, 10 years before its completion.  (Library of Congress)

The metaphors have become inescapable, it seems.

Consider the temporary dimming of the Statue of Liberty Tuesday night, which occurred on the eve of a widely publicized women’s strike, shortly after a new executive order curbing immigration to the United States, and at a time of deep uncertainty and partisanship in the country.

It had to mean something, right? In a word: Nope.

A portion of the lighting system that illuminates the statue had experienced a “temporary, unplanned outage,” Jerry Willis, a spokesman for the monument, told me in a statement emailed shortly before midnight. The outage, he explained, was “most likely” due to renovation work, including a project involving a new emergency generator, that began after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

But the possibility of deeper meaning was too delicious for some to resist—especially because the official explanation came from an employee of the National Park Service, which has become its own cultural symbol for resistance to the Trump administration. “Somebody’s trying to tell us something,” one person said in response to the NPS statement, which I posted on Twitter. Many others sent winky-face gifs.

EarthCam footage shows the partial outage at the Statue of Liberty Tuesday night. (EarthCam)

The Statue of Liberty has a storied history of lighting snafus. When it was first unveiled in 1886, the lights didn’t work at all. Then, for a period of weeks shortly thereafter, a lighting-design error caused Lady Liberty to appear headless, illuminated only from the shoulders down. (Her torch could be seen, but it appeared to be floating in midair.)

Technological failures like these are often mined for metaphor. That’s because they’re an easy target. When the Statue of Liberty was in disemheaded-body mode, in the 1880s, it was at the height of a fierce battle over which government agency should pay for the lighting scheme. Go figure.

Similarly, the Titanic wasn’t just a ship that sank, it was seen as a catastrophic failure of hubris. The lesson was this: Put too much faith in technology, and you will be let down. The Titanic wasn’t only not unsinkable, as its creators had claimed, but it sank on its maiden voyage. It was a failure as spectacular as it was tragic.

One of the reasons people were so obsessed with Y2K in late 1999 was because it represented more than an isolated technological problem. It was also an expression of uncertainty about the dawn of a new millennium, at a time when computers and the internet were beginning to dramatically reshape society.

“This can be conceptualized as a special kind of ripple effect in which a strong metaphor for technological failure enters the cultural lexicon and becomes a defining feature for how technology is perceived,” wrote the authors of The Social Amplification of Risk in 2003. “Thus, technological failures and crashes may become collectively viewed through a single, over-arching concept that provides a convenient explanatory mechanism for why such failures occur.”

A military salute for the president's arrival at Liberty Island during the inauguration of the Statue of Liberty, then more commonly referred to as “the Bartholdi Statue,” in 1886. (LoC)

How a person perceives technological failure is also deeply tied to that person’s level of trust in institutions like government. This is also why the Statue of Liberty lighting debacle is particularly fertile for metaphor: because it involved the technological failure of a deeply symbolic national icon—an icon which is managed by an agency that has itself become an emblem of the fight against the symbolic extinguishing of liberty’s light.

Here’s how Emma Lazarus describes what that light represents in her 1883 poem, “The New Colossus,” which was engraved in bronze and affixed to the base of the statue in 1903:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "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!"

It wasn’t just Lazarus’s poem that made the statue an icon of immigration, it was the actual experience of the 12 million immigrants who entered the United States by way of Ellis Island, many of whom describe laying eyes on the statue as a defining moment in their lives. On the decks of boats entering New York Harbor, crowds of newcomers to the United States would dance and weep for joy. This happened even in terrible weather. Seymour Rexsite, who came to the United States from Poland when he was 8, described approaching Ellis Island in a miserable, driving rainstorm. “Everybody was on deck, no matter, they didn't mind the rain at all,” Rexsite told the Associated Press in 1986 at the time of the statue’s centennial. “Just to cheer that they came, they came to America.”

The sight of a “tremendous lady in the mist,” as the historian Virginia Yans-McLaughlin put it to the AP that year, had almost a “fantasy element to it.” So, you can see why it might be tempting to interpret the darkening of the statue, hours after President Donald Trump signed a new immigration ban, as a political act.

Metaphors are usually an attempt to clarify or understand things—often either using technology to explain greater forces in the world, or vice versa—but they don’t always prove useful. The writer William Gass, in a 1976 conversation with The Paris Review, compared his inclination to think, feel, and perceive the world metaphorically to an overindulgence in junk food—one that, when used incorrectly, could lead to “paradoxes and confusions of every kind.”

Even when a metaphor is effective, however—perhaps especially then—it doesn’t always overlap cleanly with reality. It’s easy to find emotional resonance when you go looking for it, but it’s still crucial to differentiate between the most powerful explanation for something and the most likely one. There’s a relatively short distance between total subjectivism and conspiracy theories or propaganda.

Sometimes, in other words, the lights just go out.