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Inside NCR

Is Statue of Liberty on too high a pedestal?

What could be more American than freedom? Most of the huddled masses and others who came to these shores were fleeing oppression of some kind and aiming to be free. Some of this country's great fights have been about freedom, as have most wars -- at least that's what warriors say.

But freedom is elusive as a flashy balloon on a stormy day. Editor and publisher Tom Fox's column on the back page set stray thoughts flying. In what were supposedly the bad old days, Fox and his family marched through Missouri to protest nuclear weapons that lurked in nearby corn fields. The column is a timely reminder that, although the Cold War is over, the problems live on, including nukes still primed and ready to destroy whole countries, continents, the planet.

This in turn stirred up an old quotation from William Faulkner in Intruder in the Dust: "We are hoping without really any hope that our atom bomb will be enough to defend an idea as obsolete as Noah's Ark."

The allegedly obsolete idea was freedom. "Apparently no man can stand freedom," he wrote. Even allowing for his hyperbole, we recognize Faulkner's gist. It's amazing that we should work so hard and spend so much money to defend our liberty from the Soviets or Russians or other faraway threats while we squander it closer to home. The freedom with which we all landed in the Garden of Eden -- so to speak -- has been kicked about until decency and then sheer survival forced us to curtail it in a thousand ways, from driving on the right side of the road to desisting from injudicious quoting from the pope's new catechism (page 3).

Our abuse of freedom has recently been challenged from an unlikely quarter: Beverly Hills. Publicist Michael Levine, whose clients have included Charlton Heston, Michael Jackson and Barbra Streisand, says that in hugging the daylights out of liberty we have abandoned personal responsibility. "My belief is that liberty and responsibility are like a seesaw," he told the Los Angeles Times, and our society is approaching chaos because liberty is upending responsibility.

Since 1993 Levine has been promoting a Statue of Responsibility, preferably located in Los Angeles Harbor to balance Lady Liberty in New York Harbor. If you live in or around La-La Land, this takes courage, but Levine is undaunted. "Hollywood does not have a monopoly on irresponsibility," he said. Supporters of his project include author M. Scott Peck, columnist Ann Landers and Congressman Sonny Bono.

Levine figures the statue would cost $5 million to $10 million -- our money: "It would be ludicrous to build a statue of Responsibility and then ask the government to pay for it." He has no design yet. "It should be designed by some kind of open casting call, to coin a Hollywood expression," he said.

It's easy to see how easily a great idea could be lost in Hollywood-type hype not of Levine's making. Hell, no one wants to confront responsibility, least of all build a statue to it. I heard on the radio that every American is $6,000 in debt, on average, and that's just credit cards. And responsible politicians -- don't make me laugh.

The history of civilizations is a race between maturity and corruption, which is usually an abuse of freedom. History says corruption generally brings the culture down before responsibility has time to save it. That's because responsibility is boring and freedom is such fun. While it lasts.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 1997