(This article is published in Salon.)
We have money to bomb Syria, but not to help Syrian refugees.
The U.S. launched a campaign this week on Kickstarter — a crowdfunding website on which people around the world can donate to fund proposed projects — to help provide aid to Syrian refugees. All proceeds will go to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the leading international body on refugees.
In its statement announcing the initiative, the White House draws parallels to the 1885 funding of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty (the statue itself was provided by France), which it depicts as the result of a kind of pre-internet crowdsourcing campaign. What the White House does not mention in its rosy retelling of the history of the majestic monument, however, was that crowdfunding was relied upon for the pedestal because politicians refused to fund it.
Grover Cleveland, governor of New York at the time, vetoed a bill that would have allotted $50,000 (approximately $1.3 million today) for the Statue of Liberty. Congress rejected a proposal for $100,000 ($2.6 million, adjusted for inflation) in funding. The only reason the money needed to construct the pedestal was raised was because publisher Joseph Pulitzer used the fundraising project as a kind of marketing campaign to boost the circulation of his yellow-journalism newspaper the New York World.
A political cartoon published in the magazine Harper’s Weekly in May 1885 succinctly and sardonically summarized the entire process. It depicted a poor man in shoddy garb begging an exquisitely clad rich man for “a few pennies” to fund the Statue of Liberty. “Oh, get out; you’re off your base,” the disgruntled bourgeois rejoined.
The White House’s choice of analogy, then, is, perhaps unwittingly, the perfect one. It illustrates the skewed priorities behind such a campaign.