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Jamie Stiehm
Past and Present
17 Oct 2014
The 21st Century Needs a Rewrite: a Broadway Flop

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The Liberty Belle of Philadelphia

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PHILADELPHIA — I went for a walk to see the Liberty Bell, and ran into Malala and Ben.

The global girl from Pakistan was the talk of the town, truly the Liberty belle. The human rights champion visited Philadelphia on a day that sparkled in October sun. Benjamin Franklin, the droll genius who still dwells there, sent Malala regards from nearby Christ Church Burial Ground.

Past meets present on a first name basis.

Can't you just see the two of them having a great conversation? Revolutionaries are cut from the same cloth. Never mind that she's 17 and he's roughly 300 years old.

Her full name is Malala Yousafzai. Recently named this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, she made this American cradle of liberty rock.

Malala is the youngest person ever to receive the honor — and makes the 16th female in the august line of laureates since 1901. What an inspired choice. Malala's charisma brings out the younger Twitter set.

In the Market and Arch Street scenes, electricity filled the air. (Dr. Franklin sent over a bottle.) Buildings stood up a little straighter as Center City got ready for her arrival. Malala was honored later that day, presented with the 2014 Liberty Award at the National Constitution Center.

Malala has lived the story of claiming rights and liberties in the face of brutal suppression. She's travelled many miles since the Taliban shot her in the head on a school bus. That was for her courage in speaking out for the rights of girls and women in her country. Education is her watchword.

Learning to read can make a girl or woman seem subversive. Similarly, reading was forbidden during our own slavery era. Illiterate women and girls in Malala's part of the world call themselves "blind." And in a way, they are. They can't see their way forward.

Citizenship without literacy is a tough sell, as Franklin and his founding friends knew back when they invented democracy right here in the heart of the city.

Much depended upon written words, which is why they took so long to craft the 1776 Declaration of Independence and, in 1789, the Constitution.

Every word mattered. Each document underwent furious debate and heavy editing. Neither were perfect in the end, but they were a sublime beginning.

The brutal Taliban did not silence Malala's voice, a major victory that seemed like a miracle to millions of people living under its cruel rule. Now her brave words and dreams carry more power, lighting the darkness of untold numbers.

Amid the security preparations for Malala's arrival, I sensed a touch of pride that a major event happened here first, before the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Norway. Philadelphia is not a city that boasts, but it was a shining moment.

Jeffrey Rosen, the National Constitution Center president, presented the Liberty Award to Malala. It comes with a gift of $100,000, which Malala will donate to her own cause: furthering justice and education for females.

"So let us make history, bring change, by becoming the change," the Pakistani girl declared at the Center, a sleek space which houses striking lifelike statues of each signer at the Constitutional convention.

The inheritance the men left us — first, the freedom to assemble, worship and publish — still lives and breathes every day.

Eminent "Dr. Franklin" was near the end. He died in 1790 at 84 as the newly constituted republic was springing up.

Pennies shine on his tombstone, left by well-wishers to the jovial author of "A penny saved is a penny earned." The most important figure who never became president, Franklin was an almanac writer, printer, inventor, diplomat, scientist and statesman. He led the anti-slavery cause and founded the University of Pennsylvania.

He molded the American character when it was young, in the direction of self-improvement. Just as a nation is always a work in progress. Yes, he and Malala would have a lot to talk about.

The cracked old Bell is aging well, but its only sound is silence. Malala, the Liberty belle, must speak — and be heard — round the world.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm, and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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