White Publishing Company

Tear it down? (6.17.20)

I love history, and I love monuments.

Monuments transform our past into public art. They're reflections of what certain groups valued at different points in time, or how cultural conflicts or ideals were expressed in earlier eras.

Which isn't to say that they're all virtuous. I won't argue with anyone disgusted by the sight of Confederate generals on pedestals in public squares.

In other cases, the thought that a monument is problematic is complicated. Columbus statues are hurtful to some groups, but many of them date to a time when Italian immigrants were treated like dirt -- Italian-American groups often campaigned for their installation as symbols of their cultural pride. The "emancipation" statue in DC's Lincoln Park (and copied in other cities) should make you cringe. It shows an almost god-like Lincoln towering over a slave practically groveling in thanks. Hell, it made Frederick Douglass cringe -- but it was also financed in large part by donations from former slaves, and Douglass still felt honored to speak at its dedication in 1876.

The stories behind monuments are the stories of our shared history, for better or for worse. Simply destroying, defacing or erasing them seems like a lost opportunity. You can read about the horrors of Soviet oppression, and we know that so many Soviet statues were torn down by mobs. But in the 21st century, long after the mobs dispersed, seeing a surviving Soviet monument gives you a deeper understanding of the ethic and sensibilities of a brutal regime, in a way that a textbook can't.

One of the coolest museums I ever went to was the Lapidarium in Prague. It's a collection of old public statues that had been "retired" (or someteimes replaced with replicas, to get them out of the elements). I wish we had one here. Off their pedestals, Southern generals could be studied, and people could contemplate both why they inspired reverence and their status as enduring avatars of racism. Columbus doesn't need to be beheaded or thrown in a lake; people might want to learn about his achievements while also understanding how he became a symbol for both good and bad.

Or maybe we can just make room for some new expressions of civic thought. I work a few blocks from Farragut Square, and the very nice statue honoring Civil War admiral David Farragut. He's a complete non-entity to 99.9999 percent of the modern population, and there's now very little reason to give him prime real estate in a very public setting. He could retire with distinction, yielding his space to someone better able to inspire the imagination of the modern world. Or a statue of the flying spaghetti monster. Something different, at least.

There would be arguments -- long ones! -- about what to remove, and what to replace it with. But I'd rather have those arguments, and learn from those, than just destroy symbols of our history, and the chance to learn from them.

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