This week, a Polish journalist wrote to me about this article and America’s squabbling over statues and monuments. Here is my reply to him. I start by agreeing with his suggestion that statues and monuments are arguably more important today for their sense of permanence in our increasingly digital and ephemeral world:
The past is always with us, isn’t it? And statues are a manifestation, a physical reminder, of that past. They have a sense of permanence that the digital world lacks. So I think you’re right: What makes them memorable, in part, is their very physicality, their sense of permanence, in a world of impermanent tweets and instant selfies.
They also serve as a marker, a reminder, to what we collectively believe is important. But part of what makes history fascinating is that we’re always arguing over its meaning. The USA today is especially disputatious, as politicians like Donald Trump appeal to statues and memorials as a way to rally supporters against changes in American culture. These statues serve as powerful symbols and convenient rallying points. Their public presence is not just a manifestation of memory, but a discourse about or display of democracy and its meanings in America.
And that’s what Americans are grappling with now. Think about Trump’s motto, “Make America Great Again.” Well, “greatness” is allegedly shown in our statues. These were “great” people; that’s why we built statues and monuments to them. In light of Trump’s motto, should we be returning to the times of men like Lee, Jackson, and other Confederate worthies? Is that what greatness means? Or does it have a much different definition, and also one that has shifted over time, as America has itself shifted and changed? If so, should we then be changing our statues in light of these shifts?
To counterbalance the perceived grimness of Maya Lin’s Vietnam wall memorial, more traditional statues depicting soldiers were added near it.
Historical statues and monuments are in the news, but sadly not because Americans have taken a new interest in understanding their history. Statues of men who supported the Confederacy, prominent generals like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, for example, have been appropriated by White supremacists (this is nothing new, actually). Such statues have been defended as “beautiful” by a man, Donald Trump, with little sense of history, even as other Americans have called for these and similar statues to be removed.
Statues, of course, are just that. Inanimate objects. Places for pigeons to poop. It’s we who invest them with meaning. Most people, I think, take little notice of statues and monuments until they become controversial, after which everyone has an opinion.
For me, statues and…
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