Of Historical Statues and Monuments

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?

Bracing Views

vietnam To counterbalance the perceived grimness of Maya Lin’s Vietnam wall memorial, more traditional statues depicting soldiers were added near it.

W.J. Astore

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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4 thoughts on “Of Historical Statues and Monuments

  1. Here’s a question – why do we privilege certain periods of our history over others?

    To me, the last 150 years of history are mostly important because they contain the events that most directly shaped the world I inhabit. But the last 15,000 years were vital too, as they structured the human social ecology that produced the last 150 years. And go back that far, the present-day wrangling over half-assed ideologies only meaningful to their contemporaries all start to seem a bit, well, silly.

    Actually I think that should be the rule of all statues – they have to be silly. You can have Robert E. Lee sitting proudly astride his horse (Traveler, wasn’t it named?) but you also get to have Ulysses Grant and half a dozen black soldiers pointing and laughing at him.

    Did the more traditional heroic soldier statues added to the Vietnam memorial have missing limbs and that classic thousand-yard stare? That’s as traditional as some twit general on a rearing stallion.

    Something else that differentiates the North American West from the North/Northeast and South – few to no Civil War memorials. Doesn’t have the same meaning out here, especially as most folks had family members on both sides. We have WW1 and WW2 memorials though.

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  2. I can’t say how my Great grandfather would feel about a Robert E Lee statue being torn down, but as a Union soldier, he was fighting for ideologies – slavery & leaving the US. Lee had little to do with it in his mind I’d guess.
    We might take a lesson from the Russians today; whether right or wrong they respect their history. Their flagship commercial airline, Aeroflot, which just won a European prize as ‘Best European Airline’ still sports the hammer & sickle in their logo. Putin, and others, speak behind the Russian Federation flag – and the Tzars Romanov flag. Buildings still display the Red Star above entrances. Stalin’s 7 buildings still grace Moscow’s skylines: his attempt to climax the West. I doubt their work or energy efficient, but no one would dare change their grandiose designs.
    We all know Lenin was an “open air” speaker from films. But when it got cold, moved inside. Remember that cement & hammer & sickle room he spoke in?
    It might be the same gilded room with Heads of State entering today. So the Bolsheviks didn’t destroy Tzars home – just put it into storage for awhile.

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  3. NBC News notes today that “Eight University of Mississippi basketball players kneeled during the national anthem ahead of Saturday’s home game in response to pro-Confederate rally nearby.”

    The rally was ostensibly in the name of preserving a Confederate monument on campus grounds.

    Here’s the thing: How is this a “pro-Confederate rally”? Do these groups literally want to secede from the Union again and re-fight the Civil War? It’s not a “pro-Confederate” rally. It’s a rally to sow discord and divisiveness — a rally by groups that have a reactionary and racist message.

    So the headline should read that these players kneeled in response to a divisive and racist rally — not a pro-Confederate one.

    https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/ole-miss-players-take-knee-during-anthem-pro-confederate-rally-n975001

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    1. There’s the news-as-genre effect again. Headline writers use emotive (and subtly deceptive if you get right down to it) copy to generate clicks, which draws in advertisers – thus, more $ for shareholders. Lovely little feedback loop of brand-building, that they call ‘news.’

      News in America is a for-profit business, mostly paid for by ads – just like content on most networks that aren’t publicly funded (BBC, PBS). When your political-economic structure requires competing for scarce viewer attention and ad buys, the entire mess eventually devolves into variations of the New York Post and National Inquirer.

      The trick is that the New York Times, despite its branding, isn’t that much better, in the end. That’s why idiots like Friedman still have a job, why Steve Bannon became influential. They’re offering entertainment services, cloaked in the language of public service/the fifth estate.

      Trump’s people figured this out, and the one thing they’re good at is trolling the news to get free media coverage, building a solid brand that looks wicked and disgusting to most of us, but holds strong appeal for old white conservatives.

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