Anomie and Postmodernism

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Richard Sahn

These are not exactly happy times. Americans have fewer safeguards for their jobs, financial well-being, and, ultimately, their very lives. Uncertainty and insecurity have become more prevalent than ever I can remember. As a consequence, insomnia, depression, angst seem to be characteristic of an increasing number of people across the country, almost as American as apple pie. Just as being a divorcee in California is nothing to write home about—you’re even considered odd if you have never been divorced—so is the sense that something “bad” can happen at any time, without warning. Sociologists—I am a sociologist–call this condition “anomie,” a concept formulated by one of the founders of sociology, Emile Durkheim. The Trump presidency, it may be argued, exacerbates anomie since we seem to be moving closer to economic nightmares and possibly nuclear holocaust than in recent decades.

What exactly is anomie? Anomie literally means without norms. It’s a psychological condition, according to Durkheim, in which an individual member of a society, group, community, tribe, fails to see any purpose or meaning to his/her own life or reality in general. Anomie is the psychological equivalent to nihilism. Such a state of mind is often characteristic of adults who are unemployed, unaffiliated with any social organization, unmarried, lack family ties and for whom group and societal norms, values, and beliefs have no stabilizing effect.

The last situation can readily be the outcome of exposure to sociology courses in college, providing the student does not regularly fall asleep in class.  I’ve always tried to caution my own students that sociology could be, ironically, dangerous to their mental health because of the emphasis on critical thinking regarding social systems and structures. Overcoming socialization or becoming de-socialized from one’s culture—when one begins to question the value of patriotism, for instance—can be conducive to doubt and cynicism which may give rise to anomie.  Of course, I also emphasize the benefits of the sociological enterprise to the student and to society in general. For example, a sociology major is perhaps less likely to participate voluntarily in wars that only favor special interests and which unnecessarily kill civilians.

Clinical depression is virtually an epidemic in the U.S. these days. Undoubtedly, anomie is a major factor, especially in a culture where meaningful jobs or careers are difficult to obtain.  To a great extent social status constitutes one’s definition of self. In Western societies the answer to the perennial philosophical question, “Who are you?” is one’s name and then job or role in the social structure.  Both motherhood and secure jobs or careers are usually antidotes against anomie. Childless women and unemployed or under-employed males are most susceptible to anomie.

What does postmodernism offer to combat the anomie of modern society and now the Trump era itself? An over-simplification of post-modernism or the postmodern perspective is that there is no fixed or certain reality external to the individual. All paradigms and scientific explanations are social constructs, one model being no more valid than the other. A good example of the application of the postmodern perspective is the popular lecture circuit guru, Byron Katie. Ms. Katie has attracted thousands of followers by proclaiming that our problems in life stem from our thoughts alone. The clutter of consciousness, thoughts, feelings, can simply be recognized as such during meditation and then dismissed as not really being real. Problems gone.

An analogy here is Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic worker movement, proclaiming in the 1960s that “our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” Postmodernists would claim that our problems stem from our acceptance of the Enlightenment paradigm of reality—the materialist world-view, rationality itself.  Reality, postmodernists claim, is simply what we think it is. There is no “IS” there. Postmodern philosophers claim that all experiences of a so-called outside world are only a matter of individual consciousness.  Nothing is certain except one’s own immediate experience. The German existential philosopher, Martin Heidegger, contributed significantly to the postmodern perspective with his concept, “dasein,” or “there-being.” Dasein bypasses physiology and anatomy by implying that neurological processes are not involved in any act of perception, that what we call “scientific knowledge” is a form of propaganda, that is, what we are culturally conditioned to accept as real. There is no universal right or wrong, good or bad.

The great advantage of adopting the postmodern perspective as a way of overcoming anomie is the legitimacy or validation it gives to non-ordinary experiences. If the brain and nervous system are social constructs then so-called altered states of consciousness such as near death experience (NDE), out-of-body experience, reincarnation, time-travel, spirits, miraculous healing become plausible. Enlightenment science and rationality are only social constructs, byproducts of manufactured world-views. The “new age” idea that we create our own reality rather than being immersed in it has therapeutic value to those suffering from anomie.

Sociologist Peter Berger employs the concept of “plausibility structures” to legitimize (make respectable) views of the “real world” which conflict with the presuppositions of Enlightenment science. Science then becomes “science” or social constructs which may or may not have validity even though they are widely accepted as such.  A good example is the postmodern practice of deconstructing or calling into question empirical science and rational thought itself, disregarding the brain as source of all perceptions, feelings, desires, and ideas. Postmodernists maintain that only individual consciousness is real; the brain is a social construct which doesn’t hold water—no pun intended—as the source of what it means to be human.

CAVEAT

The postmodern perspective may work for a while in suppressing anomie and dealing with the horrors of a hostile or toxic social and political environment. Sooner or later, however, existential reality intervenes. The question is, can postmodernism alleviate physical pain, the death of a loved one, personal injury and illness, the loss of one’s home and livelihood? At this point in the evolution of my philosophical reflections I would argue that postmodernism can reduce or eliminate the depression that inevitably comes from too much anomie–but only temporarily.   The postmodern perspective is not up to the task of assuaging the truly catastrophic events in one’s life. As much as I would like not to believe this, I’m afraid only political and social action can help us out when the going really gets rough, although I don’t recommend sacrificing the teaching of critical thinking, a possible cause of anomie, in regard to society’s values and institutions.

Richard Sahn, a professor of sociology in Pennsylvania, is a free-thinker.

Trumpspeak Is Newspeak

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W.J. Astore

Fans of George Orwell’s 1984 will recall Newspeak, the development of a new language that also involved the elimination of certain words and concepts.  The method is clearly defined by the character of Syme in Orwell’s book:

“You think … our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting language down to the bone … You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten … Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller… The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect…”

Trumpspeak is America’s version of Newspeak.  Whatever you choose to call it, the intent is clear: the control of thought through the elimination of certain words and concepts.  Today at TomDispatch.com, Karen Greenberg documents the destruction of certain words and concepts within the Trump administration.  These words and concepts include refugees, climate change, greenhouse gases, America as a nation of immigrants, and even the notion of science-based evidence.

The suppression or elimination of words and phrases is one big step toward thought control; so too is the parroting of certain pet phrases and concepts, such as “support our troops” or “make America great again” or “homeland security.”  In an article about Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz that appeared in the Nation, Adam Kirsch writes of how Döblin recognized the “sinister” nature of “the colonization of the individual mind by parasitic discourses,” the way in which reality itself is “cloaked” by “predigested phrases.”  Döblin wrote of how “The words come rolling toward you, you need to watch yourself, see that they don’t run you over.”

And I think something like this is happening in America today.  We’re being run over by certain words and concepts, even as other words and concepts related to democracy and cherished freedoms are carefully elided or eliminated.

Of course, Orwell wrote about this as well.  “Predigested phrases” is captured by Orwell’s concept of duck-speak, in which proles just quack like ducks when they speak, echoing the sounds fed to them by party operatives.  Quacking like a duck requires no thought, which is precisely the intent.

Pay attention, America, to the words you’re losing before they’re gone forever; and also to the words you’re using before they run you over.

On Mercy

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Gollum/Smeagol, at war with himself, consumed by desire for the Ring

W.J. Astore

Mercy has been on my mind since re-watching “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.  There’s a nasty little character known as Gollum.  Before he was seduced by Sauron’s ring (the one ring of power), Gollum was known as Smeagol.  Twisted and consumed by the Dark Lord’s ring, Smeagol becomes a shadow of himself, eventually forgetting his real name and becoming Gollum, a name related to the guttural coughs and sounds he makes.

Gollum loses the Ring to Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit of the Shire.  The Ring extends Bilbo’s life but also begins to twist him as well.  As Sauron returns to power in Mordor, he needs only to regain the Ring to defeat the combined might of the peoples of Middle Earth.  Bilbo passes the Ring to his much younger cousin, Frodo, who together with a Fellowship consisting of representatives drawn from men, elves, dwarfs, and hobbits as well as the wizard Gandalf, journeys to Mordor to destroy the Ring and vanquish Sauron.

Early in his journey to Mordor, Frodo says he wishes Bilbo had killed Gollum when he’d had the opportunity.  (Gollum, drawn by the Ring, is shadowing the Fellowship on its journey.)  Gandalf sagely advises Frodo that Gollum may yet play an important role, and that mercy is not a quality to disparage.  As the Fellowship is separated and Frodo has to journey to Mordor with only his faithful friend Sam beside him, Gollum soon becomes their indispensable guide, and Frodo begins to pity him.  Frodo, by showing Gollum mercy, reawakens the good within him, calling him Smeagol and preventing Sam from hurting him.

But the corrupting power of the Ring overtakes Smeagol again, and Gollum reemerges.  Even so, without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom.  On the brink of destroying the Ring, Frodo too becomes consumed by its power, choosing to use it instead of casting it into the fire.  Here again, Gollum emerges as an instrumental character.  He fights Frodo for the Ring, gains it, but loses his footing and falls into the fires of Mount Doom, destroying himself as well as the Ring and saving Middle Earth.

It was Bilbo and Frodo’s mercy that spared the life of Gollum, setting the stage for Gollum’s actions that ultimately save Frodo and the rest of Middle Earth from Sauron’s dominance.  Without Gollum’s help, Frodo and Sam would never have made it to Mount Doom; or, if by some miracle they had, Frodo in donning the Ring would have been ensnared by Sauron’s power and executed by him.  If Frodo is the hero of the tale, Gollum is the anti-hero, as indispensable to Middle Earth’s salvation as Frodo and the Fellowship.

Another story about the role of mercy came in one of my favorite “Star Trek” episodes, “Arena.”  In this episode, Captain Kirk has to fight a duel with an enemy captain of a lizard-like species known as the Gorn.  It’s supposed to be a fight to the death, overseen by a much superior species known as the Metrons.  When Kirk succeeds in besting the Gorn captain, however, he refuses to kill the Gorn, saying that perhaps the Gorn had a legitimate reason for attacking a Federation outpost.  A Metron spokesperson appears and is impressed by Kirk, saying that he has demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy, something the Metrons hardly suspected “savage” humans were capable of showing.

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Capt Kirk fights the Gorn captain in “Arena”

Perhaps war between the Federation and the Gorn is not inevitable, this episode suggests.  Diplomacy may yet resolve a territorial dispute without more blood being shed, all because Kirk had the courage to show mercy to his opponent: an opponent who wouldn’t have shown mercy to him if their fates had been reversed.

Mercy, nowadays, is not in vogue in the USA.  America’s enemies must always be smited, preferably killed, in the name of righteous vengeance.  Only weak people show mercy, or so our national narrative appears to suggest.  But recall the saying that in insisting on an eye for an eye, soon we’ll all be blind.

The desire for murderous vengeance is making us blind.  The cycle of violence continues with no end in sight.  Savagery begets more savagery.  It’s as if we’ve put on Sauron’s ring and become consumed by it.

Do we have the courage of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and even of that man of action, Captain Kirk?  Can our toughness be informed by and infused with mercy?

Debunking Spectator Sports: Confessions of an Anti-Sports Fan

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Are you not entertained?

Richard Sahn

I’ve never gotten excited about or interested in a particular sports team, whether professional or amateur. I don’t care whether a particular team wins or loses and I go out of my way not to watch games on TV or listen to a radio broadcast.

Prior to this year’s Super Bowl game, I listened to people chant, on the phone or in person, “Go Patriots” or “Go Eagles.” Even a Catholic priest at the end of a mass I attended recently couldn’t leave the altar before letting the parishioners know he was a Patriots fan.

Spectator sports have always been a secular religion in most developed countries but with no promise of any form of salvation, afterlife, or reincarnation. The most you can really expect from your team is winning a bet on the game. But  spectator sports  is a distraction with negative consequences, ultimately, to society and the individual sports fan—such as having no understanding of the actions of political parties.

And because each season of the year has its athletic contests there is no letup. A fan is deluged all year round with games as well as incessant commentaries on athletes and the points they score or might score.  Athletic contests and players, even on the high school level, are  a major topic of conversation, especially among adult males  I view such conversations as not only boring but irrelevant to my own life, to what I  would call meaningful concerns.

In fact, I would argue spectator sports discussions have no lasting therapeutic value in dealing with the real “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Political philosopher Noam Chomsky recently said, probably somewhat sarcastically, that if as much mental energy was expended in solving the social and economic problems of the world as is expended in trying to explain why a given team wins or loses a game, much socially and politically induced suffering and death could be eliminated.

Eavesdrop on virtually any conversation, especially at World Series, Super Bowl, or NBA playoff times, and you’ll hear conversations that would make you believe you were in a think-tank rivaling the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Now, as a sociologist, I realize the important function of sports in society. That function, of course, is a distraction from life’s existential problems and dilemmas. Death, loss of loved ones, nuclear war, global warming are certainly among those problems. And, most assuredly, being a spectator sports fanatic is a far better alternative than being a drug addict or engaging in anti-social behavior.  I also admit spectator sports have a limited psycho-therapeutic effect on some people.

My quarrel is with the level of energy spent watching and then discussing sports events. Even expressing one’s preference for one team or another I find disturbing, mainly because I feel there are more worthwhile causes to champion. Agonizing, so it seems, over the prowess of individual players and their team’s chances of winning playoffs or championships is a waste of time and energy. Simply put, I cannot empathize in the slightest with the sports fan. In that respect I guess I’m a type of sociopath since sociopaths can’t empathize with other human beings in general.

Arguably, spectator sports also contribute to the “us” versus “them” perspective toward social life, the belief that life is not interesting or worthwhile unless “us” is always trying to  defeat “them,” whether “them” be a rival team or country–in other words, not “us.”

The great (former) coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi once proclaimed, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Could Lombardi’s philosophy be applied to our current president who is also an ardent sports fan?  Could Donald Trump’s insistence on America becoming “great again,” with all the dire consequences to minority groups and the underclass, not to mention the world in general, be the by-product of his obsessive interest in spectator sports? At one time our president wanted to be owner of an NFL team. What does that tell us?

Two psychological processes seem to account for the prevalence of the typical sports fan. These are vicarious identification and reification. Vicarious identification is thinking that one “IS” actually the team he or she is watching.  The team’s victory or defeat is his/her victory or defeat.  Being able to enjoy plays, movies, and novels entails the same process; for the moment, one is a character in a work of fiction. The ability of consciousness (mind, soul, brain, spirit, if you prefer) to immerse itself in a story or situation that is fictitious is, for sure, one of the great joys of life. From time to time I’ve watched certain films or videos multiple times and can still fool myself into thinking that I don’t really know the outcome.  Perhaps spectator sports allow male fans in particular to be the macho male, the alpha male they’re not in everyday life, without having to perform in any way. No need to resort to violent behavior if one vicariously identifies with a football team or professional wrestlers.

Reification is psychologically treating an abstract concept or mental construct as if it were real, as if it were empirical or tangible reality.  Semanticists will say “the word is not the thing” or “the map is not the territory.”  Nations, states, cities do not exist as realities (sui generis); they are only abstract concepts, in other words, words.  People exist, athletes exist, and games are played, but the sports fan wants his/her “team” to win because the name of the team itself is regarded as if it were a live person or group of people.

It doesn’t matter, usually, who the real life players are or even if there are any real life players. It’s the “team” itself—the word is the thing.  I once asked my students who were fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers whether they would still want the Steelers to defeat the Dallas Cowboys if the teams’ executives exchanged players and coaches. The Steelers fans said they would still support or root for the Steelers over the Cowboys. I tried to point out the error in their thinking, that there is no such reality as the “Steelers” or the “Cowboys,” that only players and their coaches exist. No, the Steelers fans would remain Steelers fans and want the team to win because they are “The Steelers.”

Existence precedes essence, say the existentialists.  Existence is what is tangibly real, for example, what could physically maim, hurt, kill. Essence refers to words, ideas, concepts. (For example, essence would be the “thoughts and prayers” for gun victims–what we hear so much these days from our politicians in the wake of shooting violence.) Scoring a touchdown is “existence.” The team that fans roots for is “essence,” in other words, nothing but an idea with no more substance than the number “5.” When one regards spectator sports existentially it becomes difficult to be a fan, although one may enjoy viewing brilliantly executed plays on the field or in the arena.

My argument here, then, is that the serious spectator sports fan is likely to be distracted from engaging in philosophical, political, aesthetic, critical thinking or reflection.  Now, I have no doubt that one could be a sports fan, even a fanatical sports fan, and be a social activist, an artist, a scholar, a reflective person capable of deep meditation.  I just see spectator sports as tending to obstruct or preclude intellectual and aesthetic development in the general population of a given country.

Professional and collegiate athletic events do benefit our economic system by creating all kinds of jobs and careers, and not just for the players. But spectator sports may also stand in the way of the fan being exposed to and contemplating the vital social and political issues of the times. It is reasonable to ask whether being a serious sports fan erodes participation in the democratic process. Why are most universities known for their teams and not for what their faculties teach? What’s the first thing an American thinks of when he or she thinks of “Ohio State” or “Notre Dame” or “Penn State”?  Is it higher learning?  Or football?

Richard Sahn teaches sociology at a college in Pennsylvania.

Get the Widow on the Set: Trump’s State of the Union Address

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I felt like this, only worse

W.J. Astore

Last night’s State of the Union address was disturbing on many levels.  Republicans applauded when President Trump touted the elimination of the individual mandate for purchasing health care insurance — so it’s a good thing people have no health insurance?  Wait until they go to the emergency room for an appendectomy and leave with a bill for $20,000.  Republicans applauded as well when Trump touted the American prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.  So it’s a good thing our President is vowing to send more “terrorists” to an offshore U.S. military prison?

I could go on and on, but what was most disturbing to me was the use of people in the audience as props for Trump’s positions.  A brave soldier who won the Bronze Star for valor was celebrated to support America’s wars overseas.  Parents whose daughters were killed by illegal immigrants were used to support Trump’s policies on immigration.  A family whose son suffered grievous, ultimately deadly, wounds in North Korea was used to support Trump’s bellicose policies toward Kim Jong-un and his regime, as was a courageous North Korean defector.

It reminded me of the Don Henley song, “Dirty Laundry” and its lines: Can we film the operation?/Is the head dead yet?/You know the boys in the newsroom got a running bet/get the widow on the set/we need dirty laundry. 

The shameless exploitation of other people’s grief is something I can’t stand.  It’s sordid and cynical and dirty.  There are many other things I could say about Trump’s State of the Union address, but my overall feeling was one of exploitation.  After his speech, I felt dirty.

Mom’s Wisdom on Religion

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That’s mom, circa 1950

W.J. Astore

Today, I want to share a bracing view, courtesy of my mother.  She converted to Catholicism (from Protestantism) when she married my dad, but she wasn’t much of a church-goer.  When my dad suggested she should accompany him to mass on Sundays, she had a telling rejoinder:

You worry about your soul — I’ll worry about mine.

Excellent advice.  Mom had a way of speaking that cut to the chase.

When it comes to religion, too many Americans seek to push their beliefs on others.  And often there’s some guilt or a veiled threat in the push.  “A good person goes to church.” “These are holy days of obligation.”  “You should go to set a good example for the kids.” “Don’t forget judgment day — God is looking down on you right now.”

My mom was having none of that.  She also didn’t need church to do the right thing.  She was kind and generous and, in my opinion, followed the example of the Gospel without making airs about it.

When it comes to religion, few people want to be pushed into attending “mandatory” practices.  Indeed, I’ve always liked Christ’s teachings on praying to God in private, rather than standing on a street corner and shouting your beliefs to the masses.  Speaking of which, I once witnessed a man doing exactly that in Oxford, England, shouting on the street, proclaiming the good news.  When someone complained, he cited a Biblical passage that enjoined him to proclaim his faith in a loud voice so that others might follow in his footsteps.

That’s a problem with the Bible: So many passages, so many messages, so many interpretations.

Still, I persist in believing in my mother’s aphorism: Focus on the health of your own soul and its relationship to whatever higher power or higher ideals you believe in.  Don’t focus on the souls and the beliefs and practices of others.

Or, as Christ put it, “Judge not — lest you be judged.”

Of Historical Statues and Monuments

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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 monuments are a stimulus for reflection as well as education. Who was that guy on a horse? Why is he being honored? And what does that decision tell us about who we were and are as a people?

As a people, we choose certain historical figures as worthy of being sculpted in stone or cast in bronze. We choose our heroes, so to speak, our paragons, our worthies. And our choices are just that — choices. They reflect certain values, priorities, motives, feelings. And since our values, our motives, our sense of what is good and bad, right and wrong, change over time, so too can our statues and memorials change, if that is the will of the people in a democracy that enshrines freedom of choice.

If the peoples of various states choose to remove certain statues, so be it. Other statues might take their place; other worthies might be selected as more in keeping with the times and our values as we conceive them today as a people.

What we choose to memorialize as a people says much about ourselves. Many statues and memorials fall under the category of “man on horseback.” Certainly, military figures like Lee and Jackson were considered great men of their times, at least in a Confederate context. They also, sadly, became potent symbols of racism in the Jim Crow South, physical symbols of the myth of the Lost Cause, intimidating and demoralizing figures to Black communities struggling against violence and prejudice.

Americans are an intemperate lot, driven by extremes, constantly fighting to reconfigure ourselves through our interpretation and re-interpretation of history. All this is proof to William Faulkner’s famous saying that, “The past is not dead. It’s not even past.”

As a historian, I find it deeply sad as well as ironic that, at a time when education in history is withering in the United States, the importance of history has arguably never been greater. We should use statues as a stimulus for learning, but instead they’re more often appropriated as a driver for divisiveness.

If nothing else, today’s debates about statues should remind us yet again of the importance of history and a proper understanding of it. History is inherently disputatious. Controversial. Challenging. Exciting. If we can tap the heat generated by the latest controversies and warm students to a study of history in all its richness, perhaps some good can come from the ongoing controversy.

What kind of statues and memorials are the “right” ones for America? It’s a vexing question, is it not? It’s also a question with powerful implications. I come back to George Orwell’s comment (slightly paraphrased): He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

Our understanding of the past — our selective celebration of it — helps to define what is possible in the future. If you celebrate generals on horseback — military men of the Confederacy — you make a choice that helps to shape what is seen as right and proper in the present moment, and what will be right and proper in the future.

For a better future, I’d like to see fewer statues to military men and sports heroes and the like, and more to visionaries who sought a better way for us as a people. I recall a small monument I saw to Elihu Burritt in Massachusetts. No one is talking about him or his legacy today. He’s an obscure figure compared to his contemporaries, Lee and Jackson. Known as the “Learned Blacksmith,” he was a committed pacifist and abolitionist who worked to educate the less fortunate in society.

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Monument to Elihu Burritt in New Marlboro, Mass. (author’s photo)

If we are to build prominent statues and monuments, would it not be better to build them to people like Elihu Burritt, people who worked for justice and equality, people who fought against war and slavery and for peace and freedom?