Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Problem with Statues

Since writing about the concept of historical postcards, I’ve stumbled upon a few, very current examples of how our history is purposefully shaped by our present. It's an old and powerful idea, though at odds with our sense that the past is fixed.  

In fact, our efforts to control the past often exceed those we invest in setting our future.

Where the past and present often meet most violently is in our statues, those monuments intended to be permanent reflections of great people and great ideas.  Some examples:

When Lafayette made his triumphant tour of the United States, his last stop was to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. On June 17, 1825 he marched with 30,000 spectators (including 40 veterans of the battle) to the dedication on the hill, which he termed his “North Star.” Bunker Hill was the quintessential moment for many in the Revolutionary generation, the first moment the colonists realized they could stand toe-to-toe with the British. Today, there’s a budget-driven movement in Massachusetts to eliminate Bunker Hill Day (June 17) as a paid day-off for government and schools in Boston’s Suffolk County. Lafayette’s “North Star" is yielding to financial griping over “pointless days off.”

Around Baillet-en-France, French archaeologists have unearthed dozens of nine-foot, 1937 era Soviet-built sculptures (like a tank driver and a textile worker) honoring the international brotherhood of workers. Straight from the Soviet pavilion at the 1937 Paris World Fair, the Soviets gave some of the statues to the French, but when Communism fell out-of-favor the statues were buried. Now resurrected, the statues remain problematic, as Stalin-era art is not entirely simpatico with modern France.

Back in America, we’re moving statues around, too. Earlier this month a statue of Ronald Reagan was installed in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Each state is allowed two statues, and it is a big deal to change them: both chambers of a state legislature must vote, the governor must endorse the decision and then the federal government is petitioned. So who got knocked out by Reagan this time? Thomas Starr King, a Universalist minister and “the orator who saved the nation,” credited by Lincoln as keeping California in the union. That’s not a bad resume, but obviously not enough to keep Reagan out of the rotunda.

With all of this statuary in motion, I direct your attention to a book by James W. Loewen (author of the fabulous Lies My Teacher Told Me) called Lies Across America. In it, Loewen visits and discusses the sites of statues and monuments which do more to obscure history than enlighten it. He also gives us his top 20 candidates for toppling, a few of which I list here:

Every statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, who appears 32 times in Tennessee (more than Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson combined). A brilliant cavalry commander with a mixed military career, he became the first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

The marker for the “horrible Indian massacre” of 1861 in Almo, Idaho, should at least be taken to a museum, since the event it described never happened.

Statues of Christopher Columbus, or at least the ones in California and Ohio claiming he proved the earth was round.

The most hated monument in America, that celebrating the White League in New Orleans.
Perhaps Americans could steal a page from the Spanish, whose socialist government has banned fascist icons. That means Gen. Francisco Franco’s statue was uprooted from the city square of Santander and banished to a local museum last December. The Spanish government reasons that no Nazi symbols are allowed in Germany, no statues to Mussolini are on display on Italian streets—why should the symbol of their painful past be on public display?

In Mickey Mouse History, Mike Wallace reminds us that Serbian troops besieging cities in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s made a point of blowing up museums, monuments, libraries, and archives. It was, he says, an effort at “historic cleansing.”

It is a reminder that we move history at will--even the big, heavy variety--to suit the purposes of the present.