Humans are never perfect. To put them on a pedestal as statues risks whitewashing their less than clean traits as well
Statutes, flags, historical monuments. We’re talking a lot about statues these days, or to use the great bard’s words (this is a literary blog after all): “to be, or not to be…” Statues, currently those raised after Confederate combatants and leaders in the U.S. have already caused the death of three people and several injured. So why are statues so controversial? Why do people care about a bronze statue of people long dead? Allow me an attempt to explain.
Humans are complex, statues aren’t
In order to understand a statue, we need to understand humanity. A human being is a complex creature. Few humans are perfect; if any. We have good sides, we have our bad sides. Allow me to exemplify: George Washington, first president of the United States, a war hero and a successful general. So far so good. But he was also a slave owner, and yeah, today, we don’t see that as a positive trait. Something the current president tried to exploit in one of his asinine press appearances. I’ll get back to that later. Most of us still see Washington as worthy of being a statue, name-giver to the capital, an entire state etc. Adolf Hitler on the other hand, the greatest villain of our times, he will never be cast as a statue, even though the man loved dogs and animals in general. Why wouldn’t you name a kennel after him or a dog shelter? The Adolf Hitler Dog Rescue Society? Nah, right? His name is just too tainted by the bad he’s done.
So what about good people?
I have very few idols, if any, but Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes. I don’t know much about Mr. Mandela’s life before Robben Island except what you read in articles like the one quoted above, but I guess there was a reason he ended up there. His life in older years is well known to me though, and I’m sure there are plenty of schools named after the first freely elected president by all South Africans, and probably some statues, too. I even enshrined his nick name “Madiba” in one of my books (Willem of the Tafel). But it is not the human Mandela we praise. It’s the public persona, the president, the leader of a crucial time in South Africa’s history. And we do that not only against the backdrop of history but – much more importantly – in the context of how we interpret the present times. And while Mandela symbolizes South African freedom and democracy, Frederik Willem De Klerk, his predecessor as president, and also a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate probably won’t get many statues, simply because he represents the old South Africa, the oppressor.
What about General Lee?
The big question here is why people created statues of General Lee (et al) in the first place. And why are statues of him criticized while George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (who even had illegitimate kids with his slaves) are okay? Again, history, and historical context. When Jefferson and Washington were active in society, Americans by large had no qualms about slavery. Remember, this is almost a century prior to the civil war. So while the vast majority today condemns slavery, nobody did so during the first years of the new republic. It was normal, just like women didn’t have the right to vote and gays couldn’t get married. That’s why it’s not really a factor in the equation. You can deplore that, but that doesn’t change things.
As a member of the LGBT community, I could decry every statue on Mount Rushmore, any statue anywhere really, because of their stance toward LGBT rights, but the general consensus back when they lived was another one. You could say the same about women’s rights. Which is why it’s so important that the constitution of a nation, particularly one as old as the U.S. one, is always re-interpreted and read against the backdrop of the current times (or it becomes as useless as reading the bible literally, and who does that?)
General Lee is THE figurehead of the Confederate States, more so even than their president. He symbolizes slavery because that was the #1 reason the southern states tried to leave the U.S. He is pretty much the poster boy for slavery, as the oppressor, just as Uncle Tom et al are poster boys for the victims. To erect a statue of General Lee (or defend it today) is therefore equivalent to condoning his stance on slavery, which basically means that you do not afford all humans the same value. That makes you a racist, a white supremacist (in U.S. terms), at least in today’s views. Was General Lee a good man? I’m sure. I’m sure he was a great husband and a devoted father, but that’s not why he stands as a statue, at least not today. So why did they erect statues of him? That’s a complex question, and I’m not sure I have the correct answer (in fact I know I don’t), but I would guess that – again – the answer lies somewhere in the historical context of a nascent civil rights movement. While blacks had been freed all across the Union in 1865, they had few civil rights, and in real terms, few things changed for them in the South. As the African American community began to voice their concerns and their claims to equal civil rights, this must’ve alarmed those who opposed equal rights. And therefore, symbols like General Lee or the Confederate flag resurfaces, even though, after 1865 they’d disappeared, symbols for loss and capitulation. Statues may have been raised to honor his valor, his strength, the loyalty to the state, etc. Sadly, it’s difficult to see such nuances in historical people. Even a statue of Hitler kneeling next to his dogs would do little to redeem him in the eyes of the public.
How statues and their perception changes
To the common people of the Soviet Union, statues of Stalin and Lenin were probably always seen as symbols of oppression. When the Stalinist era had ended, the Stalin statues vanished, by government order. After communism had collapsed, statues of Lenin disappeared almost throughout the entire empire, a symbol of the oppression of the past 60 years. Which is odd, because they had once been raised to honor the man who’d freed the Russian people from the Tzarevich oppression… The irony of history.
I’m convinced that statues, buildings, streets etc named after Confederate fighters were always a blight in the eye of the oppressed, but they didn’t have the means to do anything about it. Imagine how it must feel for a black student to attend Robert E. Lee High (exactly the same way it would feel for a Jew to attend Adolf Hitler High), and while I’m not comparing the two on equal footing, the analogy serves to drive home a point: history and our perception thereof changes, and it is interesting to see that while the civil war freed slaves on paper, the United States as a country didn’t begin to address its racist underbelly until the civil rights movement, and even then only reluctantly. Which is why racism in that country is so deeply rooted and institutionalized. Far too many people still believe that while slaves may have been freed, they’re still not treated/seen as equals, but that’s an entirely different post.
As new documents come to light, and we learn new things about historic people, our view of them might change. Let me exemplify with an example from my birth country, Switzerland. During WWII, our armed forces were led by General Guisan, a four-star general who was specifically appointed to lead the country’s defenses. Normally, Switzerland only has three-star generals. Anyway, about fifteen years ago, new research into General Guisan revealed him to be an anti-Semite. This led to a huge outcry and many in the older generations were deeply offended by how these young “socialist historians” soiled the memory of the greatest soldier in recent Swiss history. Well, here’s my take. When Hitler took power in Germany, most Europeans and Americans held anti-semitic views. It’s been that way since the beginning of the church. It was after all the Jews who were responsible for killing the founder of their church. Hardly an endearing act. However, Guisan, while probably sympathetic to some of Hitler’s views, was also first and foremost Swiss, and just because he (and most likely Lenin, and many other leaders of the time) felt the same way about Jews, there’s a difference between anti-Semitism and eradicating them. And there’s a huge difference in defending your country against a foreign oppressor, no matter what his views. And the Swiss have always been wary of Germany and the power it wields. Not to mention the fact that Guisan was French speaking. This doesn’t “excuse” his views, but explains them in a historical context. His actions speak for themselves, just as General Lee’s (despite privately opposing the secession) chose to actively fight for a losing cause.
Yet when it comes to statues and monuments, we must also see them in the light of when they were erected, and why. Which is why the men on Mt. Rushmore rest safely, even from BLM, feminist or LGBT activism, while the statues of southern fighters do not. Because what they stand for was disputed even when they were alive, not just today.
Why weren’t they removed before? And why the fights now?
America is undergoing a rough patch in its history, having for the first time elected a racist and white supremacist to the presidency. While few people who voted for Trump share his vile views, racism is a red thread throughout his entire life, from the earliest days when he learned from his father not to rent to African Americans in New York, to his remarks about Mexicans “they don’t send their best people…” and finally to the comments (or lack thereof) last weekend. Suddenly, race is an issue on every news show, something that began with the Obama presidency, only now, we see the backlash, we see the ugly head rearing itself. For decades, white southerners walked by those statues not even thinking about what they meant. The Confederate flag was seen as a symbol or rebellion, of being an outcast, a southerner. All the while the black community didn’t have the voice to speak up, because they always felt the same way, and they still do, of course. Imagine seeing a police patrol. As a white person, you see them as a protector, no matter who sits behind the wheel. As a black person, you see the potential for being abused. Sometimes, you have to see things from the perspective of the minority, because the minority has always been told how the majority views things. The most interesting aspect though is that what we see in America now, is the majority becoming a minority. But, as was the case in South Africa, the minority is still in possession of the majority of power and money which enables them to hold on to power longer than they rightly deserve. What happens in the U.S. now is the white race’s final struggle as the “dominant” power. And unless they somehow manage to completely disenfranchise colored voters, this will resolve itself within a generation. Thank gods for natural selection…
But surely, every statue represents history? Mustn’t they be preserved?
I hear that argument from time to time from racists (45 using particularly loathsome “esthetic” arguments) and others, although I haven’t seen any blacks using that argument (yet). Two things: first of all, that’s not been the case, historically. In ancient Egypt and many other similar cultures, a new ruler might destroy any traces of his predecessor. Sometimes because they tried to revolutionize something, Echnaton is a great example, sometimes because they were defeated by another country etc. This has always been how humans have done things. New rulers, new statues, old statues destroyed. It’s only in very recent decades (and in democracies) that we’ve seemed to have changed our approach and somehow attribute statues artistic and historic value, rather than symbolic. And the answer is yes, absolutely, any statue represents history, but you won’t see statues of Hitler on display in German squares or statues of Pol Pot in Cambodia, but you’ll find them in museums, where their historical context is discussed. And that goes for a couple of artistically or historically valuable exhibits, but you can’t exhibit all of them. Some will forever be stored in warehouses, some melted down.
Statues, flags and historical symbols are a complex issue, for sure, and most certainly something I wish I could revisit the “outcome” of the current U.S. struggle in retrospect. It’s difficult to see all the complexities and all the finer nuances when you’re living in such times. The present serves badly as history commentator. No wonder they say “hindsight is the wiser”… What is your take on this? I’m curious to hear what your insights are. Anything I’ve missed? Interesting points of view? Particularly from the oppressed and I don’t mean white supremacists, because you’re NOT oppressed. You may see your privilege vain, but that’s hardly considered oppression. While other people gaining equal footage may hurt you emotionally, you don’t lose anything physical, no rights, nothing. So stop whining and grow a couple…
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