The Statues in Our Public Spaces Lie
There are lies of omission as well as commission, and the statues in Charlottesville, Va. -- typical of other towns -- do both. We have statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, a generic Confederate soldier, George Rogers Clark, Lewis and Clark (with Sacagawea kneeling like their dog), and on City Hall a triptych with Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. We have a monument to the War on Vietnam. And that's it.
Here are some things not memorialized in any major statue or monument in Charlottesville: Queen Charlotte, for whom the town is named; any individual or generic native member of the people who lived here before the Europeans; any individual or generic settler or farmer or merchant or slave. There is no commemoration of the genocide of the native races or the enslavement of Africans. There is no individual or generic recognition of those who struggled against and ended slavery, those who advanced human rights following the Civil War, or those who took great risks to end Jim Crow. There is no individual or generic recognition of those who struggled for labor rights, children's rights, women's suffrage, environmental protection, educational advancements, or peace. There is no recognition of police officers, firefighters, or of those who have pioneered the nonviolent tools that during the past century have proved so much more useful than wars in changing the world for the better. Charlottesville is a university town that has been home to brilliant and influential educators, authors, artists, scientists, and athletes. They are not recognized individually or generically. There is no park and statue for Edgar Allen Poe or William Faulkner. Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Dave Matthews Band and many others have made music that enriched a lot of lives, but none of them apparently have ended enough lives through violence to get themselves so much as a little plaque. Sam Shepard, Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange and many other wonderful performers have either lived too recently or failed to slaughter enough Indians.
The dominant thrust of the statues in our public spaces suggests that the core of our history can be condensed into a five-year period of war a century and a half ago. Our public spaces tell us that the only thing worthy of commemoration since that horrific episode was the senseless slaughter of millions of Vietnamese. The history books in our schools play the same game as our public statues, jumping from war to war, as if nothing useful or interesting happened in between. We glorify a war because it ended slavery, even though most nations ended slavery without wars. And then we celebrate only the side of the war that was defending slavery. We prop up heroes who were not from Charlottesville because of their connection to that war. We ignore the fact that many people from Charlottesville have done the world more good than Robert E. Lee did, and that in many cases they have done so with courage to be surpassed by no one. It is not easy to face angry racists nonviolently. It takes courage, determination, and discipline. It builds solidarity, character, and public spirit. It carries with it everything positive about war, without the negative.
Charlottesville City Council Member Kristin Szakos recently raised the possibility of adding or removing some public statues in our town. Here are some of the resulting comments from a local television news website. Despite such websites filtering out the ugliest comments, see if you can detect an unpleasant theme or two:
"Yes, it is time to replace these racist Confederate statues with statues of Jesse and Al, Farrakhan, Reverend Wright, and of course, The Chosen One, the Omnipotent, the Apologizer-in-Chief Himself; Barack Hussein-as-salaam-alaikum Obama; mmm, mmm, mmmm!"
"Szakos, it's something called part of this area's history. You want to replace it with a statue of Farrakhan? About 620,000 people died in the War between the States. Almost all of them were white."
"while we're at it lets have a discussion about tearing down monticello and replacing it with a statue of TJ and Sally making love to each other under a rainbow, then we can dig up all the confederate tombstones in the area and replace them with statues of city council members, wasting so much money in the process that they will have to assess your property at five times it's actual value to pay for it all."
"more tax money to tear it down!! maybe barrack hussein can send some 'relief money' our way to help us get a newer, more friendly statue. Hey, maybe we can just get a large stone constitution!!!"
"Lets remove all statues related to Thomas Jefferson and replace them with statues of George Jefferson. Then we can have a sing along to 'Movin On Up'."
"Maybe blacks and whites alike figured out slavery was more economically viable than Obamanomics and it's welfare state?"
"Replace the statues with figures of people that have been arrested over 50 times, live in public housing, pay no taxes and serve as a reminder of what Charlottesville now wants to put on a pedestal."
"I guess they can put up a monument for Ralph Sampson or Arthur Ashe to appease everyone."
"Those vermin must be booted out of the USA. Kikc 'em to Hungary The thing is - Hungary doesn't want that sort of vermin either. The Hungarians sre slowly but surely removing the fangs of the Nation Wrecking International Bankster Vampiyres - and I mean J E W S - out of their National throats. "The Federal Reserve" is a Rothschilds J E W fiat debt counterfierting scam. The Hungarians are removing them - so they won't want this vermin either. FYI Co mu nism is STRAIGHT outta the Talmud."
It may surprise you to know that Szakos is white, and that she made no mention of Farrakhan or any of the rest of this nonsense. One commenter on that site actually said they'd planned to speak against Szakos' proposal but had changed their mind after seeing so much bigotry from other commenters. Another comment, I think, hit the nail on the head, albeit unintentionally:
"Denial of this community's ancestors does not -- and will never -- cause them to simply disappear."
Really? Most decades, most movements, most ethnic groups, most areas of intellectual endeavor, the work it took to bring about almost every social advancement: these have simply disappeared from our conceptions of our local history. Nothing causes information to disappear like refusing to talk about it.
The local newspaper, the Daily Progress, ran this article and this editorial on the topic. The editorial defends the propriety of discussing the possibilities, defends the idea of adding more statues, but insists that the existing Confederate statues remain. And on the topic of adding more statues, the editorialists wonder:
"Is there a modern philanthropist out there who would balance Mr. McIntire's commemorations of the Confederacy? Who will step up?"
Mr. McIntire is the rich guy who created some of the existing statues and parks (one of them on condition that it include a school for white children). That we rely on the super-wealthy to determine what we memorialize from our past ought to cause even those who believe we're treating the past correctly to stop and question that assumption.
If we were not nationally dumping over a trillion dollars a year into war-making, we could build new parks and statues with public money and public decision-making. But nothing keeps the war dollars flowing like the war-glorification in our public spaces. President Kennedy said that until the conscientious objector receives the respect and prestige of the soldier war will go on. But even if we defunded it a teeny bit, we could use a teeny bit of the savings to honor those we most appreciate from Charlottesville and beyond. In my ideal fantasy, we would begin the process of choosing individuals or movements to honor by reading the late historian Howard Zinn, and in the end we would be wise enough to include a little statue of him somewhere, not god-like super-sized on a horse, but life-like, the same size as the rest of us, the same size as our young people who must understand their own potential for greatness.