Enough With The Iconoclasm Already
How do you reckon with your history as a nation when it's not really taught all that well in your schools? How do you confront the sins of the past and resolve them when your history gets reframed or outright rewritten for political purposes a couple of times a century?
These are deep questions and I wish I had answers to them, but I do know that smashing all the statues and changing all the names is just sailing into 'stupid' territory now. I'm not talking about pancake syrup or pre-packaged rice, I'm talking about the fact that we're astonishingly ignorant of our history as it is- do we really think a gigantic ass eraser, applied indiscriminately is a good idea? How is that going to help? How are we going to learn anything if we just break shit?
I came across a piece on Quilette that was a touch too shouty and paranoid about creeping totalitarianism and neo-Marxism for my liking, but it did have a 'graph worth quoting, because I think it's a good starting point on how to think about this stuff:
"In response to all this, there is probably one way forward: People must begin to think again. We require a revolution of nuance. We should admit that historical injustice is real and must be addressed. That there are indeed some beliefs and opinions that are beyond the pale and must be shunnted. But we must demand overwhelming evidence before doing so. And we must allow for the possibility of repentance and forgiveness."
Beyond that, I think we have acknowledge the futility of judging historical figures full stop. If valorizing someone via a statue requires complete adherance to the moral values of today, then we're going to need to take down damn near all the statues. It's a position that doesn't allow for nuance. But here's the thing: we need to take down some of them. It's well past time and they're propping up a version of history that's just not true in many cases.
The South is long overdue for a historical reckoning with a lot of it's Confederate imagery and statues, which to me, seem to fall broadly into three categories: those erected by soldiers and survivors of both sides on/near actual battlefields in the Civil War, those put up in the early part of the 20th Century and into the mid-20th Century to glorify Segregation and there's probably a few that fall somewhere in between.
In a perfect world, the change in attitudes in the South would be met with timely and swift action from local authorities to start removing and replacing these statues- but competing versions of history lead to strange attachments to entrentched traditions that should have been discarded long ago- so while I wish we could live in a world where we just take these statues down, I can understand the impatience and people being tired of waiting for them to come down and doing it themselves- especially with the ones that were put up to glorify Segregation more than anything else.
So far, The South seems to be doing okay with this. NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag at it's races, Mississippi seems to be inching toward changing it's flag- Georgia shouldn't be off the hook either because while it's present flag is a vast improvement on it's prior one, it's pretty telling that if you take out the State Seal in the upper left canton, you have the Stars and Bars. The actual Confederate flag.
Renaming the military bases? Eh. I think if you're going to name a military base after a General, they should at least be a demonstrable competent General- though props to Texas Monthly for making a strong case for a much better name for Fort Hood. The thing with names though is that you can't really call for military bases to be renamed and then get all verklempt when someone points out that Eli Yale was an real life honest-to-goodness slave trader. If you're going to get all "but Yale as a name and an institution means something more" about it, then don't be surprised when the soldiers that have served at these bases do the same.
Outside of the South, however, it's all starting to get stupid now.
Protestors in San Fransciso tore down a statue of President Grant and a statue of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the Star-Spangled Banner. Grant acquired a slave through his marrige and pretty much freed him right away. He advocated for ratification of the 15th Amendment that extended the franchise to African-Americans. He inherited a giant mess when it came to Native American affairs and while he probably didn't do what he could have done, he at least tried- appointing Ely Parker, a Seneca as his Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
But sure. Fuck Grant. Tear his ass down.
Am I going to advocate for tearing down Francis Scott Key? Eh. His wiki-page reveals a dude who suppressed abolitionists as Attorney General for DC, but publically criticized slavery and freed some of his slaves. (Seems like a bit of a squish to me.) Am I going to get all riled up because the third verse of the Star Spangled Banner contains references to slavery and seems well, shitty? No. Because who the fuck knows all the verses to the Star Spangled Banner?
Similarly, I was today years old when I learned that Rhode Island's official name included 'And Providence Plantations' which at the time had nothing whatsoever to do with slavery, but it in an overabundance of... caution? They're dropping the reference to the Providence Plantations. I'm not going to mount the barricades over something I didn't even know about until last week.
Where I do get off the Iconoclast Express is with Mr. Hans Christian Heg and the Emancipation Memorial. Mr. Heg's statue was toppled and decapitated for reasons passing understanding in Madison. This dude's wiki-page reveals a lot of legit good shit: he was a Union Colonel who died of his wounds at the Battle of Chickamauga, he was a long-time abolitionist, became a member of the Free Soil Party and was a leader of Wisconsin's Wide Awakes, an anti-slave catcher militia. He also shelted a dude who was a Federal fugitive who incited a mob to recuse an escaped slave. The icing on the cake? When he was elected Prison Commissioner, he spear-headed reforms to the prison and thought that priosns should be use to "reclaim the wandering and save the lost."
But sure. Decapitate this dude. Tear his ass down too. Everyone's got phones these days and apparently broken fingers too, because no one knows how to work Google.
Which brings us to the Emancipation Memorial.
To be fair: when you look at it, it doesn't look that great. I can see why in the present moment people would look at it and get pissed. It looks like a white dude towering above a black man. But if you actually pause and dig a little deeper, you find out some salient facts. It was paid for entirely by the wages of freed slaves. I tap out on that fact alone. Who are we to destroy what free men and women paid for? How supremely arrogant of us.
But dig a little deeper and you find out more. This is a pretty good analysis of the art of it all-- (just scrape off the Conservative veneer and it's fairly solid). To top it all off? Frederick Douglass spoke at the Memorial's Dedication and gave a speech that demonstrated that if the audience didn't know the difference between history and hagiography, Douglass knew.
In order to confront our history, we've got to actually know our history and it's a little hard to actually learn when at the rate we're going we'll be sitting in a pile of rubble by the time this is done. Never mind the fact that if you're really after correcting systemic racism in our country and smashing a few statues doesn't bother the Establishment even a tiny bit.
So, quit breaking shit or at the very least, Google who you're breaking first. Enough with the iconoclasm already.