I’m trying hard lately not to be too political. For one thing, it eats up the resources in my brain, and for another thing none of it matters. Our population is being pitted against each other in a well-orchestrated ballet of devisiveness that is weakening all of us so that some really bad people can become more rich and powerful.
My current work in progress deals a lot with the importance of memories, especially those attached to objects. Tonight, I wrote about a plastic pearl that I kept which had come off a prom dress from a girl I dated a lifetime ago. Throughout my life I have kept many momentos such as this. Old letters. Figurines. Books with messages penned from now departed friends. Various knickknacks that I have held onto for a variety of reasons. I might have inheirited this from my grandmother, whose house was like a museum dedicated to all the treasures she collected throughout her life. Each one of those pieces, no doubt, had some kind of story attached to it. After she passed away, the meaning of those objects and the stories that were associated with them departed with her, blown off like a nearly imperceptible layer of dust with the next breath of wind.
Not all of the objects I have kept have good memories associated with them. Some of them are awful memories, but every once in a while I drag them out to beat myself up a little bit. They serve as a reminder of how far I have come and how I don’t have any desire to really go back to those times. Sometimes I let them go. But what I do know of this process is that they serve as a concrete reminder of how things were in the past and they work as an anchor to establish the reality of those times. If these objects exist, it is undeniable that things happened.
Think of the piles of shoes or clothes or photographs of a Holocaust museum. Wouldn’t it just be easier to dispose of these objects? What an unpleasant part of human history? Or what about battlefields? All the war memorials and battlefields and monuments to the destruction of life that exist are surely glorifying the destruction of human lives, right? They only establish the status quo and are made by the victors to mark their victories.
Recently, statues and monuments are being torn down all over the world because they don’t align with the political ideologies of groups of people who want them removed. It isn’t the monuments that need to be torn down, but rather the lessons we should learn from these sites. A friend of mine said very astutely that Confederate statues are just participations trophies. I couldn’t agree more. Many of these monuments were built during the Jim Crow days, when segregation was the status quo. A completely irrational law that further divided a nation, long after the veterans of the War Between the States were cold in the ground.
Were some of these monuments cast and erected to remind people that the war was over, but as long as Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Robert E. Lee survey the lands of Dixie, then we are only a stone’s throw from slavery, and don’t you forget it. These monuments were made to oppress. That doesn’t mean this is the lesson we should take from them.
I think they should stand as a reminder of our history, which includes our collective mistakes. Being educated as to why these statues are around should remind people of our history so we don’t forget. So we don’t become complacent with how things are. Knowing that institutional racism was (and arguably still is) a factor in our country is important. If you tear down these monuments, where is your example of this? Say you are in an argument with someone who is denying institutional racism, and they can say, “Well, Jim Crow really wasn’t a big deal here.” You can point out the window of the cafe to the statue standing in the center of town and say, “Then why is a Confederate General standing in the town square?” With the object comes context. The fact that somebody paid to have a statue of a defeated general built says more than you can just read in a text book. Without that, it removes the provenance. The obverse is whomever controls the past, controls the future.
The battlefield of the Little Big Horn is sorta like this too. To some, it is the site of a tragic massacre of a war hero–who has counties and streets and schools named after him. To others it is a place where a people who were being dispersed and subjugated took a stand against an aggressor and won a victory. History is complicated.
Every so often a statue of Conquistadore Onate is defaced, and I’m glad for it. The last time this happened in Santa Fe vandals sawed off one of his legs. This was because Onate used to come into a village and cut off just one leg of any man who was fighting age. He would go on to sodomize the men and rape the women. He would often murder children. I don’t know why he would be considered a hero, but everytime they fuck with his statue the history comes out. It is a reminder of how far people have come and what they have overcome.
I doubt very much that there would be any Confederate statues in the South or anywhere else had Reconstruction not completely devastated the South and embittered generations of people against the oppression of the North. And yes, it was oppression. People lived under honest-to-god martial law for over a decade before Reconstruction “ended.” In some places, the economy still hasn’t recovered. Rather than the Federal government just admit that they didn’t handle this very well, well, newly freed slaves were blamed for flooding an already impoverished work force with their numbers.
Remember too that a lot of the heroes of the Union went out west and slaughtered villages of American Indians. And a lot of the people who fought for the South didn’t own slaves and didn’t carry that ideology with them when they headed West either.
I don’t like the defacement of statues and monuments because it reminds me too much of the Cultural Revolution, fundamental Islamists, and the Soviets who attempted to erase any opposing ideology from the landscape so that they could rewrite the history. The US government did this as well, by using the Smithsonian Institute to catalog the history of North America as it fit into the narrative more conducive to Manifest Destiny. It’s a lot like grading a road bed before you pour the asphalt. Those Budhas that were blasted to pieces in Afghnistan are an example of this. History is complicated. Until you remove the complications.
My takeaway from the Civil War statuary is that these monuments were a way for artists and people to express their emotions about something that had happened. Yes, some of these feelings were racist and oppressive, but some of them were done because the people felt oppressed. They clung to a sense of regional pride. The North was not kind during Reconstruction, in many of the same ways the allies were not kind to Germany after World War I. Which is the reason it got a sequel. America is divided still, 150 plus years after the Civil War. Part of the reason for that is it is an old wound that cannot heal because the powers that be do not benefit from it healing.
I think the statues should come down when those wounds heal. Pulling them down now is a lot like removing the stitches before the cut can knit. It removes the conversations that should come with it. Only then can people see both sides to the story. Throwing out the old shoes and wedding bands at a Holocaust museum doesn’t fix anti-semitism. Tearing down Robert E. Lee doesn’t end centuries of racism. It might even prolong it.
Like a lot of the keepsakes I still have, a time will come when they no longer hold their meaning and I have moved past needing to hang onto them. In which case, they will occupy a landfill instead of a sockdrawer or cardboard box. In the meantime, I get to examine them and explore the foolishness and the importance of each while I can.
I know my ex wife hated these keepsakes because they reminded me of better times. Times that were outside of her control. She couldn’t touch the memories I had associated with them. Are these statues like that? I don’t know. But like some of these keepsakes, they aren’t entirely good, and they aren’t entirely bad either. Sometimes they represented hope and other times they reminded me of mistakes that were made.
I’m still trying to figure it all out.
The featured image is the Tower Bridge in London. Arguably a testament to colonialism from the 19th Century.