Stone Cold Memory

I have always been a little perplexed by statues commemorating some historical figure. Public memorials to long dead people who may or may not have done what the memorials claim for them seem dubious at the outset. A form of idolatry, though not in a religious sense (not for me). The commemoration has less, it seems to me, to do with who these people were than what they represent for the people putting up the statues.

Abstract statues are different. The soldiers in certain war memorials, who, while perhaps based on living people, are not of said people. They embody All Who Were Concerned and go to the events memorialized.

Of course, certain statues of specific people over time become abstractions in much the same way. Enough time passes, few know who that person was, its place in public life changes and its meaning shifts. It stops being about the person, even about the history, and becomes decoration. At best a distillation of some collection of civic sentiments having virtually nothing to do with what it was intended to represent.

Along comes a sudden awakening of that same public consciousness and revelations emerge as to who and what that statue was all about when it was erected and now we are divided over what to do. Just as these monuments were almost never about the people depicted but about the sentiment of those creating the memorial, so too are our deliberations about what to do with them now that the underlying history has become very publicly visible. It’s less about the memorial than about current sentiment.

Now before anyone thinks I may be about to dismiss that current sentiment, let me put it to the forum: if the contemporary sentiment was valid enough at the time to serve as justification for erecting a memorial, why should present sentiment be in any way less valid as justification for removing them?

We’ve changed. Our values are expressed differently. It is completely understandable that what was held up as representative of who we were once should no longer represent what we are now. Statues to Confederate “heroes” should rightly be reassessed and dealt with accordingly, especially as the history of the memorials shows us that when and under what circumstances said memorials were erected had virtually nothing to do with the persons depicted. The vast majority were reimaginings, revisionist representations of glamorized if not outright false characterizations of actual history. In a very real sense, many of them are simply lies.

As are most such things, if we dig deeply enough.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of sanding off rough edges. Sometimes it’s a complete rehabilitation

But there are also those which have aged out of any relevance other than the æsthetic impact of the work itself.  (The outrage the world felt at the Taliban destroying the Buddhas in Afghanistan was driven not because of who or what Buddha may have been but because those statues had become a cultural touchstone as works of art.)

The question is, how long is long enough to distance a piece of art from the shortcomings of its source material.

When, in other words, does a monument lose its original intent and become a part of culture apart from that origin?

Take the latest debate in my hometown over a statue of Louis IX. St. Louis. It stands before the main entrance of the St.Louis Art Museum, a noble figure atop a horse, right arm raised bearing a sword. (The sword was stolen at one point and recovered after a much publicized hunt. I may be misremembering, but when it was put back, it was done so upside down, which made the sword over into a cross, but that could just be my faulty memory.)  There is now a debate about removing it because—

Well, because Louis IX was an anti-Semite and led two Crusades and burned books. (He is the only French monarch to ever be canonized, which suggests that all these traits were at the time seen as positives.)  He died in 1270. Because of his sainthood, place-naming in his “honor” became popular.

The town of St. Louis was founded in 1763, almost half-a-millennium after his death.

I doubt many of those first colonists knew the details of his actual life. Even less do I think my contemporaries know much about him or have even given him a second thought. The statue is cool in a kind of Victorian bronze-revivalist way. At the time of my hometown’s founding, Louis XV was on the throne, soon to be dead and succeeded by his son who would be beheaded by the revolutionaries in Paris. If anything, the naming was as much in his honor as the reigning French monarch with a nod to the Catholic Church through the only sainted king. In other words, purely political.

In what way is the life and opinions of a 750 year dead French king relevant to the current spate of monument removals?

Obviously, his life and deeds are in many ways odious to contemporary sensibilities.  But the fact is, he was completely one with his time and place. He exemplified mainstream European thought. Catholic Europe was almost entirely anti-Semitic and the Crusades were popular as ideas (if not as actual enterprises, since by Louis IX’s time they were beginning to show signs of stress). He expanded the Inquisition in France and he burned the Talmud. Few if any of those for whom he was a leader gainsayed any of this.

The same cannot be said of the Confederate leaders. The debate among those who clearly identified as mainstream was heated, public, and led to actions not supported unilaterally at the time, and constituted a repudiation of certain ideas and actions which were under question and which would soon lose to a groundswell of moral reaction. Monuments to the leaders of the rebellion are political statements in ways the statue of Louis IX simply isn’t, nor was when erected. In short, the statue of Louis IX is an abstraction as opposed to a statue to Robert E. Lee, which was not and is not today. Louis IX has become a malleable nonspecific symbol representing another abstraction, namely the place-name of a city which is itself become dissociated from its origins by virtue of changing hands thrice.

In case there is any doubt of my motives, I intend only to shed a light on causes and impulses. We’re caught up right now in a spate of trying to redress grievances.  A perfectly legitimate movement and in many cases long overdue. Personally, I never did understand the whole Christopher Columbus thing. He bumped into the Western Hemisphere expecting to land somewhere else and then set about acting the power-mad little tyrant until his titles were stripped. A good navigator who still got he actual size of the planet wrong and managed to not only unleash misery and desolation on the natives he found but got a lot of his own people killed as well. All in all, a serious screw-up. The continents weren’t named after him but after a mapmaker, so I always wondered, after learning a bit about him, why the veneration? His only significant legacy was the establishment and justification of trans-Atlantic chattel bondage and the introduction of syphilis to Europe. Why anyone put statues up to him in the first place (here) always baffled me. He hadn’t been the first one from over there to find this side of the world and he wouldn’t have been the last.  In my opinion, his idolization was a species of self-congratulatory holiday creation, an excuse for a celebration (of what?) and a propaganda tool to flense the past of dubious aspects in the name of making a “purer” set of founding myths. Motives should be questioned at all levels.

Perhaps it ought to be considered that hagiography ought not be allowed in public memorials. Abstract sculptures, idealized forms, universal archetypes, fine. We can argue over ideas and representational elements. But to cast a statue in the form of an individual for things which may be of dubious moral provenance is probably a bad idea, with very rare exceptions. (What is done privately, on private land, is another matter.)

But there is also the question of actual relevance, both pro and con, when it comes to revising our national ethos. Making snap decisions resulting in vandalism and arbitrarily lumping certain styles and periods into a one-size-fits-all reaction may not be the smartest thing. (Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee represent very different legacies, but if you don’t know history—and, lord, so many people don’t know history—then it might appear that tearing them both down for a single reason is justified.

For myself, I have serious problems with the whole idea of veneration. This country is not a theocracy, erecting statues to our presumptive “saints” is not a tradition I care to support. Famous for being famous does not merit a public monument on public grounds, especially given that what may actually be the reason for praise does not equal the sum or even much of a part of the individual.  (As I say, what is done privately, on private grounds, is different.)

And it is all propaganda. Consider: the Russians understand this very well, which is why after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. all the public monuments to “great” Soviet leaders were removed and stored in “graveyards.” They knew that in order to move on, they had to rid themselves of the visible instantiations of a past no longer valid for them. They couldn’t do that with all those dead ideologues watching them from every public building, park, and square.  Such things matter.

There will, however, be those instances where the object in question no longer has that function. It has become a work of art, apart from, severed, from what it may once have represented, and now is just a thing of beauty (depending on one’s taste).

We have the relative luxury of knowing the history and provenance of all those Confederate statues. We don’t have to guess at why they were made and placed where they are.  Remove them, by all means. They are propaganda of the most base sort.

Remove Louis IX  as well, if must be. But Europe didn’t even know this side of the world was here when he was a monarch and his policies, while in many ways repugnant, are not the stuff of current controversy. His statue symbolizes nothing (to me) beyond a naming protocol for a new town and his legacy…well, I suppose one could make an argument that he was one of a thousand years of ecclesiastical abuse and moral dubeity, but I can think of many closer to our time far more worthy of repudiation, none of whom (probably) took any inspiration from a 13th Century Crusader who died of dysentery.

He was a patron of the arts, though, and credited with revitalizing architecture in France and contributing to the Gothic school. Which is one reason his statue is in front of an art museum.

And it is a cool statue.

 

 

 

Should I Or Shouldn’t I?

The question came up recently among friends about answering the claim that, concerning the wearing of a mask these days, “I have freedom of choice. If I choose to risk getting sick, it’s still my choice.”

My reaction was basic, which I will reveal at the end of this.

Choice is one of those perennial topics that rises and falls with public fashion.  We link it to our ideas of liberty the way we link certain colors and seasonal clothing. At least until it really matters, but then we tend to dismiss it as a right and turn it into a species of moral determination that brooks no debate. We have it or we don’t. Period. Mitigating circumstances, point-of-view, necessity—and it is almost always the unaffected decrying the tragedy of permissiveness when someone whose situation is unknown, alien, or unfortunate seeks redress through choice which, all things being equal, most people never have. Or have to exercise.

Making a choice because the outcome is important means weighing options, reviewing evidence, considering multiple factors. It is a matter of consideration, not a reflex, or, worse, playing to a script because it sounds righteous. Denigrating people who have to make choices, who do that work, is done by people who probably have never been faced with a critical issue that requires thought, maybe sacrifice, and the knowledge that what choice is made affects others beside yourself.

I’m being categorical here because listening to and watching some of the protestations over the wearing of masks and seeing them “masked” as a matter of personal choice stirs my blood a bit. I’m sorry, but no, you are not making a choice based on reasoned consideration of viable options. You’re just saying you don’t want to be bothered. It’s too much trouble. It feels funny.  It’s inconvenient.

Because all the nonsense about this being a violation of rights is empty posturing. You’re just a selfish jerk who probably doesn’t obey traffic laws very well, either.

And if you add to that the excuse that your current fearless leader has given you permission to be a jerk, then I will add that you’re a moral coward as well.

Because this is on you, as an individual (which is what you’re claiming, after all), defending your right to choose. Offloading the responsibility onto the blind mouthings of that empty suit—well, that’s more of the same, isn’t it?

You just can’t be bothered.

So, no, this isn’t an example of choice in action.  This is an abandonment of all the factors that go into making choice a valuable right.  If you were actually exercising that right, then you would go somewhere and isolate yourself from human contact until a vaccine is available.  That would be the reasoned exercise of the right you’re claiming.  Putting others at risk just because you don’t want to be bothered…well, that’s just lazy self-centered blather.

And, yes, since you ask, that’s really how I feel.

Walking

I took a walk this morning, around my neighborhood. You should understand, in some ways I am a very typical urban dweller.  I don’t know my neighbors.  We don’t hang out together, we don’t have each others’ phone numbers, we aren’t pals.  Nothing deliberate, just a product of the car and the phone and the pace of our lives.  When we moved into this neighborhood a quarter-plus-century ago, we would take evening walks and see many older residents sitting on their porches.  Some would wave and smile.  I finally realized that some of them, at least, were indulging a practice from a faded era.

They sat on their porches in the evening specifically to greet passersby and maybe have conversations. As these people disappeared—moved, died—we stopped seeing this.  In the last few years we have had an influx of immigrants—Hispanics, Eastern European, Asian—and again we see this practice.

I don’t know how to engage this way.  I am, in fact, a basically shy and self-conscious person, and I can’t imagine most times anyone wanting to talk to me who doesn’t already know me.  Maybe that’s a symptom of the urban social matrix, too, I don’t know.

But lately there have been even fewer. The streets are emptier.

Not abandoned.  Lawns are tended, sidewalks swept, plants on steps or railings watered. The evidence of human presence is as visible as ever.

The silence is different.  Even though I have rarely indulged speaking to strangers just because they were waiting to be spoken to doesn’t mean I never appreciated their reality.  We would walk by and wave, give a good morning or good evening, smile.  It doesn’t take much to reaffirm our connection as human beings.

I doubt I will change my basic nature when this current situation is ended. I’m just not like that. And I do value the structure of contacts from before. Choosing your friends has, I think, more significance than having people thrust upon you because there are no other avenues for interaction.

But I will appreciate them more, I think.  The sounds, the scents, the frisson of neighbors in the now.

I wish them well.

The Future Will Always Be Different

Stasis is impossible. Somewhere things always change. We can ignore it or inform it, but we can’t stop it. Right now, we’re in the deep throes of coming to terms with the effects of trying to not only stop change but reverse it. Time to get a grip.

 

The Only Thing We Have To Fear

We received one of those chain e-mails detailing in exhaustive hyperbole how all our current woes stem from the Left’s plot to “hurt” the president. It was filled with blaming, with tortured reconstructions of history, with the logic of the obsessively fearful. On the one hand, it made no sense. On the other, its message could not be clearer. The sender is terrified.

Of what, I am not exactly sure. But it encapsulates a raw, undifferentiating fear that first and foremost just wants everything to stand still.  Everything. And maybe back up a few steps, history-wise, to an imagined time that never was.

It was altogether depressing, not just because it was so laden with bad history and worse reasoning, but because someone felt it necessary to construct such a thing in the first place. And because of the efforts of others who provided the groundwork for such a thing to become accepted truth for too many people.

The truth is not difficult to find, only difficult to embrace, because mingled with any truth is a certain amount of ambiguity.  We usually confuse truth and fact, but what we’re seeing is not a confusion of them, but a rejection. There’s little in these things that demonstrate any investment in reality, of any kind. It’s pseudoscience and alternate history, an imitation of comprehension.

And yet, somehow, it feels real.

The reality of the cage.

The reality of the gated community, the narrow selection of news sources, the country club exclusions, the property tax impediments. The reality of purged voter rolls, underfunded schools, privatized healthcare that excludes by price. The reality of assuming everyone should be like you, and if they are not then they deserve no regard.

The reality of looking at a man designated their leader standing in front of a church holding a bible while calling for stronger police action and not noticing that he had his path cleared to that church by law enforcement and tear gas. This perfectly embodies the mentality of his core supporters, who are terrified. They are not angry.  They are not in dudgeon over the state of the union. They are in vehement disagreement with the direction of the country, but not based on a reasoned examination of what is and what could be.  That assumes cause and a reasoned response to issues.  There is none of that.  You can tell by what they excuse in the name of getting their way. Because, above all else, they are terrified.

It is difficult for someone who is not terrified to deal with someone who is. All the usual connections are buried under layers of reaction and adrenaline and doubt so profound Dante wrote an epic about it. That level of fear is itself terrifying and infectious. Walking it back, extracting the poison, that kind of work takes time and a degree of patience itself damaged in the confrontation.

The sad part is, those who are that fearful, that terrified of losing…something…seem unaware that they have already lost it. Because what they most want is to stop being afraid.

So they channel it into anger. They take a position, set up a perimeter, defend it with all the vitriol at their command, not realizing that the tiny space they have boxed themselves into holds almost nothing. Worse, while in that state of self-erected rage, they have become so easily manipulated by those who have figured out how to benefit from their inattention.  All someone has to do is point.

We seem too often to feel we are apart from or above history. We understand on some level that one of the chief tools of the autocrat is to single out a group that is in some way identifiably distinct from an ill-defined “majority” and start pointing at them whenever problems mount to the level of public agitation. Time and again we have watched dictators, strongmen, juntas, tyrants direct the frustrations and anger of their people at a target. We even seem to understand that this is done to distract that presumed majority from the actions of the one in charge and to gain the power to direct the fortunes of a country for his own ends.

But we don’t think it can happen to us.

This after decades of being whipsawed in exactly that way. Civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, social justice, immigration reform.  Each one of these causes has been marked by an antagonism far outweighing the actual difficulties of achieving what ought not to be controversial in the least. Every single one of these instances have been amenable to straightforward solutions which became mired in factional disputes over—

Over what? Questions of whether the people at the heart of these issues were deserving? On what basis were they not? The resentment was fueled by someone, some group, pointing a finger and frightening people with possibilities that upon examination were baseless, cruel, silly, and ultimately illusory.  Like an experienced gambler, they parlayed our feelings of discomfort into nightmare fears of calamity, and in the end they accrued more power to stir that brew again and again, until among certain of us the reaction has been axiomatic. The finger is raised, no more prodding is required, we are ready to do battle to defend Our Values.

Which are what, exactly, in this construction? Hatred? Oppression? Denial of agency? The solution of the gulag, the concentration camp, debtors’ prison, or state sanctioned murder?

It is difficult individually to see how the structures at play feed into this. We live with them, for the most part they serve us, and if we are never abused by them it is hard to accept that they can be abusive to others.  But it isn’t that complex.  Things like lending practices, insurance risk-evaluation, investment strategies all can be used to target and exclude.  Jobs? Look at shareholder reports to see how those are affected. Even something as simple as refusing to acknowledge a word or a fact or a change in how a detail is used in a report can produce inimical consequences for some group with which we may have no direct connection.

Reagan blocked the CDC from talking about gays during the AIDS crisis. The deaths mounted. Something as simple as a refusal to look at a detail can kill.

The only reason this happens is because people are terrified. Sadly, they often don’t even know what it is that frightens them, they only know that they’re frightened.

And someone is right there to use that to take power from them and keep it for themselves.

If this country, this experiment, this idea perishes, it will be because too many of us are too afraid to be who we want to be.  Who we intended to be.  Who we can be.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it.