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On Statues, Sledgehammers, and Scalpels

As protests in the wake of the recent murder of George Floyd have spread throughout the United States (and even throughout the world)---something I addressed in my essay, "America: On Wounded Knee"---I've been participating In several Facebook discussions, nearly all of which have been unpleasant. Nevertheless, I wanted to add this postscript to a very heartfelt post for the record, most of it drawn from these various Facebook threads.

I recently saw for the umpteenth time the 1991 Oliver Stone-directed film, "JFK", which opened with this quote from American author and poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.

A more prescient observation in these times would be hard to find. It is unacceptable to be silent in the face of injustice; standing by the courage of our convictions---and protesting against tyranny anytime we see it---is a necessity for any of us who care about human freedom and dignity.

But as my previous essay made clear: the means of protest often make all the difference moving forward in terms of the shape of things to come.

Much has been made of the tearing down of confederate statues that pepper the states of the former confederacy; I have discussed this several times before, most notably in this post. I think that these symbols of oppression are reprehensible. One important point has been obscured in the discussion of the statues of the confederacy in particular. Most of those statues were not built in the wake of the Civil War to commemorate the "heroes" who fought in the "war of Northern aggression." They were built during times of extreme civil rights distress, with the clear purpose to intimidate African Americans who were getting too "uppity" in their struggles for human freedom.

Nevertheless, the historian in me sees the controversy over these statues as "teachable moments." As relics of a bygone age, their preservation in some form---a museum or some other gallery---can provide people of different walks of life an opportunity to understand the cultural narratives embodied in these symbols of hate.

As protests have spread, so too has the ire of the protesters, who turn toward statues of such figures as Christopher Columbus, striking at the heart of the brutality of the European "discovery" and colonization of the Americas and the destruction of indigenous peoples. I understand the anger and actions of protesters with regard to Columbus and what follows is not an apologia for any of his misdeeds. It is, however, an attempt to contextualize the push-back that inevitably follows when different narratives collide.

Statues, like all symbols, convey different meanings to different peoples, giving rise to conflicting narratives. Knowing something about the Italian American experience, I fully understand the attitudes of many Italians, especially of an older generation, who came to America, viewing Columbus as having opened up a "New World" to which they could emigrate, in search of greater opportunities. No matter how incorrect their perception of Columbus was, it still remained a powerful symbol for that group of immigrants, among them my paternal grandparents.

As I have observed here, Italian immigrants were met with ethnic prejudice of a sort that made them second only to African Americans in terms of the number of lynchings they experienced in the years between 1870 and 1940. It was a "murderous spree" that spanned states from Colorado to Mississippi to Illinois to North Carolina to Florida. And when they weren't being lynched by those who saw them as dangerous "others", harboring a "foreign" religion (Catholicism) and "anarchist" tendencies (Sacco and Vanzetti, anyone?), they were targeted by their own people. The so-called Black Hand extorted "protection" money from residents and businesses alike (that is, protection against Black Hand thugs who would target any Italians who refused to buy into the form of "protection" they offered, in the face of indifference from the predominantly Irish police force in NYC.) The shift away from outright extortion to more subtle forms of extortion (through oaths of mutual loyalty) came with the rise of Mafia organizations---something accurately portrayed in the story of the rise of the young Vito Corleone in "The Godfather, Part II".

So given the symbolism of Columbus to many Italian Americans, I can understand the predictable push-back toward those who have targeted statues of the explorer. It will probably take a generational shift in the culture of Italian Americans before anyone could entertain even the possibility of dismantling that statue reigning over Columbus Circle in NYC (which has had that name since the late 1800s). But what some folks don't understand is that the annual Columbus Day Parade is, essentially, an annual Italian American Day Parade, in the same way that there is a Greek Independence Day Parade, a Puerto Rican Day Parade, a St. Patrick's Day Parade, and a Pride Day Parade. Each of these parades may be rooted in an historical event, culture, or person(s), but ultimately, they become extensions of the groups and traditions they are meant to celebrate. I don't think I've watched a single Columbus Day parade where the Grand Marshall extolled the "virtues" of Columbus, colonialism, or Native American genocide. It's always focused on the Italian American contribution to American culture and life... and I don't think this will change, at least not in my lifetime.

Nevertheless, the practice of taking sledgehammers to statues has now moved from symbols of the confederacy and symbols of European colonization to symbols of the founders of the American republic, most of whom were, indeed, slaveholders. The toppling of statues of George Washington has been met with applause from many of my libertarian friends and colleagues. Even the NYC City Council is considering removing the statue of Thomas Jefferson, another American revolutionary who owned slaves in his lifetime.

Jefferson surely was an imperfect, flawed human being, a man who owned slaves and may have fathered children with one of them. But he was also the author of these words in the founding document of the American republic:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

That these words would ultimately serve as the inspiration for those seeking to abolish the very institution that Jefferson the man sustained is, in itself, a testament to his enduring intellectual legacy. Even Jefferson would have understood the need for people to rise up, protest, and rebel against injustice. "The tree of liberty," he famously declared, "must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure."

Ironically, even a thinker as far left as Slavoj Zizek has emphasized the importance of treating Jefferson as qualitatively different from, say, Robert E. Lee. As he wrote in Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity (H/T to my pal Eric Fleischmann):

The point is not just to debunk the War of Independence as fake: there undoubtedly is an emancipatory dimension in the works of Jefferson, Paine, and so on. In spite of being a slave owner, Jefferson is an important link in the chain of modern emancipatory struggles, and one is justified in claiming that the struggle for the abolition of slavery was basically the continuation of Jefferson's work. Jefferson was a different kind of man from Robert E. Lee, and the inconsistencies in his position just demonstrate how the American revolution is an unfinished project (as Habermas would have put it).

It was this project that led Benjamin Tucker to identify anarchists as "unterrified Jeffersonian democrats."

So if we're going to view every flawed eighteenth century individual through the 20/20 hindsight of 2020, at least let's get some corrective lenses to help us grasp more fully the nuances of the larger historical and systemic context. With the use of every sledgehammer to bring down every statue, it is essential to retain the intellectual scalpels required for a more delicate, surgical dissection of America's past: its flaws and its virtues, its injustices and its promise.

Ironically, there is an historical figure that is, in many ways, more flawed than Jefferson, and yet, in the narrative of American history, that figure looms large over the emancipation of African Americans from slavery: Abraham Lincoln. On almost every level, Lincoln was neither a model President nor a model libertarian. And yet, despite his nationalist economic policies, his suspension of habeas corpus and his odious racialist views, his soaring rhetoric of freedom rang clear to generations of African Americans. Before his assassination in 1865, he fought hard to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that would forever abolish slavery in the United States. It led many to view him as The Great Emancipator, and gave the vast majority of African Americans a reason to vote Republican until the New Deal era.

And so, in Washington, D.C., there sits a huge memorial to Abraham Lincoln---one that overwhelmed me when I saw it as a five-year old kid who toured the historic district for the first time. When opera singer Marian Anderson was denied the opportunity to sing at Constitution Hall because she was blocked by the Daughters of the American Revolution, she sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and made history. When Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on Washington in 1963, he gave his legendary "I Have a Dream" speech in the shadow of that same memorial. Given the history of that memorial in the struggle for civil rights, and despite the terribly flawed man to whom that memorial was erected, one has to ask: Do we burn it down to the ground because of the flaws of the man, or keep it as part of our historical memory precisely for its evolving significance to generations of people yearning to "breathe free"? ("I can't breathe" is indeed far more symbolic here than a mere call for simple survival: it is the very negation of life and liberty in every meaningful way.)

When the sledgehammer is wielded without any consideration of the larger context of American history, the wider cause of justice for all cannot be served.

Over the last century or so, we have seen the atrocities committed by "top-down" canvas cleaning, from the Nazis to the Soviets to the Maoists to the Taliban. "Bottom-up" canvas cleaning is an entirely different species. It is an understandable reaction against systemic and institutionalized oppression. But in cleaning the soiled canvas of the American experience by toppling the statues of flawed men, a transcendence is required, or we risk toppling the ideals that some of these men---especially the American founders---extolled. These ideals, if followed to their logical conclusion, are the most potent weapons in fighting injustices around the world.

My friend Roderick Tracy Long recently quoted Michel Foucault, and it's worth repeating here:

My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism. I think that the ethico-political choice we have to make every day is to determine which is the main danger. ("On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress," afterword, in Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

This is a call to focus on the main dangers that surround us, challenging them radically, at their fundamental roots, with all the courage demanded of us in the face of injustice. Destroying statues is easy; the truly Herculean task before us is to build alternative statues, symbols, and structures of meaning that do not replicate the injustices of the past, and that move toward the realization of the very ideals of freedom, equality, and social justice embraced by some of those flawed fellows who pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to defeat the tyrannies of their time.

Postscript (22 June 2020): Some discussion of these issues took place on Facebook, and I reproduce some of my comments from the various threads here. My dear friend Ryan Neugebauer remarked: "Imagine thinking society should be a giant museum where you have to preserve everything as it is for all times and places. No change, you must always see the past wherever you go. I would not want to live under such thinking. It's ridiculous also because every era ends up replacing previous ones. Even the ones you think you are preserving replaced ones before them."

I replied:

I agree, and this is is why we have museums---where relics of the past might sit and be more properly contextualized. But I do think a greater context needs to be grasped here (and I'm not suggesting that the current folks tearing down monuments are on a par with the Taliban or the Maoist cultural revolutionaries). Nevertheless, massive social change is not going to be achieved by the kind of "canvas cleaning" that would demand the dynamiting of Mount Rushmore (the way the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamyan) or some Maoist-like cultural revolution, which tried to wipe out every last vestige of the past as if it didn't happen, taking thousands of lives along with it.
We don't have to forever preserve the past in temples glorifying bad acts or bad people. It is easy to bring down a statue or a monument with 20/20 hindsight and 2020 sensibilities; the more difficult task is building new monuments that take on greater meaning and symbolism for a new generation in affecting the kind of cultural change upon which any radical political change must ultimately depend.
Look, all I'm saying is: The whole goddamn country's history is drenched in blood "from sea to shining sea." And there probably isn't a society on earth that isn't drenched in blood. Here alone we have seen massive systemic violence directed against indigenous populations, "imported" populations (as in slavery), immigrant populations, or populations of marginalized people (LGBTQ+). Ultimately, you can't turn back the clock; you can try to topple symbols or contextualize them, but the really demanding project is in building alternative, parallel, more powerful symbols to supplant the older ones---without necessarily destroying everything from the past. Folks can make this a "teachable moment"... creating anew, without aiming to destroy every last vestige of the past. It does not work. It never has. It never will.
Social change is always messy---but thank goodness it's not a "top down"- dictated social change that we are currently witnessing. We are far more likely to see a better outcome even from messy "bottom-up" and "spontaneous" excesses than anything we would witness if "change" were dictated by folks in high places with guns and gulags.

On another thread was reproduced the famous Lord Acton passage that, in full, states:

Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.

... to which I responded:

Mostly applicable to politicians and rulers. Not to comedians, like, say, "The Great One" (Jackie Gleason). All depends on the context. :)

Jeez... even that got push-back! When one reader suggested that maybe it applied to Gleason as well, since his oft-repeated line---"One of these days, Alice ... pow!"---glorified "domestic violence for laughs", I replied:

Except that in the end, Alice always proved to be the wiser one. She was practically a feminist hero, way ahead of her time, who was ultimately always right. Not to mention the number of laughs Alice got, which far "outweighed" anything Ralph Kramden could ever say, since she targeted his "weight" for more laughs than any "Bang, Zooms" that came out of Ralph's mouth. More than that, her put-downs of him were far more biting and riotous than anything he could ever say. If somebody ever really did an examination of those "Honeymooners" scripts and saw how Alice handled "the King of the Castle", they'd easily see just who was really the "king" of that castle. I'd go one step further: Show me one other 1950s sitcom that portrayed a stronger woman than Alice Kramden. In an era dominated by "Father Knows Best" and such, she was truly in a class by herself.

... and the beat goes on ...