Pulling down or damaging historic statues troubles me. I’ve no qualms about re-writing history as we learn new facts, but the statues are our artistic history, too —  like a painting. It’s sculpture of the period in which it was done.

Do we destroy a Ruebens painting because it shames fat women, or a Delacroix because it glorifies war?

In China, when people fell out with Mao Tse-tung they were daubed out of paintings and became odd blobs of new oil paint. Before the digital age,  they were surgically removed from photographs. A fellow riding alongside Mao on a horse was no longer there. The old photograph was forbidden to be displayed.

American troops toppled statues of Saddam Hussein of Iraq and the successor government executed the real man and made sure no sign of him would survive his hanging. Iraqi sculptor Khaliz Ezzat did that statue. Modernist sculptor Bassem al-Dawiri did a quickie abstract called “Freedom” of painted plaster as a replacement. It’s been removed now as “not good art.”

An American GI preps the Saddam statute for demolition
The “art work” which replaced the Saddam statue

The four presidents of Mount Rushmore probably are lucky to be in stone on a cliff, hard to deface. George Washington owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson thought blacks too ignorant to vote. Teddy Roosevelt wanted us to acquire Cuba, the Philippines and anything else in the Pacific our troops could get their hands on. Only Abe Lincoln seems to get a pass, in spite of coming very late in the war with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Hafez al-Assad, former Syrian president, had a shoe stuffed in his sculpted bronze-head mouth after he died but he had the last laugh because his son Bashar took over and was worse as a dictator.

Taking down Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee is really bad juju. Lee was an honorable man who believed the South was getting short-changed by the North. Remember that both sides had slaves, so he wasn’t an outlier on that issue. It was also a war about state’s rights and the South’s poor agricultural exports vis-a-vis the North’s powerful manufacturing. After the war, Lee was a magnificent college president.

The Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Va.

It is important for all Americans to learn the true, unfiltered past of our country, and I understand those who feel there is a difference between learning our history and celebrating our history. 

They ask: Should Americans, especially African-Americans, pay taxes for the maintenance of statutes on public grounds that are symbols of white privilege?

You don’t see statues of Hitler in Germany. 

But there’s that slippery slope. Might we have eventual removal of all of the Founding Fathers who owned slaves? Remove the graveyards of Confederate soldiers or those who fought and sometimes killed innocent people in Vietnam?

I guess we could temporarily remove and store statues that are momentarily sensitive in the public mind.

But whatever, we’d be blotting out important perspectives of our past. Informed citizens can use the statues as reminders to learn the positive and negative of our history.  Would any Hawaii protestors, for example, tear down the statue of Robert Wilcox? He planned an aborted coup to oust King Kalakaua and install Liliuokalani as queen and then led a short shooting war against the Republic of Hawaii under Sanford Dole. Doesn’t that qualify for the Robert E. Lee statue treatment?

Robert Wilcox

We should not erase any reminders of our history. One historian asks “What is next? The demolition of Monticello or the dismantling of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, officially listed as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Should we change the name St. Louis because Louis IX forced the Jewish people out of France in the thirteenth century?”

Last week, that city did remove the statue of Columbus.

We cannot change the past. Nor should we cherry pick stories to create an inoffensive narrative. By destroying elements of our nation’s history, we are depriving the future generations of the opportunity to learn from society’s mistakes.

 

Published by Bob Jones

Journalist since age 19. St. Petersburg Times, Noticias y Viajes in Madrid, Overseas Weekly in Frankfurt and Paris, the Louisville Courier- Journal, the Honolulu Advertiser, KGMB-TV, NBC News foreign correspondent in Africa and Southeast Asia, and MidWeek columnist. LL.B LaSalle University Law. 3 years in the U.S. Air Force. Covered: Vietnam War, Iraq #1 in 1991. George Foster Peabody Award for distinguished journalism for reporting in China. Married to Denby Fawcett, one daughter. Brett Jones.

8 replies on “Obliterating History”

  1. Aloha, Bob: From the 1950’s thru the ’70’s, one of the ways US Intelligence agencies updated who was who in the Soviet Union was to see who was airbrushed out of the
    yearly May Day Parade Reviewing Stand photos. Govt. officials would disappear from
    the photos AND from Soviet history. (Similar to what the Red Chinese did). It was revisionist and dishonest.
    US History, good and bad, has always been out in public for all to see. There’s no question that key facts in many parts of history were either forgotten or left out, especially in school textbooks. But new books and research over the decades have filled in the blanks and made us better informed. The historical openness we have had is one of the strengths of this country. You are quite correct. The sudden move to “sanitize” parts of our history is not good for democracy or protecting us from making the same mistakes. There is a place for changing some building names and moving some statues, no question. But these steps should be done cautiously, after some serious thought. Education is what makes us grow better. Erasing history, especially history about “bad” people or events makes us less smart.

  2. I guess that it would depend how much one has been oppressed to fully understand how offensive a statue can be. America’s history is quite oppressive beginning with native tribes, indentured servants, and slaves. In fact the sculptured presidents in the Black Hills are a desecration of a scared Sioux site. Some Hawaiians are considering the removal of street names like Dole to replace with a Hawaiian. I can’t fault that.

  3. And yet our newly self-appointed cultural commissars are quite selective in lionizing George Floyd as if he had been the second coming of Nelson Mandela, replete with angel wings, but have decided that Saint George’s guilty plea to aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon after participating in the vicious 2007 home invasion gunpoint robbery of two women and a toddler, and his previous convictions for other offenses and apparent continuing illegal drug use, are not useful to their hagiographic narrative and thus shall not be mentioned or shall be shouted down as heresy. And no, the decidedly checkered past of a petty criminal turned nightclub bouncer in no way rationalizes his brutal and unjustifiable murder by police. But that past, and the current wave of historical-figure-vetting-for-ideological-purity-or-crimes-against-current-sensibilities-devoid-of-context, do give pause to reflect upon some wise if cynical words: “Show me a hero and I’ll prove he’s a bum.”

  4. Removing certain monuments that publicly glorify some of these people would be the right thing to do. But they should be properly stored and not destroyed.

    Placing them in a museum, as a means of telling their role in history, would be OK. But being in an open, public place might not be appropriate.

  5. After we storm Ghana and demolish the slave trader castles we can march on to Egypt and raze the pyramids unless we’re all slaughtered by the Africans who profit from these monuments to oppression or everyone dies of Covid.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: