Thursday, August 17, 2017
Public monuments matter. They make assertions about the values shared by the groups that erect and maintain them. When those entities are governments, in a purportedly democratic society, the monuments are claims about the public consensus.
Monuments are also considerably more complicated than one might think without giving them much reflection. For one thing, they are time dependent. They purport to be about a person, or multiple people, or events. But that which is memorialized existed, or happened, some time before they were erected. So as statements, they refer not to the time of their subjects, but to the time of their creation. Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial was controversial because of the assertion it seemed to make about how we should view the Vietnam conflict at the time the monument was erected. But after a while, that is also in the past. When we view monuments today, they are saying something about the time of their creation, and that may be jarringly different from our time. As it turns out, Lin's memorial has not only held up very well, it has come to seem even more appropriate over time. Her vision was prescient, not limited to the historical moment. But obviously that isn't always the case.
My office is in the middle of Providence River Park, and specifically that part of the park that is full of monuments. There are monuments to the dead of both World Wars, to the Irish famine, and to the Shoah. The latter was erected last year, as it happens. This year, a monument (privately sponsored but on public land) to the Easter Uprising was installed next to the Irish famine memorial. There is also a Civil War memorial which, obviously, commemorates Union soldiers.
Some 20 years ago, I worked as a consultant for the sponsors of the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston. Again, it was privately financed but stands on public land. It has been vandalized twice this year.
Most of the memorials near my office do not, as far as I know, attract much controversy today. People in Providence don't have a problem honoring the war dead or the victims of the Shoa. The Irish memorials would be problematic for some English people. The question of English responsibility for the Irish famine is contested, as is the righteousness of the Easter rebellion. But English identity has not been enduring among North American settlers, whereas lots of people still think of themselves as Irish. So these go up on public land without any visible fuss.
All that throat clearing leads to this. The Confederate monuments which have suddenly become incandescently controversial do not, in fact, refer to the Civil War. They refer to the post-Reconstruction era, the rise of Jim Crow, and the Reign of Terror that re-established white supremacy in the South. They were erected during that era, generally 50 years or more after the Civil War, as a message about the present, not the past. That is not to say that the past was any less reprehensible. The cause of the Confederacy was treason in defense of slavery. The heroes of the Confederacy are not remembered for any other accomplishments of historic significance. Whether the monuments refer to 1865 or 1915, that is still true.
Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that they were not erected to commemorate history, but rather to enforce a current ideology -- an ideology which it is imperative, in the present era, that we utterly repudiate. Anyone who does not understand this is unfit for public office in 2017.