In the former Soviet states, the locals gathered up the statues of Lenin and placed them into a park and then charged tourists money to see them. One country, Hungary, gathered all the offending statues and dumped them into a pile called Statue Park that you as a tourist can now visit (except I think it is in Slovakia or the Czech Republic). Today, the children of Hungary grow up in a world without the Soviet. Without the memory of the invasion. Or their participation or collaboration with the National Socialists. Today, the adults and youth build fences to keep out the refugees. Those fleeing oppression. I don’t know if a few statues of Lenin with a little text would teach lessons for a society that grew up under oppression. However, a few left about may not hurt.
I was in Moscow, I think in the late 1990s and certainly, after I had graduated college. Something was wrong with my admission ticket, and maybe I paid a few pennies too much or perhaps my interest of museums had run away with me, but I had asked to speak with the director of the museum. Americans were still a unique experience in the still Former Soviet Union. I think that I had gotten me back to behind the exhibits on Soviet… ahem… Russian history to meet the director to discuss something trivial. Perhaps my ticket was wrong, and I was charged a few cents more than I should have. It may have been that my identification card was from the graduate school of [REDACTED] where I was studying [a program that focused on material culture]. Perhaps she was the only person who spoke working English in the museum, but nevertheless, I was ushered behind the public areas to the sacred spaces of the officials and apparatchiks.
In the offices of the museum, it was still 1952 or perhaps at the very latest 1967. Plaques on the wall commemorated this or that Soviet official, my knowledge of Russian then was just very crude, but I could read that these were awards from Stalin and the like. I was shown to the office of the director. She was a grand woman, but clearly a Soviet official. She and I chatted for a moment. Her desk was one of those heavy desks from the 1950s. There was an old phone on the desk. Another desk with a typewriter. File cabinets and all manner of books in shelves among awards of a sort I was patently unfamiliar with and from my cultural perspective would not be impressed were I to know the origin of these trinkets. With the fall of the SOVIET Empire, the office of the director was a museum within a museum.
Out on the streets, the statues of Lenin were still in place. Out in the provinces, it was the same. Lenin and others still stood in the center of squares and plazas. Many if not all had flowers placed upon them. The old ladies gave homage to the masters of Russian Communism since many of these statues served as memorials to all those who had died in the Great Patriotic War (World War Two), a war that cost 20,000,000 million soldiers as well as perhaps another 20,000,000 million civilians as they fought the National Socialism menace as well as many other internal and external threats. It was at this bloody cost that many believe that it was the Soviet Union that won the war, and not those actions of the United States or other European powers. When I saw flowers at Lenin’s feet, I didn’t see a worship of the state, but a remembrance of men and women who died in the long and bitter conflict that propped up an oppressive and ineffective state long after it was assured collapse. These many monuments to the past have been removed, and today Russia enjoys new Tzars and dictators as it forgets those of old.
Decades later, I am back in the United States of America. I am traveling to the Deep South, and I am wandering about an old cemetery where there are many memorials to fallen men. The names of the battles are familiar, thanks to Ken Burns slow pan of the camera over old photos of broken bodies and blasted fields. Of Manassas, Wilderness I, Wilderness II. Charleston, Gettysburg, and many others locations or just dates that corresponded to some of the bloodiest battles in the American Civil War.
I was in a museum for the Confederate army, and the man in front of me was asking the attendant for his supervisor. Apparently, he had found his grandfather’s grave. This grave was somewhere in Tennessee in a small plot in a nowhere space. He wanted to have the grave recorded with the museum, and a proper plaque placed on the grave, the sort one may see on graves to those who fell at Flanders, at Havana, at Normandy. I was a little taken aback since I am a child of the North and descendant of those immigrants who while imperfect in their social and political leanings were never the less Unionist devotees and perhaps a few of my people shot dead a few of his people. I thought that those who won made the record of history, those who dominate can then set up the heroes, define the victories, and in the spoils of war, create the story that those who come later will remember and tell, whether it is correct or not. The man in front of me was not a theory. He didn’t look mean. He and his wife were not elderly scions of the Knights of the Grand Dragon. They were family members of a fallen soldier from long ago. Albeit, one on the losing side of the war.
I was in New Orleans, again. This time I rented a bike and made a grand tour and in my travels came across a statue of Jefferson Davis while on the Jefferson Davis bike trail. I then went to the art museum where there was a grand statue of a man riding a horse, not uncommon to any major city from Lima, Peru to St Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad. It happened to be General Beauregard. I was also to the monument to Robert E. Lee. A grand plaza of dark pillars and a mound upon where a plinth stands and above stood a statue to an outlaw general. I had seen the Lee statue before. Almost two decades ago when a lover took me there for vacation, my Yankee sensibilities were shaken to the core. I was shocked that there were monuments to the Old South. However, as I wandered about New Orleans, seeing more of the complexity of the city and the society, these alien cohabitating landscapes seemed fitting – at least to an outsider such as myself. The city it turned out was such as the dank conglomeration of cross distinctions and strange aberrations, of rapine and slaughter and fellowship and partying. The City was a mosaic of Napoleon Law, naked gay bars and religious convents, gamblers and killers and scions and saints of the cloth. It seemed that in this strange heap monuments to the oppression and freedom on alternating blocks seem fitting.
I know that before there was a twenty-seven or such hour documentary on the Civil War, I looked into all this in part I think because of the statue of Robert E. Lee and my amazement at this statue standing in the center of a majority minority city. Fast forward two decades and my generation is now the old people in charge. The statues in New Orleans – and in many other cities – are being revised and many are coming down. To those who look at this as a number of monuments to the slave system, they are correct. Those who use these monuments as a symbol of their ideology of racism, they can use these or any others that exist or invent their own made of crap they purchased from the Dollar Store. To those who are offended by the placement of these monuments, a few of which are quite out of the general run of most tourists (I had been to New Orleans five times before I rode past the statue of Jefferson Davis), they have a point. Losing sides of a war are not generally commended with statues. Especially racist oppressive slave owners. That is a peculiar aspect of our American experiment. We also allow many things that other nations would not allow. We allow a certain level of discourse, no matter how course in order to survive democracy from generation to generation. However, we are working quickly to remake ourselves in the image of the rest of the world and human nature.
I work in schools all over the nation. I have worked for many museums, some of which if I named you would know. I come to this question as a humanist, and as a person with a little pedagogical and historical training. I have been to schools where children of all colours in high school can’t read at an elementary level. Schools that function as minimum security prisons or – such as those in Detroit – have no security at all since funding cut those staff long ago. I worry about the loss of history out in the public knowing that even educated people don’t visit museums. When one today starts removing public monuments rather than reinterpreting them I have no faith in the text books or the Teach For American teachers will compensate for this gap in understanding. In this age of educational innovation and technological disruption, whether delivered in paper or shot up the ass of our kids electronically, we remove history, we erase it.
We can remove the signs of the Confederacy but why stop there? in the center of the Tourist Quarter is plopped a statue of Andrew Jackson. He killed thousands of natives. Get rid of that one… other than the tourists like their photos taken in front of that. What about the statue of Simon Bolivar? The statue was given to the city in the 1950s before the “democratic” coup d’tat of 1958. That regime was responsible for death and oppression and Mr. Bolivar only initially freed his slaves so they could fight in his wars. The statue of the Jesuits founding New Orleans? There were good ones, but there were bad ones? The Jesuits owned slaves, didn’t they? Should we have a court figure it out, so we know who to cut out and who to leave in the public spaces and architectural landscape? And then there is the French Quarter? The entire quarter is as much a monument to slavery as any of those statues. There are alleys in that quarter designed to convey slaves to come and go to do their drudge work without disrupting the lives of the White Ruling Elite. The entire city is a monument to slavery and oppression as it is to cultural melding and diversity and little scroll saw trim work, the huge mansions, and the many long alleys of verdant trees that did not plant themselves but were set in under cruelest whip and by hands owned as the property of others. The cutest neighborhoods in New Orleans were built by slaves or their direct descendants without proper compensation nor recognition. The expand the list of offensive monuments can include much of Bourbon Street as it can a good portion of Chantilly and most if not all of Tulane.
What about the monument to Thomas Jefferson smack in the middle of our nation’s capital? He was a slave owner. But we love that rotunda. There are monuments to fallen Confederates in the field of Gettysburg. Should we remove them too? Among those names are certainly bad guys with racism and hate above love and tolerance. Or for a more contemporary example offensive to my own self, the front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is funded by the Koch brothers who are actively and right at this very moment working to undermine democracy. Where were the protests? Have you visited the Whitney Museum? They got their family money from slavery. Carnegie and his Hall and Foundation? Used immigrant labor to make a fortune and now how many libraries and at least one foundation bear his name. Vanderbilt has museums and entire charities. That family used indentured Chinese to build the railroad and funded a bloody war in Nicaraguan. Do we remove these institutions and monuments because they offend or do we re-purpose them for a greater good and use them to teach? Good people often do bad things, and bad people can be forces for change and progress.
I have visited every continent [other than Australia and the Arctic] and seen many a monument to past and present [slang for one who has intercourse with one’s female progenitor]. Dead gods, fallen and current hero-murderers, lost empires, forgotten kingdoms. I don’t believe in building monuments to despots and shitheads, but if they currently exist, I think we need to maintain them and use them as teaching objects and part of the cultural landscape. Some of the monuments are to people, cultures, and passions I find offensive. Some could be monuments to political events, like those of Tienanmen Square. However, when I was to the People’s Republic of China (remember, they’re still Communist), the entire square was replaced with an exact and clean replica, effacing the violent history entirely. Removing a few Dead White Men (DWM) statues and wrapping them in bubble wrap and placing them in what I presume would the same storage unit as the Ark of the Covenant will not change our society. We can remove history from the public square and also perhaps by extension from the collective memory of the nation, but not change our current system of oppression. It is certainly the definition or moving about the deck chairs. Is that a good thing to not be reminded of past aggressiveness and transgressions of Humankind or accomplishments that diminish your personal best achievements on earth?
Let me jump cut to that school in New Orleans. I was there long after the privatization of the school system to work with one of the few public schools. The offices were right out of the TeeVee show Gotham. Dirty, gritty, wild and not free because ignorance does not make free Wo/Men. These children didn’t need a statue of Robert E. Lee to remind them of racism, segregation, economic inequality, or New Orleans police brutality. They had it in spades without knowing what they had. The City of New Orleans is spending millions to remove a few select images. What would those millions of dollars have bought these children? Knowing the corruption and graft of the Big Easy, that would have led to a few good field trips to places to that teach skills or reflect on inequality, war, or the human face of conflict. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox to prevent additional and needless slaughter in direct defiance of the orders of President Jefferson Davis. It doesn’t make him a hero. But there was his statue nevertheless.
We may post various speeches on the Media of Social (MoS), thump our chests in righteousness at how far our consumerist-hyper capitalist-late-empire has come on the subject of social justice, but we are just a reformed army. We are the same bitter victors as those defeated racists were who first took up alms and erected those monuments. Pharaoh built monuments on the smashed rubble of his predecessor and he, in turn, was buried by the sand and other armies who shot at this monuments or hammered them into dust looking for gold. It was certainly part of the character of the city that it had monuments to white supremacy as it did to the birth of Jazz or odd monuments to Latin American dictators and revolutionaries all in a wet and soon to be an underwater oily mess. The best news of all this was that some artist constructed a statue of Pikachu in a dilapidated and neglected city park in some deeply-oppressive poverty-stricken part of the city where no tourist dares to tread. That is the future to our public square. A broken and underfunded public park full of junkies and homeless with a monument to some corporate kitsch creation smack in the middle of it, made for selfies and meaning nothing. Perhaps this is the geography of nowhere in action. The world doesn’t end with a bang; it ends in a Pikachu.
Editor’s Note: This rambling excuse of a blog post was created during many flights about the country and with little editing for content. If you would like to know a good resource for reflection check out https://www.facinghistory.org/