Monday, June 22, 2020

Toppling Statues

Let me be clear. A statue is a monument, a statement that this person mattered and helped make us who we’ve become and that who we’ve become is worthy of pride. So when I traveled to Montgomery, Alabama years back and saw a statue of Martin Luther King in front of the State Capitol, I thought that this was a good sign. The person who called the country to rise to its conscience and died for that cause is finally given his due in the state where he was threatened, beaten and jailed. That’s what felt to me like progress.

Then I wandered the grounds a bit more and saw another statue of someone named J. Marion Sims. He was being honored as “The Father of Modern Gynecology.” What the monument didn’t say is that he performed experimental surgeries on 12 enslaved black women without their consent and without the use of anesthesia, even though it was available at the time. 

Well, Alabama, this is known as cognitive dissonance. You can’t have it both ways. (I already was struck in New Orleans when standing at the corner of Robert E. Lee Parkway and Martin Luther King Way! Well, that's an interesting corner!) Don’t know whether the Sims statue is still here, but I’d certainly be in favor of taking it down and putting it in the Museum of Still Condoning Slavery 150 Years After Its Abolition.

The subject has come much closer to home as the Columbus Statue in front of Coit Tower in San Francisco was toppled during the protests. I’ve long wished for its removal, especially after reading an excerpt from Columbus’ journal. Why would we celebrate this man once we found out what he did and how he talked about what he did, without a trace of shame or remorse?
So good riddance Columbus. 

But then things turned weird. The statue of Cervantes was painted red with the word BASTARD! across the base. Really? The man who wrote Don Quixote, the single most read piece of literature after the Bible (it’s true!) about a lovable buffoon and his sidekick? Really?

And then the next day, down came Francis Scott Key, Junipero Serra and one more. Hmm. Well, Key was ambivalent, defending both freed slaves and slaveholders. And Serra likewise was forcibly converting Native Americans in his Missions, mixed with reports of sympathetic (for the times) treatment. But the one more? Ulysses S. Grant!

Yep, the man who won the Civil War for the North, who went after the Ku Klux Klan, who was given a slave by his father-in-law, but apparently never had him work and freed him soon after. And when I went to view the aftermath of the toppled statues, a young woman was walking near the Grant Pedestal and told her friend, “Good riddance to these racist murderous bastards!” I asked, “Do you realize he was the general who led the North to victory in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery?” She shrugged her shoulders as if “no, but he probably deserved it anyway.”

So here’s where I draw the line. Nothing would be more tragic than to have ignorant right-wing folks replaced by ignorant left-wing folks enraged by Cervantes and Ulysses S. Grant. Nothing would be sadder than to see issues that could be cut out with cuticle scissors lopped off with a chain saw. Nothing would be a more disturbing turn of events than to see tyrants of one regime toppled replaced by the tyrants of the topplers (see French Revolution.) Please let’s not repeat that particular History.

Which means we actually have to learn history. Ignorance is the enemy, mindless ranting with no foundation is the enemy, the inability to think critically and understand nuance and context and degrees of wrongdoing and the weights of each event is the enemy.

And again, let me be clear. The toppling of statues, even when mistaken or wrongly done, is nothing compared to the police murders of innocent black people. But once we start excusing it and letting it pass and justifying it simply because it isn’t as bad, we head down a slippery slope into a pool where I don’t want to swim.

And so this note to my fellow protestors. Let us think harder, act more responsibility, educate ourselves. Cervantes warned us about attacking windmills like Don Quixote. Let’s take heed.

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