Saturday, November 21, 2015

On Monuments

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson included this grievance against George III.

"He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."

This is not the private Jefferson, the man who raped the mother of his children and kept both she and them in servitude.  This is the public Jefferson.  His neighbors had been the subject of intermittent bouts of genocide since the early 17th century.  They would continue to be the subject of genocide for more than a century after Jefferson wrote these words.  I could also quote his weird pre-eugenicist eugenics that appear in "Notes on the State of Virginia," in which he suggests that freed slaves should be colonized in areas far from the white races.  Such racism has evolved into various forms and still exists today in the form of redlining and the fact that Charles Murray is still published by respectable houses in New York.  There's an eerie line about the inability of the black man to experience physical pain to the same degree as the white man.  That line resonates in Darren Wilson's testimony on the killing of Michael Brown.

Thomas Jefferson appears on the two-dollar bill, which no one uses and the nickel, whose reverse side includes a picture of his beautiful neoclassical home, which was built on the backs of slave labor.  A major monument to him stands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of a minority of people based entirely on their ethnic background.  His New Deal policies, the major achievement of 20th-century American liberalism, required the accommodation of Southern segregationists.  His face is on the dime.  A monument to him also stands on the National Mall.

Andrew Jackson was a genocidal maniac.  His face appears on the 20-dollar bill.

It's easy to look back and declare that these men were all just products of their time and that their crimes are just details within lifetimes of accomplishments, but consider this, liberal friends: If in another 50-100 years, someone decides to place Barack Obama's face on our currency - in commemoration of health care or gay rights - he will be commemorating the president who fathered drone warfare.

The keepers of monuments don't want to start conversations.  They want to end them.  They don't want to tell you that most major leaders in world history combine, to various degrees, god and the devil.  They want to tell you that they all walk with the angels.  They want to set their narratives in stone not for generations, but for eternity.  I have mixed feelings about the campus protests, but the recent flare-up at Princeton about the name of Woodrow Wilson, white supremacist extraordinaire, and president of a university that has long been a byword for Wasp power, has my respect.

The easy way out of the issue is to replace commemorations to national pride based on political figures for commemorations of artists.  Put Walt Whitman on the nickel, Ray Charles on the dime, Philip Roth, when the time comes, on the 20-dollar bill.  Another way out, the more popular way out, is to build monuments to the underdog freedom fighters, Martin Luther King, Jr. (which we did already), Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth.  A third way out is to tweak the monuments that already stand.  Put the face of a Cherokee on the reverse side of Jackson's 20-dollar bill.  Add statues of a slave and an Indian to the Jefferson Memorial, so both can stare at the Third President of the United States for eternity.

The final way out, the least satisfactory way out, would be to let these monuments stand and then reinvent them in our own minds, not as monuments to our greatness but as monuments to our shame.  Allow your own imagination to turn Jackson's face on the 20-dollar bill into a constant reminder of America's Holocaust.  Add a picture of a slave to the Jefferson Memorial on your own.  That would take some work but that work might be more effective than any of the previous three options.  Don't ask the powers-that-be to make you a better student of history and a better citizen.  Read the history on your own, ignore the heritage, and make yourself a better citizen.      

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