Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Bottom Line

All America is abuzz over monuments these days. That's exciting to me because I have a big interest in public sculpture and the artists who create it. In fact I just wrote a piece celebrating the anniversary of the introduction to Chicago of its famous, some might say infamous, Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza. The irksome thing about many of the articles I read about the Picasso (as the untitled piece is referred to in Chicago) is the assertion that the fifty foot icon was Chicago's first foray into public art. True, according to the articles, there were already dozens of sculptures in public places in Chicago, but those were merely "effigies of famous men and women... (that) somehow spoke of history rather than art".*

That came as news to me as I have a great appreciation for the work of important nineteenth and early twentieth century American artists such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, Lorado Taft, Edward Kemys and a host of others whose work is widely represented in Chicago's parks and other public places, as well as The Art Institute of Chicago and its sister museums throughout the country.

It is true that the public works of these sculptors go beyond being "art for art's sake." They are monuments that represent the passions, the ideals and the values of the people who constructed them and the communities who embraced them. That is why in a place like Chicago you will not find public monuments to King George III, Kaiser Wilhelm, Vince Lombardi, or Robert E. Lee. Strangely enough however, Chicago does have an honest to goodness Confederate monument as well as a monument to Benito Mussolini, but more on them later.

Earlier this year I wrote no less than three posts on the controversy surrounding Confederate monuments in the south. You can find the posts here, here and here.

In case you've been living in a cave for the past few months, in a nutshell, the controversy stems over whether these statues which many people view as a glorification of slavery, should remain in the public places of honor where they have stood in some cases for over a century, or should be moved to museums or other institutions where they can be viewed as historical artifacts, rather than monuments to an institution most people find repugnant.

In all three posts I punted, suggesting the decision to keep or remove the monuments should be left entirely in the hands of the communities where they reside, as those are the people who have to live with and answer for the statues. I still believe that, however an event has subsequently occurred that has been a major game changer.

After the city of Charlottesville, VA announced its plans to remove an equestrian statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from its place of honor in the center of town, two weeks ago, groups of white supremacists from all over the country gathered in Charlottesville to ostensibly protest the community's choice to take down the statue. In reality, the "Unite the Right" rally as its organizers called it was, in the words of the online news magazine Vox, "a belated coming-out party for an emboldened white nationalist movement in the United States." They were all there, the alt-right, the Nazis, various insundry right wing militias, the Klan, you name it, all bent on spreading their venomous hatred.

As with a planned neo-Nazi rally in Skokie, Illinois in the 1970s, the ACLU defended the rights of the hate groups to march on the basis of supporting the groups' freedom of speech. Unlike Skokie where the Nazis, satisfied with their court victory and the attention it gave them, cancelled the march in the heavily Jewish Chicago suburb, this time there was strength in numbers, and the hate groups staged a torch-lit evening march where they chanted Nazi slogans and other racial epithets, while marching through town, ending up at the quadrangle of Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia campus. The next day the collection of deplorables encountered resistance from thousands of counter-protesters, culminating with a Nazi-sympathizing Ohio man ramming his car into a group of people, killing one woman, and injuring nineteen.

The response was swift and immediate from the Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe. His unequivocal message to the hate groups who gathered in Charlotteville from far and wide was this: "Go home. ... You are not wanted in this great commonwealth. Shame on you."

President Trump also quickly decried the violence: "We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred (and) bigotry... " But he wasn't willing to place blame adding: "...and violence on many sides." Then as he often does, he broke from script to emphasize the point in case we missed it, repeating once again,  "on many sides."

Trump was roundly criticized for his refusal to call out the white supremacist groups by name as being responsible for the violence that day. White supremacists on the other hand, danced a jig in Trump's honor, celebrating his waffling. Shortly after Trump's remarks, a neo-Nazi publication had this to say:
Trump's comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate … on both sides!
So he implied the antifa
(short for anti fascists) are haters.
There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all.
He said he loves us all.
To emphasize what many Americans were feeling after Trump's measured response, former Grand Wizard of the KKK, David Duke, had some chilling, pointed words at the president: “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists,”

Two days later as the criticism against him reached a fever pitch, Trump read a statement naming the KKK,, the Nazis, and other hate groups as the perpetrators of the terrible events of Charlottesburg. Many Americans, myself included, breathed a sigh of relief at the hint that the President of the United States might indeed have a backbone.

The very next day Trump had yet another change of heart. During a press conference that was intended to focus on another subject, reporters quickly got around to the subject of Charlottesville. Why they asked, did the president take so long to get around to making the statement against hate groups. Trump gave a rambling response saying that he wanted
to make sure, when I make a statement that the statement is correct, and there was no way — there was no way of making a correct statement that early. I had to see the facts,
Now the ability to make measured responses to events without immediately jumping to conclusions is a good thing; equanimity such as this is normally a positive quality of a president, But given Trump's disposition for jumping to conclusions, especially when it comes to groups of people he has no time for, these words were problematic. Trump, a man of little or no reflection, given to making grand, unequivocal pronouncements, was now equivocating about Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan, two groups that everyone by now has a definitive opinion about, one way or the other.

In the press conference Trump, contradicting what he said just the day before, went back to his original argument that blame for the violence in Charlottesville can be attributed to both sides. When pressed on the issue, Trump insisted that many of the protesters were in Charlottesville, not to commit acts of violence, but simply to protest the removal of the statue of General Lee:
You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.
Many criticized Trump's comments as setting up a "moral equivalence" between hate groups and the people who would confront them. Much has been written on that topic so I'll pass on that issue for now.

But Trump also had some interesting things to say that day about the removal of the Confederate statues. When asked if the statues should be removed, President Trump said this:
I would say that's up to a local town, community, or the federal government, depending on where it is located."
That comes remarkably close to what I've been saying for the past several posts.

Then Trump addressed the slippery slope of the precedent of removing statues that are offensive to certain groups of people:
George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? ...are we going to take down statues to George Washington?
 How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? ...he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue?
Again, in my posts I expressed concern that once you begin removing statues that are offensive to people, where do you stop? Simply put, a case could be made that every public monument could be offensive in one way or other to some group. As could be predicted, the last few weeks have seen calls to remove statues all over the country, including George Washington (because he owned slaves), in Chicago, Peter Stuyvesant (because he was anti-Semetic), in New York City, and even the ball player Ty Cobb (who is wrongly assumed to have been a virulent racist), in Detroit.

At least from his comments at that press conference, Trump and I were on the same page, well sort of, regarding Confederate monuments; he sees a problem with the precedent of removing them, yet accepts that it should be left up to the individual community or jurisdiction to decide what to do with them, as do I.

But later on August 17, he doubled down and took what seemed to be un unequivocal stance on the issue of the monuments when he tweeted this:
Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You.....

...can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also...

...the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!
So much for being on the same page with Donald Trump. This is a complicated issue and both sides raise valid points. The problem with the president's remarks it that he fails to even mention the other side which states what frankly is the bottom line of this issue, that these statues, however beautiful or well executed they may be, represent in no uncertain terms for a significant portion of the population that has to live with them, the enslavement, terror and degrading circumstances under which their ancestors lived for many generations.

Despite all that, those statues have remained in place with few people seriously suggesting they be removed until one fateful day in 2015, when a white supremacist walked into a historic African American church in Charleston, SC. and murdered nine people, simply because they were black. The movement to remove the Confederate flag from public sites began shortly thereafter as the murderer used the flag as the backdrop of his portrait on social media. The Confederate monuments soon followed in the sites of activists.

The first major purging of monuments took place in New Orleans a couple months ago. The mayor of the Crescent City, Mitch Landrieu, gave an impassioned speech that articulately spelled out his city's rationale for removing its Confederate monuments. I wrote about his arguments extensively in my first post on the subject. 

Unfortunately, this country has become so divided that people have taken unequivocal stands on one side or the other of the monument issue depending upon their ideology, and rational arguments on both sides are flat out rejected, not on their own merit, but simply on the grounds that they do not support the "correct" side.

But after the events in Charlottesville a few weeks ago. we can throw all the academic arguments about keeping the statues where they are, out the window. Now that the Confederate monuments themselves have become rallying points for white supremacists, no one can legitimately make the claim that these objects are not clear and present symbols of hatred, intolerance, injustice and inhumanity. With that, communities all over the South are making plans to remove their monuments post haste, even those that until two weeks ago, resolved to keep them. Thanks to the homicidal efforts of the white terrorists who descended upon Charlottesville, it's likely that most if not all Confederate monuments in public spaces will soon be a thing of the past.

The bottom line is this: no one wants to be the next Charlottesville. As long as Confederate monuments become rallying points for Klan and Nazi rallies, and yes people on the other side bent on vandalizing them, the practical matter of getting rid of the statues to prevent all that, trumps any argument about preserving history and setting bad precedents. Expect to see middle of the night purges of Confederate monuments all across the south in the coming months.

Despite what the president says, you don't have to look very far for the culprit. So long as these statues attract hate groups like flies to dog poop, towns all over the South will be getting out their shovels. If that upsets you, turn to your friendly neighborhood alt-right Klansman or neo-Nazi and tell him point blank, "you're precisely the reason why we can't have nice things."

In my next post, using some examples from my hometown, I'll explore why these issues are not new and how heaven forbid, we can use a little reason to not only address what to do with these monuments sensibly, but maybe even learn a little something along the way. Stay tuned.

* Franz Schulze, from Chicago's Museum Alfresco, the Introduction to the guidebook, Chicago's Public Sculpture

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