[Though nearly seven years outside of America, nearly seven years on the far side of the world, I am connected at my core to America. Like a ship that remembers its home port best, no matter where it sails, my anchor is ever sunk in the waters of my country. Therefore, I offer this rumination on the events in Charlottesville, and the nature of monuments (aka hunks of dumb stone)]
I never much cared for statues and monuments. Still don’t. I can remember, as a kid, riding in my parents’ car through downtown Portland and seeing the statues that stood at some of the street intersections. They were always covered with bird shit. It seemed a sad sort of way to treat dignitaries from the past (whoever they might have been). Better to have not stuck them up there in the first place, and let the shit fall more unobtrusively where it may.
I remember there being two or three statues on the grounds of the university I attended as well. Who knows what figures they were meant to honor? People ignored them. They were just there. Who cares? I suppose they could be useful if there had been room on the base of the monument to set a spell, or have a quick cigarette, or a sandwich, or a Twinkie, or kiss a girl–but then, those things would have had nothing to do with the statue anyway, and everything to do with anything else.
Somewhere in the mid 1990s, I visited Washington DC, and still suffer a mental exhaustion at the memory of being dragged from this famous monument to the next and the next, each a tourist trap, each just sitting there, or standing there, immensely drab in the humid Maryland July, each standing dumbly by, posing for the next obligatory photograph which would soon be eternally tucked away in a laptop folder, never, most likely, to be seen again. And in the meantime, miraculous things were occurring all around us. The cherry trees were in blossom. Pink petals fluttered down from the branches. The park blocks, which stretch from the capital area right up to the rows of ramshackle apartments in the hood, lay cozily in the shade of trees with a history their own, grand, tall, spreading trees that had stood watch through the decades, and given, as well–beauty, shade, shelter. Homeless people meandered beneath the leaves from chance to chance, hope to hope, hands out, wrinkled palms open. Stark red cardinals flashed from branch to branch. And there we were, our backs turned to the world, staring at grand chunks of stone.
I am willing to bet that if Charlottesville’s statue of Robert E. Lee had been knocked over by a falling tree in a storm, no one would have thought much of it. If it had been shattered too badly, I doubt whether it would have been replaced anytime soon. There are more important things to think about, more important things to do. People have more pressing concerns to think about.
Or do they?
Some speak of honoring our history. I can’t help but wonder what is honorable about the prosecution of a war that ended in more casualties than all the American wars put together. Should we not rather lament such a costly inability to seek and achieve peace in our own family?
Some have turned these dumb statues into living causes, forcing those who can no longer speak to stand now as icons for racism, bigotry, hatred, white supremacy. Do these people, so loudly waving the banner of Lee, know anything about the actual man. No. They don’t.
If history itself is to be trivialized by ignorance, then yes, tear down the statues, every one of them. And in as far as no man among us now, or ever before, has ever been anything other than flawed and weak, full of hatreds and jealousies, greed, self-interest, tear down the memoriam of every member of the sad and fallen human race. And plant olive trees instead. And let no man blight that hallowed land.