Donald Trump says removing confederate statues is a slippery slope that could get out of control. Maybe he's right—would that be such a bad thing?
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
More than ever, old monuments to famous white American men are being threatened in the name of progress. Naturally, this has become a rallying cry on the far right, with plenty of encouragement from the most powerful man in the world. At the same unhinged press conference in which Donald Trump again blamed both sides for the deadly violence in Charlottesville last weekend, he also painted a picture of a slippery slope where those fighting for the removal of Confederate statues today might be destroying tributes to more mainstream slave-owning icons like George Washington tomorrow. He lamented this prospect once more on Thursday, opining on Twitter that "the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!" Far-right sites like the Daily Caller have been running with the theme, publishing alarmist takes with headlines like, "It's Time to Blow Up Mount Rushmore."
Which made me wonder: If Rushmore ever did get "blown up," what should those dudes be replaced with? Fact is, I'm not sure there is any American president worthy of being etched into the side of a 60-foot mountain with explosives and jackhammers. I mean, every single one has at least been partially complicit in horrific atrocities.
I visited Mount Rushmore in the summer of 2015, and it's nothing like Abe Lincoln squatting on his (recently vandalized) throne or George Washington's phallus towering over everything in DC. Instead, Rushmore is a testament to the human ability to conquer nature in our own image. Standing in front of it conjured feelings of both wonder and disgust in me. Obviously, Washington and Thomas Jefferson were remarkable individuals who helped usurp British rule in America and, eventually, establish a new empire. But they also enslaved their fellow man, committing special kinds of inhumane acts that should never be confined to footnotes. Unfortunately, that is exactly how those troublesome truths are treated when you face the awesome grandeur of Rushmore, a monument so incredible it obscures the multifaceted nature of these old dudes, transmogrifying them from individuals with a capacity both for greatness and evil into pure American deities.
In case you're wondering, I don't think Barack Obama should be lionized with some sort of larger-than-life monument, either. While he is a man who embodies so many of the dreams I had for this nation as a child, he has also committed acts I absolutely abhor. His embrace of aerial drone strikes, especially in nations like Somalia, was extremely disheartening for both their attendant civilian casualties and the shaky legal framework in which they were committed. His expansion of surveillance programs that sprawled under George W. Bush could theoretically now be used by the Trump administration to stymie movements like Black Lives Matter, which is comprised of people actually doing work to make this nation more equitable. And in case you haven't noticed, as great as the optics of Obama's presidency were, they seem to have done little to heal the wounds of racism in this nation or dismantle the institutional apparatuses that fuel injustice.
I have love for Obama as a black man, but I don't need to see his face on the side of a mountain. I certainly don't want to see him turned into some kind of great black superhero, devoid of his flaws and failures. If it happened, it would mean we didn't learn important lessons from his presidency that could help us move the buck further the next time around.
Watch the VICE Does America crew mess with Ted Cruz at the Iowa State Fair:
This is not to say that I am against independent art and artists representing historical figures in ways that honor, embrace, challenge, and contextualize our collective past. Nor am I down on museums, where people can go and investigate, explore, and research history in depth. What I am suspicious of are monuments produced by the state, which tend to flatten out nuances and turn flawed individuals into tools of propaganda that bolster a kind of religious patriotism. This stuff can be incredibly dangerous for democracy, especially when the same ascendant movement that deifies one set of (white) leaders sees people of color as sub-human.
It's hard to be critical of a system when that system becomes an article of faith, filled with myths (the cherry tree), deities (Founding Fathers), and notions of salvation (the City on a Hill). It's going to be impossible to improve America if we can't be honest about its origins and its past. Her fruit is born from violence and greed, watered by the blood of my ancestors. To those who worship at her altar, these truths I speak of are heretical. That is why so many are fighting so hard—risking state or even federal prosecution for hate crimes—to cling to them. But the only way we can help America fulfill her promise is by shedding the faith and facing the truth. A big part of that process probably involves taking those men we've placed so high and bringing them back down to Earth where we can judge them for who they really were.
Let's take with us the righteous ideas and beliefs and leave everything else on the pyre.
Trump and his white supremacist cohorts believe the reverence some Americans have for these statues is simply respect for history, and that tearing them down is tantamount to ripping pages out of a textbook. But monuments built by the state are not history—they manifestations of power. They don't tell you who, what, why, or how something happened. Instead, they just inform you who's in control. This is even true with the Confederate statues, even though the South lost the war. The reality is that the enshrinement of those generals in statues across the nation mostly did not happen right after the war as a tribute to lost struggle. Instead, they were built in the early 1900s and the 1960s, when it was crucial for those in power to signal that white supremacy would endure in the face of Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, and the civil rights movement. Erecting these statues amounted to power moves by white people who felt threatened. And now that they are being toppled, and neo-Nazis fight against their removal, their true meaning has become clearer than ever.
One of the worst things about these statues is that the enshrinement of leaders doesn't just hide the bad things about them—it can also obscure the good. As a young man, I was always skeptical of Martin Luther King Jr., in comparison to more radical leaders like Malcolm X. I couldn't help to notice how King was hailed by white people who wanted to avoid hard discussions about race. These people wanted to rely on a flimsy "dream" instead of grappling with the "fierce urgency of now." Many critics felt that it was this false, tepid caricature of King that was initially captured in his monument in Washington. The people behind the sculpture arguably distorted a quote of King's about overthrowing the political order through radical change and turned it into something bland, meaningless, and wholly uncontroversial. As art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott wrote in an editorial in the Washington Post back in 2011, "The memorial could be vastly improved simply by removing the statue."
I tend to agree with that. I'm not sure that a monument put on by the state, which still perpetuates violence across the world and has immense inequality here at home, could ever produce a work that truly honors the real, radical legacy of Dr. King. King was a man who damned capitalism and war as much as he strived for black boys and black girls to hold hands with white boys and white girls.
With the president of the United States basically justifying neo-Nazism, it seems unthinkable that we will ever see a day when there is a serious push to blow up Rushmore and other monuments like it. But if that moment ever arrives, I suspect I'd be onboard. Demystifying the historical figures of the past, pulling them off the great mountain top back down to Earth where they shat, farted, spit, pissed, fucked, raped, murdered, died, and rotted seems like important business for this country. As long as we allow those men to be cults of personality who exist beyond reproach, we're never going to be able to see them for all of their good and all of their evil.
Editor's note: The headline on this story has been updated. We do not condone violence in any shape or form, and the use of "blow up" in the original headline as a rhetorical device was misguided and insensitive. We apologize for the error.
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