Friday, August 18, 2017

The Limitation of Statues

All the crazy news Donald Trump has generated over the past year or so has, until recently, overshadowed a long-simmering political issue that is extremely topical, though it has stayed a bit under the radar. It only occasionally broke the surface of my Twitter feed. And it got practically no media attention outside the States. Now, that’s all changed.

This is the controversy over the removal of Confederate statues. A controversy that was already heated this spring, but is now red-hot. Even before the tragedy in Charlottesville this past weekend, there was the potential back in May for violence in New Orleans -- that torpid city on the languid Mississippi I have not visited now for many years -- all because of the removal of four public statues or monuments.

I think folks in Finland would be shocked to hear that the removal of these statues had to be carried out mostly at night, by workmen wearing bullet-proof vests and face coverings to hide their identities. There were justifiable concerns that someone would shoot them, so irrational was the passion swirling around this simple public-works task, a fact that reveals some deep divisions in America, as we saw this week.

The monuments that the city of New Orleans decided to remove were of three men: Jefferson Davis (a senator from Mississippi before becoming the president of the Confederate States of America), PGT Beauregard (a native of Louisiana and prominent general in the Confederate Army), and Robert E. Lee (the Virginian who led the army which eventually went down in ignominious defeat). In addition, there was a monument honoring an 1874 uprising by white supremacist paramilitaries called “The White League”, in which they overpowered the New Orleans police force and replaced the Governor of Louisiana for three days before the US Army took control. You can see why residents of NOLA, many of whom are black, might find such a monument in poor taste.

Robert E. Lee coming down in New Orleans.
(Photo: Infrogmation of New Orleans) 

You might understand New Orleans erecting a statue to native son Beauregard, but the only direct connection to Jefferson and Lee that I can see is that they were leading figures in the CSA. In other words, it’s a celebration of the fact that Louisiana was once part of a treasonous group of states that wanted to ensure their citizens continued to enjoy the freedom to own other human beings.

Is that something to celebrate? Most Americans today would (I hope) think not. At least, it's now being debated. Vigorously. 

The murder of nine black worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 reopened an earlier debate about whether the Confederate Battle Flag, used by the KKK as a symbol of hate for decades, should be part of official government iconography. The anti-flag forces won that issue in South Carolina, and the flag came down from the state capitol.

That may have prompted people to begin rethinking the issue of the hundreds of CSA monuments throughout the South. Personally, I would be fine with most being removed -- that is, unless they can be contextualized to explain their dismal role in the Jim Crow South and the perpetuation of the Lost Cause myth that was created to whitewash a disgraceful chapter of US history. Sadly, we now have someone, a young woman Heather Heyer, dying in part because a faction, and not a small one, of Southerners still cling stubbornly to that myth.

And it may only get worse. I’ve gotten the feeling that for many hard core “Southern traditionalists” in Georgia the flash point is Stone Mountain. 

Huge rock carvings on the granite side of that gigantic dome of exposed stone depict Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, all gallantly on horseback. None of these men were from Georgia, so their glorification is only meant to commemorate the traitorous CSA. Stone Mountain was also the birthplace of the second coming of the Klu Klux Klan, giving the place a special resonance with white supremacists.

I’m sure no one is seriously thinking of erasing the carvings from the side of Stone Mountain, but just the mention of the idea evokes some strong reactions from folks. You get the sense that some people would take up arms to prevent any such thing from happening, and that is scary.

It just goes to show the extraordinary meaning people often attach to representative figures in bronze or stone. Throughout history someone has erected public artworks to honor something or someone, and throughout history – at turning points in history, in fact -- someone else has chosen to bring those artworks down, if given the chance.

We probably all remember the image of Saddam Hussein’s 12-meter statue being pulled down by gleeful Iraqis in 2003 -- with the help of a US Marine armored vehicle. It was a mark of defiance and hatred toward a brutal dictator. After the Soviet Union fell, so too did many statues of Lenin as a repudiation of Communism. There must be something gratifying in that act of vandalism, though I must say that pulling down the confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina, this week was stupid, as mob actions often are.

The iconic statue toppling of our age.

Or course, not everyone welcomes such toppling of icons (there’s a word for it, “iconoclasm”), as we see with the protests over the CSA monuments. Sometimes, even simply relocating statues, no matter how carefully, can arouse dangerous passions.

A decade ago, the government of our neighbor Estonia decided to move a Soviet-era statue from the center of the capital Tallinn to a military cemetery a kilometer away. It was clearly a political move, motivated by the Estonians' long-held view of “The Bronze Soldier” as a symbol of Soviet occupation. The county's sizable Russian-speaking minority saw it differently, and as plans for the relocation went forward protests and three nights of rioting and looting ensued, resulting in one death. At the same time, Estonia came under an unprecedented cyber attack by foreign hackers (sound familiar?). Hopefully, by now everyone has come to terms with the soldier’s new home.

As far as I know, no such angry topplings have occurred in Finland. Okay, statue “topping” is practiced annually here -- when an oversized student hat is placed on the head of Helsinki’s lovely Havis Amanda statue as part of May Day celebrations. But that is a wholly different thing. 

There was a bit of ill-feelings when some perhaps overly patriotic Finns fretted that the new (“new” in 1998) Kiasma art museum would overshadow the nearby equestrian statue of Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, Finland’s George Washington in a sense.

Otherwise, the prominent statue of Alexander II* (monarch of Finland when it belonged to the Russian Empire) and the country’s two statues of Lenin have remained unmolested, as far as I know. 

I'd like to think of that as a sign that Finland has healed the wounds of its past much better than the Old South is healing its own -- even after 150 years.

Havis Amanda wearing a white cap on May Day, 2002.

* corrected from original


  1. The Alexander with the statue is II, not III and the Lenin statues have been painted red several times (no, it wasn't me).

    1. I stand corrected, on both points. I haven't heard about the Lenin statues being defaced, though I'm not too surprised it happens sometimes. Still, I'm no fan of vandalism and hope it doesn't happen often.