Of History and Statues

“All that was needed was an unending series of victories
over your own memory. ‘Reality Control,’ they called it.”
-George Orwell in “1984”

I am wading into the statue controversy. I know I will regret it the moment that I push the “Post” button, but as my wife says, sometimes she marvels at how I got this far with no sense.

Today’s edition of El País, the liberal Spanish daily, has an opinion piece that pushed me to this extreme. I thought that it was insightful, incisive, indomitable, and industrious in the extreme. Also, with quite a streak of independence and somewhat informational. But I digress. Let us say that I enjoyed it.

The author muses about the existential, crushingly severe crisis that we deal with these days. Which consists of: “Who deserves a statue?” Before you start laughing, let me assure you that this is important stuff. It is a known fact that, whenever a child is born in this world, one of the first, if not the first, thing that his or her parents try to decide on is what their child’s statue is going to look like. OK; maybe finding a name comes first, but the statue design; whether it will be bronze or plaster; which public park it should be displayed in… Parents of every color, religion, and nationality agonize over these details.

Which explains why we have so many of these mementos (I looked it up; you can spell it with or without an e) scattered over the landscape. As it turns out, we would have many more, if it were not for the fact that these trinkets are woefully expensive to make, and that there just are not enough parks, avenues, and dark alleys to display them. As proof of this statement I submit one undeniable fact: the overwhelming majority of statues were made after the people they represent died.

I figure that, if parents started putting a few pennies weekly into the bank as soon as their child is born, it may take two hundred years for compound interest to make their child’s statue affordable. These days, with interest rates so low, add two more centuries. Which brings up a problem: by the time that there is enough liquidity in the account to pay for a statue, everyone has forgotten every pertinent fact about the life of the subject at hand. Maybe there are no photos or portraits left, to let us know what these people looked like. How do we cope with these obstacles?

As far as I can tell from my research, in every such instance the heirs, or the city fathers if there are no heirs, settle on a few people whose faces and bodies we know well. Columbus. Jefferson. Robert E. Lee. Grant. Mao. Then they make all the statues in these images. Sometimes, when not enough money is available to commemorate one individual, a few families get together and they agree on whose face will be on their loved one’s statue. As unlikely as this sounds, it is entirely possible that the statue that people are tearing down today, say the Colston statue that they threw in the river, was really meant to memorialize Archie Roundabout the third and some of his neighbors. Which, when you think about it, is quite unfair to good old Arch.
But this does not address the fact that some people, or many people, or large swaths of the population, get offended when they walk, bike, or drive past one of these standardized monuments. Who wants to remember that their first kiss was received under the watchful eyes of a despicable tyrant? This is a real problem. We cannot go back to retrieve the kiss. Besides, the odds are excellent that the donor of that first kiss is someone that you grew to hate with all your might as the years moved on. But even if the relationship survived, we cannot change the initial moment. We could remove the offending statue, and put up a new one, but by then twenty years have passed and you really do not see the point in kissing in front of the whole world. No matter how well you have preserved the passion in your relationship.

What to do? Who stays up? Who goes down?

El País comes up with a fair disposition. Every statue of a dead person still in place will be evaluated by an impartial group of historians. What we know of their lives and deeds will be tabulated. For example, take Columbus. In his favor we have that he was a brilliant man. He figured out the Atlantic currents and winds and made it possible for all of those who followed him (and there were many) to arrive at their destinations faster and with added safety. He was gutsy. Nobody had ever sailed westward from Europe and lost sight of land. In fact, he came close to not going on his trip, because he could not find anyone willing to go with him. What? Sail straight west for six weeks? Are you nuts?

He may have been Jewish. The experts agree that he was born in Genoa, but they find it quite curious that he never wrote anything in Italian, not even to his children. Always in Spanish. His son wrote that old Chris did not want anyone to know who his ancestors were. In fifteenth century Spain, one excellent reason for hiding your ancestry was if there was Jewish blood in you. Everyone else bragged about his parents. It is possible that he went through significant PTSD trying to hide who he really was. That should count on the good side.

He may have been mentally ill. Many people heard him talk to himself, or to people who were not in the room. Add some sympathy points to his score. He took care of his kids. He was able to talk the queen into taking his oldest son, Diego, on as a protégé. Diego grew up being best friends with the crown prince. Score another one for Chris.

On the negative side, he paid no attention to the queen’s directive that he had to treat all Native Americans who converted to Catholicism as Spanish citizens. By the way, no other king or queen or ruler had ever done that. The Romans screened their conquered tribes and made some individuals citizens; no one else treated all of the conquered that well. He mistreated hundreds, if not thousands, of people, although the worst damage was done by disease.

Suppose that historians decide that Columbus was 40% good: 60% bad. We would then commission a crew to remove 60% of every Columbus statue standing anywhere in the world. To be removed to a museum. The other 40% stays up, with a footnote (literally) to explain why this man appears maimed. You may argue that these chores will cost a lot of money. I answer that so do violent protests, and that we need more employment these days.
Two potential pitfalls remain. The first: What to do about the horses. Many of these statues show the offending celebrity riding a horse. The poor horse was immensely grateful to his owner. He or she had no idea that the purpose of riding into battle was not worthy. We have to find a way to keep the horse intact. Which would be a problem if his rider were 10% a good person. Ten percent of a rider on a horse just would not look good. How would he hold on? I am at a loss here.

The second: What to do with the names of the places named after these people. If Columbus were 40% good, Colombia would have to change to Col plus half of an “o.” Hard to type. British Columbia would switch to British Col, and this is assuming that the British have been exemplary citizens throughout their history. Maybe we should check how people in India feel about this. Washington DC would morph into “Washington half a D and no C.” I can hear the wails of our politicians about that one.

But no matter: we should plunge ahead. Be careful where you choose to give or receive your first kiss. It may come back to bite you, literally. Let the joy of romance fill your life. Pass it on.

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  1. Betty Townsend

    Oh! so funny but sort of true. I believe these people were a part of our history and should stay. We don’t really adore them, at least I don’t believe we do. They are only flawed human being just like the rest of us.