I had a friend who in her youth acquired an elaborate multicolored tattoo spanning her stomach, a symmetrical image in which her navel served as a focal point. An eye? I no longer recall. She gave birth by Caesarean operation, and when the doctors stitched her back together, the two halves of the tattoo didn’t match up. As the years passed, the skew and pucker escalated. Her skin was an ever-present reminder of the gap between intention and execution, of innocence and error.
I think of her every time I see a body bearing a significant acreage of ink, especially the tattoos with quotations or aphorisms likely to grow less legible as flesh wrinkles and sags—but perhaps not before the sentiments they convey become stale or tiresome or embarrassing. A time-lapse effect goes off in my brain, fast-forwarding each decorated body fifty or sixty years into the future. Everything changes, I know. What were they thinking? Don’t they know the perils of anchoring tomorrow too firmly in today? The law of unintended consequences is the only one that is never broken.
Just so with the monuments to conquerors, Confederates, and criminals. These bronze-and-stone memorials are tattoos on the body politic. What were they thinking? Surely that whatever seemed worthy or urgent on the day they decided public space needed a tattoo would—should—remain so always.
All flesh is grass, said Isaiah, and the corpus of the body politic is no exception. Monuments erode, are toppled or exploded, get pushed aside by the urge to memorialize a fresher event with a more promising potential for timelessness.
Regret the tattoo on your body and the consequences are relatively minor: a removal procedure, a modest wardrobe, an avoidance of mirrors. Regret the tattoos scarring our parks and plazas and the possible consequences are major.
At this time of year, we Jews are asked to perform a cheshbon hanefesh, a soul accounting or inventory, examining the year gone by, asking forgiveness from those we have wronged, doing t’shuvah—reorienting to the Source through prayer and redemptive deeds of justice and loving-kindness, granting forgiveness when it is asked by someone truly ready to engage that reciprocal process.
What should we do with these powerfully regrettable tattoos on the body politic? We should awaken into the stark truth that it is cruel and wicked to glorify suffering and make heroes out of those who imposed it. The path out of the trance of indifference to the harm done requires only three steps: awareness of wrong and one’s connection to it; acknowledgment of wrongdoing and its consequences; and redemptive action to contradict the cruelty and begin a healing process.
We need a national soul accounting to bring truth to light, give it public acknowledgment, and declare the steps that will be taken to begin national redemption. No process is perfect, but I commend you to the final report of Canada’s national Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which lays out in detail the terrible crimes the government, private institutions, and settlers committed against Aboriginal people.
We need to face and fix how we hold the United States’ collective history of sins against those whose land was occupied, those brought here on slave ships from Africa or imported from Asia to satisfy capitalism’s appetite for cheap labor—against all who have been exploited, harmed, whose stories have been erased from the official record in service to white supremacy.
The statues are a small part of it, to be sure. But they carry enormous symbolic weight. We need robust cultural action to erase, remake, and replace the monuments to cruelty marring the national landscape.
As the debate unfolds, undigested assumptions and opaque assertions get tossed around like so many rocks, sometimes doing damage, sometimes missing the mark. Instead of moving us toward truth and reconciliation, they trigger our defensiveness, feeding the fantasy that this is an argument which can be won by a contest of assertions. They are standing in the way of a true soul accounting.
Every question, no matter how complex, turns on fundamental values. So I will begin with three questions you’ve heard me ask before. Their answers can illuminate some of the conflicting values at the heart of the controversy:
Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?
Who are we as a people?
That “we” names a big tent sheltering everyone who calls this country home, whether our forbears lived many generations on this land or have recently arrived, whether we feel our birthright is to rule or live with the fear that our right to remain turns on the sufferance of rulers. Standing in the tent, shoulder-to-shoulder with friends and foes, it can’t be about one winner. If democracy is to be real, we are obliged to find a path that the greatest number can walk with dignity in peace.
So while asking who we are as individuals yields a long list of conflicting particulars—white southern descendants of the Confederacy asserting that their ancestors’ noble cause must be honored and the descendants of black freedom riders who risked and sacrificed for the fundamental human rights the Confederacy denied—it is the collective answer that matters most in shaping a social order of justice tempered by love.
We live in a time that loves classification, almost as much as the 18th-century scholars enamored of Linnaeus’ system of botanical classification who decided if the naming of families and lineages worked for plants, it ought to sort human beings into handy categories. Many people today love classification almost as much as the 19th-century ideologues who, extrapolating from the system of classifying plants and animals, braiding it into the Christian conquest of darker people, decided that some of the “races” they’d created weren’t entirely human after all.
I’m learning a lot from Eric Ward these days (I cited him in part one of this series on anti-Semitism as the foundational idea of white nationalism). A few weeks ago he commented on Facebook about a question concerning Jews and whiteness that came up at a panel discussion he’d taken part in:
During my phenomenal and dynamic panel last night, the discussion turned to whether Ashkenazi Jews are white. My response. “White groupings in America don’t receive systemic reminders to ‘know their place.'” Don’t believe me? Ask Arab Americans how life changed after the mainstreaming of Islamophobia on September 12th.
Race doesn’t actually exist but racism does. Race is a social construct, not a biological definition. White supremacy has conned us into believing that race is about biology. It’s not our job to codify racism in America. Our job is to destroy the concept of race, not reorganize it. When we reorganize race, we become agents of white supremacy. Know what? That makes us white supremacists.
Race is confusing because it doesn’t make any sense. I get that people want to make sense of racism but we shouldn’t do it by trying to put organization to race. I do sincerely apologize if my words appeared harsh last night but it’s the anti-racist in me. As Audrey Lorde says, “If I’ve spoken to you in anger, at least I’ve spoken.”
Who are we as a people is as wildly complicated a question as Lisa Richardson made it in her L.A. Times op-ed on 27 August:
Like millions of African Americans, I am the descendant of a Confederate soldier. True, we are most likely descendants through coerced sex and rape, but we are descendants all the same. According to Ancestry.com, the DNA of the average African American is 29% European. These bronzed southern soldiers are literally our forefathers too.
Sometimes the expression “skin in the game” is all too apt. This is one of those times: when the debate is cast as a contest, two sides claiming ownership of history for the sake of their ancestors, the question gets reduced to who has the right. Behind the curtain of false equivalence, the person who loves walking past a monument that depicts Africans or Indigenous people as welcoming the civilizing hand of slaveholders or colonizers has just as much right to preserve it as I do to protest: fair’s fair. As my friend Makani Themba (who serves as Minister of Revolutionary Imagination on the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture National Cabinet, by the way) put it:
Fake fairness shows up in attempts to legitimize racism and white supremacy as a “fair” and equivalent “response” to racial justice. It underlies the twisted logic that the tragic violence in #Charlottesville represents one of “many sides” of a “legitimate” debate. Fake fairness did not start with 45. It has been a running national story for centuries, helping to dismantle affirmative action, slash public benefits and attack public education. It was used to frame civil rights organizers as “instigators” “stirring up racial violence”- I guess by peacefully demonstrating and getting beat up by the police.
Read Lisa Richardson’s whole op-ed, then tell me who has more right than she to voice the fate of the Confederate monuments.
What do we stand for?
Toppling monuments to make way for new deities and heroes is as old as humankind. Deuteronomy 12:2-3 exhorts the people to “destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree.
“Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.”
If you’re tempted to dismiss that precedent as too ancient to relate, fast-forward to the 17th century when the colonists, many of whom came to these shores seeking freedom to worship as they chose, followed suit in decimating the Indigenous people of these lands and their sacred sites.
If you’re attempted to dismiss it as too specific to a particular religious tradition, widen your gaze. We can page our way through history assigning virtue or vice to the topplers, depending on our own sense of the sacred. Virtually every revolutionary force—whether the revolution they envisaged was the overthrow of modernity or replacing repressive state authority with liberatory ideals—has erased or transformed the monuments of the order it wishes to supplant. Here are a few examples.of monuments toppled, from King George the 3rd to the Taliban.
Such destruction has symbolic meaning as well as practical impact. Whether it was ISIS toppling Assad in Raqqa (City of Ghosts is well worth seeing for many reasons, including a close-up of this example) or protests of the false history of the Entrada, glorifying Spanish conquest, right here in New Mexico, the message is this: “this gesture signals that we are changing history’s path; ignore us at your peril.” It isn’t right or wrong, it just is—and if it weren’t, we’d be picking our way through a forest of carefully preserved artifacts every time we took a walk, and instead of a city, we’d live in history’s museum, attic, or junkyard, depending on how much you love clutter.
Just so, erecting a monument is all about standing for something. The history of Confederate monuments has been told many times. Suffice it to say while a few of these statues were put up immediately following the Civil War to memorialize family members and so on, the vast majority were erected later as part of a reactionary project to sanitize and suffuse white supremacy with enduring legitimacy, tattooing its symbols permanently on the body politic.
They didn’t pop to the surface of parks and plazas like mushrooms after a rain. In each case, some individual or group decided it was a good idea to raise a monument to an historic moment or cause. Typically, beginning with major gifts from wealthy patrons, these projects were funded through subscriptions marketed to assert a legacy—to show people what “we” stand for. There was little difficulty in obtaining the necessary funding and permissions; these monuments to privilege could easily sail past the gatekeepers of privilege. One thing they stand for is to remind us of the ease with which public space gives way to private entitlement. Another is to remind us whose voice counts, who tells history, and thus who holds power.
It can’t be denied: when we let monuments to entrenched and illegitimate power stand, we too stand for the assertions they make. The debate lately turns on the type of post-Civil War monument that depicts a Confederate general on horseback. But that’s only one flavor among many. Consider the many statues glorifying the treatment of subject Indigenous peoples. Here’s how Tony Platt contextualizes California’s monuments to the recently canonized Father Junipero Serra:
The epidemic of premature fatalities under Spanish colonialism was facilitated by an authoritarian and brutal mission system, enforced by irons and the whip. Life “under the bell,” as prescribed by Junipero Serra, was disastrous for native people.
Functioning as forced labor camps, the missions imposed baptisms and conversions, fiercely policed the boundaries of Christian sexuality and punished infractions with flogging. Cut off from their homelands, deprived of cultural traditions and exposed to unfamiliar viruses, 1 in 3 babies born in missions did not make it to their first year; 40% of those who survived died before their fifth year; and 10% to 20% of adults died each year.
A statue of Serra in Santa Barbara was beheaded and splashed with red paint this past weekend.
It isn’t all about removing symbols that glorify domination and oppression. There is also an outcry over the missing monuments, those that should now stand in plain sight if our sites of public memory are to stand for the truth of we the people. Last month Jessica Wang wrote on Alternet about the 4,000 people of African descent lynched in the south: where are their monuments? The short video from the Equal Justice Institute that accompanies that essay is one. A campaign in New York to add women to Central Park’s 22 male figures memorialized in bronze and stone led in 2015 to approval of a statue of women’s rights advocates Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Funds are still being raised to support the project.
Searching for the monuments that aren’t there teaches just as much about what we stand for as calling out those that shouldn’t be.
Today, it’s commonplace to find assertions that the public has a say in public space, although how and how much is contested. The statement on Confederate monuments put out by the National Trust for Historic Preservation concludes with a call that both asserts the public interest in sites of public memory and yet still somehow manages to suggest the reality of “balance”:
These Confederate monuments are historically significant and essential to understanding a critical period of our nation’s history. Just as many of them do not reflect, and are in fact abhorrent to, our values as a diverse and inclusive nation. We cannot and should not erase our history. But we also want our public monuments, on public land and supported by public funding, to uphold our public values.
Ultimately, decisions about what to do with offending memorials will be made on a case by case basis at the community level. Some memorials can be moved, others altered, and others retained as seen fit. Whatever is decided, we hope that memorials that remain are appropriately and thoughtfully “re-contextualized” to provide information about the war and its causes, and that changes are done in a way that engage with, rather than silence, the past–no matter how difficult it may be.
We should always remember the past, but we do not necessarily need to revere it. As communities work to determine the appropriate balance, we hope they move forward in a transparent, deliberative, and inclusive way that embraces the complexity here, examines many possible alternatives, and allows for a thoughtful community dialogue that gives all sides a chance to be heard.
How do we want to be remembered?
The people who tattooed monuments to white supremacy on our body politic wanted to be remembered as saviors and heroes of “manifest destiny,” an ideology justifying racism and conquest as expressing the divine right to dominate. Despite white nationalists’ attempts to reprise this message (repeatedly drowned out by defenders of freedom, justice, and equity who vastly outnumber them), there is no basis to argue that anything approaching a majority of Americans want to see it revived as public policy.
But right now, a whole lot of people want to argue that these monuments deserve to exist simply because they have stood over time even though the ideas that animate them have not. A ton of competitive writing on the subject is coming out. Some of it is egregiously wrongheaded, like Robin Pogrebin’s and Sopan Deb’s 26 August, New York Times piece based on the astounding idea that if these bronze and stone soldiers on horseback are classified as art, freedom of artistic expression is somehow endangered by removing or altering them.
Quite a few seem to want to be remembered for the sheer volume of our detritus rather than the special merit we have wrought. Historian and geographer David Lowenthal’s notion of this is described in an interesting essay by Michael Press in Hyperallergic of August 29:
Our compulsion to preserve as much of the past as possible is a development of the last few decades in particular, and primarily an American and European one. The National Register of Historic Places was established only in 1966, after most of the jazz landmarks mentioned above were already demolished. From UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites to Antiques Roadshow, over the past 50 years we have encountered the incentive to value every material trace of the past more and more, like a society with collective hoarding anxiety. Lowenthal observes that, contrary to what we generally believe, cultural heritage is not shrinking but constantly expanding. It is not a finite source gradually disappearing, piece by piece, but something that we keep discovering and reinterpreting, and keep adding to as the present continues to become past.
No one has explained to my satisfaction how a large stock of statues embodying white supremacy’s mythology is a necessary prerequisite to facing historical truth. There is, however, considerable evidence to the contrary. Here are two extremely interesting essays on Germany’s choice to eliminate monuments to Nazis so as to avoid equipping racists with the sort of rallying-place Robert E. Lee’s statue in Charlottesville provided this summer. Maggie Penman’s NPR piece “How Charlottesville Looks From Berlin” points out how replete that city is with memorials to Hitler’s victims, how much attention goes to remembrance with a single Nazi statue; in Politico, Joshua Zeitz’s essay entitled “Why There Are No Nazi Statues in Germany” begins with Frederick Douglass:
“Whatever else I may forget,” the ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass said in 1894, “I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery.” Douglass…deplored an emerging national consensus that the Civil War had been fought over vague philosophical disagreements about federalism and states’ rights, but not over the core issue of slavery. In this retelling, neither side was right or wrong, and both Confederate and Union soldiers were to be celebrated for their battlefield valor.
“Now, a century and a half after the Civil War,” Zeitz writes, “Americans are finally confronting the propriety of celebrating the lives of men who committed treason in the name of preserving slavery. That these statues even exist is unusual. When armies are defeated on their own soil—particularly when those armies fight to promote racist or genocidal policies—they usually don’t get to keep their symbols and material culture.”
What is to be done?
The question seems pretty clear to me: I want to be remembered for truth and reconciliation as the antidotes to false history serving a politics of indifference, exploitation, and greed. And that means facing history as, however imperfectly, Canadians have tried to do.
It means a robust conversation about alternative means of using our sites of public memory to redeem the body politic and move toward healing, including such ideas as those a dozen different artists offered, responding to a query from artnet News, including the inspiration offered by those memorializing a fearless encounter with history, such as the institutions taking part in Sites of Conscience. It means actually investing significant public and private resources in the process of soul accounting and the actions that must be taken to set things right.
In my tradition, the annual cheshbon hanefesh is followed by a ten-day cycle of holy days. We recite Unetaneh Tokef, which initializes the fear humans feel facing the inevitability of death and the harsh judgment it may decree. Leonard Cohen’s song “Who By Fire” incorporates and adapts some of its elements.
And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling?