Our Monuments Should Reflect the Bad and the Good in Our History

Instead of tearing down old statues and renaming schools, we should add new memorials to the neglected heroes of the past.

By Crawford Kilian 13 Oct 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Ever since the Charlottesville demonstrations this summer, Canadians and Americans have been locked in a sporadic debate about our respective histories. White racists in the U.S. want to preserve the statues and monuments commemorating the slave-owning Confederacy and its generals. Anti-racists want to tear them down.

Similarly, some Canadians are calling for removal of statues of Sir John A. MacDonald and other founders of the nation, on the grounds that they were instrumental in establishing the residential schools that damaged generations of Indigenous children.

And it’s not just statues; the Liberal government in Ottawa has renamed the Langevin Block. It had honoured another architect of the residential schools. Now it’s the much more neutral Office of the Prime Minister and the Privy Council. Some Ontario teachers want MacDonald’s name off public schools.

This seems a bit unsettling, an attempt to rewrite history and thereby redefine the country. But such revisions are an almost routine part of any nation’s history, especially when it’s trying to achieve a new social order or to restore an old one. It even has a name: iconoclasm.

An icon was originally a religious image, sculpture or other object treated as a focus of reverence by believers. The Ten Commandments of the ancient Hebrews included a ban on making any kind of image, whether of God or anything else, much less worshipping such images. Islam carried on this ban, especially for images of God, the prophet Mohammed and all his relatives.

Smashing civilizations

Most Christians did use images and statues in their churches, and religious art is a glorious part of Western culture. But it was another story when they encountered the icons of other religions. The Spaniards in Mexico made a point of smashing the sculptures of the Aztec and Maya gods and destroying almost all their literature. If pyramids couldn’t be demolished, they could serve as the foundations of new cathedrals.

Archaeologists and historians have lamented such iconoclasm, which left them with so little evidence of great civilizations. But the Spaniards thought they were doing the world a favour to smash the icons of a diabolical culture. They were also, of course, creating new icons that their Indigenous subjects adopted as adequate substitutes.

Even so, Mexico has no statues of Hernán Cortés, its conqueror. But it has many of its last Aztec ruler, Cuauhtémoc.

Tearing down walls

Similarly, Mao’s triumphant communism wanted to erase all signs of the old imperial regime and its transient successors of the 1911 Chinese revolution. So the ancient walls of Beijing were torn down as part of making the capital a modern city. By the 1980s, Beijing was also demolishing the hutongs, the old neighbourhoods of courtyard-centred family homes, and replacing them with modern high-rise apartment buildings. Yet the Peasant Movement Institute, where Mao taught in Guangzhou in the 1920s, remains as he left it — a cherished monument.

In the early 1990s the Russians and former Soviet satellite nations briskly pulled down statues of Lenin and Marx. (Lenin’s tomb, with his embalmed body, remains untouched.) And as soon as the Americans entered Baghdad in the Iraq War, they made a televised point of pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein.

Such monuments told people where the power was, and their removal told them a new power had arisen. So the Confederate statues and monuments, most of them built decades after the end of the Civil War, were a way of telling both blacks and whites that the Old South had risen again. As part of a protracted PR campaign, such monuments were highly effective, especially when enhanced by movies like Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind.

So it’s only now, a century and a half after the end of the Civil War, that many Americans are finally getting fed up with Confederate flags and statues of slaveowners on horseback.

Similarly, Canadians are beginning to realize that their country’s founders were no saints in old-fashioned clothes. Sir John A. may have loved his daughter, who was born with severe disabilities, and his alcoholism didn’t keep him from putting the country together. But by our standards we would have a happier and fairer Canada if he and the other Fathers of Confederation had treated the Indigenous and Metis peoples as equal partners in the Canadian enterprise.

Best practices or abominations?

Still, historians warn us about “presentism,” our fondness for judging the past by today’s standards. Sir John A. and his colleagues were acting on what they considered best practices. However disgusting those practices may seem to us, they prepared the way for our more enlightened Canada. And we should realize that future generations may regard us as grotesque barbarians, ignorant of values that will seem self-evident to our great-great-grandchildren.

Dropping embarrassing facts down Orwell’s memory hole only makes us look anxious. Since statues and monuments and schools are pretty costly to build and maintain, we might adopt of a policy of iconoclasm if necessary, but not necessarily iconoclasm.

That is, we could leave the statues of old white male bigots standing, but with new plaques on their pedestals that explain the bigots’ crimes and follies as well as their achievements. As new schools are built, let them be named after local heroes, of whatever gender or ethnicity, who contributed to their community. Gradually, as old schools are closed, the bigots’ names will fade a bit. Better that their deeds be understood, not merely forgotten.

In the U.S., iconoclasm now threatens Christopher Columbus. Some New Yorkers are calling for the removal of his statue from Columbus Square and turning Columbus Day into Indigenous People’s Day, as it already is in Los Angeles.

Where to stop?

But where would we stop? Rename Columbia University and the District of Columbia? What about the Columbia River and (doubly suspect) the name of British Columbia itself?

We are stuck with the fact that all of us exist in a nation and a world created by people who were really pretty awful to their fellow human beings. Denying that is pointless; better to acknowledge both the good and bad of their achievements, and work together to do better.

One way to do so would be to leave a lot of monuments in place, even to monsters like Columbus and Robert E. Lee; but build more monuments to others who built our world as well, often against their rulers’ will.

Here in British Columbia, we might put up statues to Maquinna, the chieftain who contended with the British on Vancouver Island; to Sylvia Stark, the pioneer matriarch of Saltspring Island; to the Chinese merchants of Vancouver and Victoria who funded Sun Yat-Sen’s 1911 Chinese Revolution; to Chief Dan George, who spoke for Indigenous Canadians and made the rest of us think we could and should have done better.

And every town in the Americas should have a park with a statue of the Spanish philosopher, George Santayana. Carved into the stone of each pedestal would be his immortal warning: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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