Thursday, August 17, 2017

Politics and Those Confederate Statues

Peace and Justice members of "the reality-based community" should take very seriously the title in "The Plum" line article in THE WASHINGTON POST for 17 August 2017, "Steve Bannon: Post-Charlottesville racial strife is a political winner for Trump" and the finding that on removing Confederate monuments, "A poll released Wednesday suggests that, on this at least, Americans generally agree with Trump. The survey from NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist found that 62 percent of Americans think that memorials to Confederate leaders should remain in place, while a bit over a quarter of the population thinks they should be removed. Among Democrats, that percentage is lower, but even on the left, views are about split. Remarkably, 44 percent of black respondents said they should remain, versus 40 percent who said they should go."

Let me go full-bore pedant on this — or you can stop reading this post — and suggest thinking through the issue by starting with instances without a lot of emotional charge for most of us.

Let's start by noting that public/monumental art has been political since early antiquity. This is clearer when you add the knowledge that trying to separate religion from politics is a recent idea and WEIRD: common (only) among people(s) who are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic — and, largely, also American. Ozymandias, King of Kings, knew what he was doing when he built great monuments to himself as did anyone who tore them down. Displaying icons and smashing them are both politically-charged actions, as was destroying stained-glass windows during the English Puritan Revolution or blowing up statues of the Buddha by the Taliban or destroying statues of Saddam Hussein or building them to Genghis Khan as founder of the Mongolian nation and state.

So: Would you tear down statues of Stalin and, in spite of its fame for a crucial battle in world history, rename Stalingrad whatever the hell the Russians renamed it? I would, reluctantly: by Matthew White's estimate, Stalin was responsible for 20 million human deaths. But I'd keep Leningrad Leningrad: in terms of body counts, Lenin isn't in Stalin's league. Genghis Khan and Mao, though, outdid Stalin and pretty much everyone else, depending on how much you want to blame Hitler for World War II: some 40 million apiece for Genghis Khan and Mao. Should modern Mongols cut the shit with statues to Genghis Khan and the Chinese put into museums the artistic tributes to Mao? I'd have them do so.

I'd be cautious in arguing with the Mongolians and Chinese, though, since — for one reason — I've written on and taught Christopher Marlowe's 1587 play Tamburlaine the Great, Part I: a celebration of Amir Timur (flourished ca. 1400), #9 on Matt White's "Ranking: the One Hundred Deadliest Multicides" in world history, with hero credited with the deaths of some 17 million people.

The Atlantic Slave Trade is #10 on White's list, with 16 million dead — and that's deaths, not counting the kidnapping and torture, nor the function of the trade in selling human beings into slavery.

Unlike the clear, present, and infinite danger to souls of the idolatry of statues of the Buddha or Eastern rites icons or Papist stained glass — in the doctrines of the Taliban, iconoclasts, or revolutionary Puritans — the CSA (Confederate) memorials do their work more indirectly, and are a symbolic issue, symbols serving politically potent narratives, but still symbols.

What's to be done with them — US public art celebrations of the heroes of the CSA?
I taught and would have many more people teach Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, Part 1 and Part 2. It is important that the first English blockbuster drama celebrated a serial mass murderer called "the Great." In a course in propaganda, I dealt with D. W. Griffith's THE BIRTH OF A NATION (a k a THE CLANSMAN, 1915): technical film stuff aside, it is important that people know that a seminal film mourns The Lost Cause of the Confederacy and celebrates the "invisible nation" of the Ku Klux Klan.

So I would put the movable CSA statuary in appropriate museums, where they can be contextualized and their politics made explicit. With the really big monuments, especially any of esthetic value, I just don't know. But as a practical matter, moving toward the elections of 2018 and 2020 where this issue might be prominent — Yo, decent Americans! We need to talk.

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