History, A Pain: Unlikely Cases for Keeping Racist Statues

Contents:

Intro: An Historic Embarrassment

“What’s next, George Washington?”

Arcata vs. McKinley: Redefining a Town

Racism and Redwoods: Remembering Madison Grant

Deranged History: An American Horror Story

Nietzsche vs. Foner: The Use and Abuse of History

Racist Statues vs. K-Mart Shoppers

 

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Intro: An Historic Embarrassment

The featured picture is of a white marble grouping by Horatio Greenough called “The Rescue.” It depicts the subduing of a Native American warrior by a pioneer family. The sculpture draws on several structural features of ancient Roman art, such as Pliny the Elder’s “Laocoön and His Sons,” which depict a priest at battle with a sea creature. The white man, here unnamed but assumed by audiences of the 1830s to be legendary hunter-hero Daniel Boone, dons a Renaissance style hat, and poses over the wild native, at once ably wrangling him like a sinewy sea creature yet also somehow paternalistically restraining a tantrumming child. In the 1830s, Greenough set to “commemorate the dangers and difficulty of peopling our continent, and which shall also serve as a memorial of the Indian race.” It was an enormous effort by the sculptor, who worked on it from 1837 to 1850 and it stood at the east façade of the US Capitol building for over a century.

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“The Rescue” stood next to another statue called “Discovery of America” by Luigi Persico that depicted a valiant conquistador and “admiral of the ocean” in armor and a Renaissance robe over a cowering Indian maiden. These two statues were removed by congress in 1958. By then they had become a national embarrassment and were taken down after protests. They were placed in storage at the Smithsonian and have hardly seen since and they are likely in either very poor condition or have been destroyed.

 

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“Discovery of America” by Luigi Persico stood in the US capitol building for a century. Removed in 1958, currently in storage in poor condition.

These past statue removals signaled cultural shifts of their times, as such removals always do. They are in ruins as much as statues of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or other totems of would be kings and Ozymandiases throughout history. It seems we ourselves are in the midst of a cultural upheaval, if not one that is (yet) politically substantive.

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The history of “The Rescue” and “Discovery of America” is a synecdoche of a cultural tidying of American history in general. But it’s not the usual forces tidying up this history this time. These statues themselves, along with a bunch of high school history books over the years took their own time perpetuating their own ideological purposes to serve American power – the conquest of the new world, victory in war, and so on. These histories didn’t include the voices of the oppressed and the defeated.  These histories omitted key details – that Helen Keller was a socialist, that the government murdered of striking railroad workers, crossed every treaty, or lied itself into just almost every war in the last century. There are plenty of efforts by the managerial class to whitewash this history and portray these events as outliers to the great American Dream.

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So there are the liberal critical readings of this history. Figures like Howard Zinn popularized the “people’s history.” The history of not just the mainstream imperialist history, or what might be Betsy Ross-ism that involves a lot of memorizing the facts of American conquest – the state capitals, the presidents, the wars, the inventions, the industrial revolution, the economy, technological progress; but instead focus on the history of labor, of people of color, the rich cultural underpinnings of a people and the struggles they endured to be included in the dream of a democratic system.

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But Liberal and critical readings of history, in their effort to bring balance to this story, can curiously teeter on another front – which is in the effort at a fair and affirmative present for all classes, creeds, races and genders in the affirmative, pro-social present, it can unwittingly cast a similar sanitizing of the past of its own by attempting to not offend the present learner, omit how bluntly violent and racist and offensive history is.

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There is a well-made and strangely ironic point that the apologists make for the racist and imperialist statuary relics. usually hide behind slogans such as “preserving their heritage.” This is at once apparently oblivious to the assertions of white privilege, this much is true. But there is another assertion here – what is this heritage? And is there anything worth preserving in the monumental history, not because of, but in spite of, it’s colonialist and racist past?

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At this point you might be saying to yourself, “no, don’t turn to the dark side, Fragile Dignity!”  Let me explain first that the apologist isn’t right because their personal motivation is white supremacists, but because the nation is, it is sadly not incorrect to say, founded on white supremacy. And despite the do-gooder politically-correct and culturally sensitive intentions of the liberal new iconoclasts taking these statues down, the social justice movement may have an unintended consequence of sanitizing our ugly history.

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Charlottesville alt-supremacists

 

Part of what I want to address here in this collection of essays and reflections is not the works themselves but where they fit now in our cultural psychology.  It isn’t simply a matter of removing what is offensive, or counter-reacting by trying to justify the offensive argument and mocking the other. These two poles are in a social network polarity of mutually reinforcing feedback loops of offenses and micro aggressions that says more about our culture today than anything in the past. So what I am proposing is a deeper investigation into these feelings. Not just the offensive trigger or why it is offensive, but what can be done about it? And how it’s important that something offensive become something useful, even though it is patently offensive. That perhaps things need to be offensive. People need to feel what they feel, even though it may be a negative emotion. And maybe those negative emotions are what constitutes our history itself.

 

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“Who’s next, George Washington?”

Much has been documented about the removal of the many confederate statues throughout the South in particular. Most of the statues of Confederate war heroes were erected by Southern socialites of the Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1920s, during what was the second rising and height of popularity of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow, reinforcing the social and racial hierarchy through symbolic, not just systematic, oppression.

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It would not be the first or last time Trump has sided with the alt-right in this controversy with his “good people on both sides,” bromides, but he asked really an interesting question. If statues of Stonewall Jackson had to come down, what next – Jefferson and Washington? They too were slave owners. While the (white) mainstream media cried foul, calling it a false equivalence or even a slippery slope logical fallacy, is it really that insane of a question? It all depends on whose point of view is at stake – the “good imperial whites” of a victorious nation, or the “bad imperial whites” of a defeated one? Or, let’s put it another way and see it from a native point of view. George Washington, bourgeois land grabber and real estate mogul, who was called “town destroyer,” by the Iroquois in 1753. George Washington, founding father, has another forgotten distinction as a descendent of a family of genocidists and slavers.

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While Washington is still venerated by the mainstream culture, and the nation’s capital in his namesake has an extremely derogatory football team mascot (Redskins).  Does his legacy have any qualitative difference from that of Christopher Columbus, whose holiday is being diminished as statues like one in New York City is being considered for removal?  It is any different from San Francisco’s Pioneer Monument, also being considered for removal, which depicts a conquering vaquero and missionary standing over a defeated native?

 

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San Francisco’s Pioneer Monument

 

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Arcata vs. McKinley: Redefining a Town

My own nearby Arcata, California has gone a step further, voting to remove a statue of President McKinley, over outrages of his racism and imperialism during the Spanish-American War, finding him culpable for war crimes in the Philippines. A crime which, by the way, he suffered for as the recipient of disgruntled anarchist assassin Leon Czolgosz’s bullet in 1901. The statue was erected in a fit of sentimental righteousness in 1905 as nearby community Minorsville (named after a settler), re-imagined itself as McKinleyvillle, which is it called today.

 

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Arcata protest of McKinley

Arcata’s monuments are a step out of a bizarre time machine. Also nearby is Jacoby Storehouse, one of the town’s oldest buildings, which is commemorated by a historical plaque that in part reads that in the wild west days it was a sturdy shelter for town residents during storms or “Indian troubles.” That plaque was just recently removed and Arcata, after a number of public debates, has voted to remove the bronze McKinley.

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Arcata, by the way, is a relatively progressive college town of about 17,000.  It’s the tip of the spear of locavore bioregionalism, cannabis progressivism, and has outlawed by Green Party city ordinances most national chain stores to protect local business owners – which is a boon to the small business community.

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But this bike-riding and kale-devouring green progressivism turns out to be a relatively new cultural revolution in the area. The origins of the town tell a very different story. Arcata is the Wiyot term for the area, but the town as we know it was laid out as Union in 1846. It’s founding by the Sonoma Gang, a notorious clan notorious for murdering and enslaving natives. The founding of Arcata was followed by decades of conflict with the indigenous population, including a number of racial pogroms that culminated in the so called Indian Island massacre of 1864. Later there was the expulsion of the Chinese labor force under threat of mass lynching. This all occurred as the white settlers displaced natives off their homes and logged the world’s largest and most ancient forest in the world – destroying 90 percent of the ancient redwood forest in 40 years!

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What to do with Humboldt’s ugly, burdensome, genocidal, ecocidal, white supremacist past? A place that today scars the landscape dotted with enormous stumps that have yet decayed? A place that today has streets and towns named after the murderous founding families? What to do with a landscape and a people scarred by unspeakable drunken violence propelled by an industrial culture of occupation and the grandiloquent quixotic delusions of their own providence? Humboldt County’s history is American history.

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Racism and Redwoods: Remembering Madison Grant

Speaking of redwoods, what is one to do with the plaque to commemorate Madison Grant which is at the Redwoods National Park? The commemoration of Grant records that he was an author, philanthropist and “anthropologist” who is responsible for being a founder of the Save the Redwoods League. In the age of great logging which destroyed 90 percent of the ancient redwood forests within 40 years, some began to fear that soon none would be left to posterity. This league of elites and San Francisco socialites emerged out of the same nature loving progressivism as the Muir-inspired Sierra Club and was a counterpoint of, and perhaps handbrake on the industrialization of the frontier. Perhaps even the expansionist soul has limits. And Grant was part of this.

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But Grant has another lasting contribution to history. His publication of The Passing of the Great Race is one of the most influential publications in the history of scientific racism in which the outlines what he believes is a scientific basis of white supremacy and endorsed positive eugenics in the effort toward racial purity. It was so influential that Goebbels used it as scientific backing to Nazi propaganda.

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How is a man who felt so much affinity with nature also an amazing old-fashioned capital-R Racist? It has to do with his belief in purity, and he has particularly romantic notions not just about race but about the pure homeland.

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As the ironies of history would have it, Grant’s work resulted in the preservation of the world’s largest tract of remaining ancient Redwoods in Humboldt County. How then to accept this ostensible hero of the trees, burl and all?

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Perhaps a start is not to remove the plaque of Grant, but to not skirt around his racism. The plaque should not read “anthropologist,” but “racist” and “eugenicist.” Today these sound like slurs, but in Grant’s own time, he would have gladly accepted the now ignominious nomenclature.

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So to Trump’s slippery slope – what is the threshold?  Should Washington and Jefferson be next in our sights?  If the bronze McKinley has go because of his racism and war crimes in the Far East, what of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon?  Who among its leaders is without sin?  Who could pass 2018 p.c. muster?  For a nation constantly at war with its enemies, what leader could not be called a war criminal?  Who among them was beyond the pale of corruption?

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Point being, people are not just one thing. Often it’s not all good or all bad, but somewhere in the middle. Or as Game of Thrones’ Ser Jorah says, “There is good and evil on both sides of every war ever fought.” So despite the blight of the Vietnam War, Johnson signed the Civil and Voting Rights Acts and was a remarkable and savvy politician. Nixon extended but also ended that same war, and despite being a homophobic and racist prick and before his epic paranoid Shakespearian downfall, signed onto nuclear détente with the Soviets, opened diplomatic relations with China, and signed OSHA and the EPA into existence.

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Shoe on the other foot, there are other more lionized figures who didn’t quite shit as much gold as we want to believe. Martin Luther King the philanderer and misogynist? Gandhi cuddling with girls? Obama the ostensible liberal dreamboat expanding the surveillance state and drone strikes, and exonerating to-big-to-fail Wall Street firms of financial collapse culpability? JFK’s humanist speeches belied by his expansion of nuclear weapon and black ops wars in the global South? These seeming contradictions are all true and make blanket emnification difficult.

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Like Madison Grant, nobody is all one thing, and history just doesn’t fit into neat little boxes. We can pretend that some people were all bad and try to erase them from our memory. But this economy of emnification secretly serves to pump up our own goodness. They were bad. Therefore, we are better. And we always want to think that we are so much better than the barbarians of the past. And our decedents will say the same of us. They will no doubt be shocked beyond belief that we put animals in zoos and circuses.  They’ll see Shamu doing tricks at Sea World.  They’ll see the list of new extinctions on our watch.  They’ll see the new continent of plastic we made, and at the same time ignored, for them in the Pacific.  They’ll take down statues of the heroes of this generation screaming how impotent and malicious we were about climate and the environment.  The shame would never end and they’ll take down those statues of the people we thought were the best and finest.

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Deranged History: An American Horror Story

It’s an interesting experiment – with explosive results – to mix the present with the past like this. An illustrative example in the third season of American Horror Story: Coven. Set in New Orleans in a kind of demented Hogwarts, one of the storylines involves a sadistic slave-owning socialite named Delphine LaLaurie, played chillingly pitch-perfect by Misery’s Oscar winner Kathy Bates. Based on a real person, LaLaurie conducted bizarre sadistic experiments on her slaves worthy of Dr. Mengele.  LaLaurie, who has angered a voodoo priestess (Angela Bassett), is cursed to live forever – having to witness her family murdered, and is buried alive under the streets of New Orleans. After a 150 years in the ground, LaLaurie is dug up and is back among the living in 2012. She’s confounded by electricity, calls televisions “lying magic boxes,” is startled by cars and cell phones – all to great comic effect.


In the Coven, LaLaurie finds herself housemates with Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe, famous for playing Precious), who tries to educated the immortal racist. Queenie attempts to educate LaLaurie on the error of her ways and bring her into a new world, one where Barack Obama is president. In one hilarious, remarkable and profound scene, Queenie places LaLaurie’s helpless decapitated yet still magically conscious head on a table and forces her to watch the entire Roots miniseries. LaLaurie protests, “Oh no, not that jungle music!” as begins to belt out “Dixie,” her own form of wax in the ears. “Oh I wish I were in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten….” Like Orpheus’s severed singing head, waxing antebellum nostalgic.

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It begs the question in the strangest way possible – is it even possible to “educate” the “mistaken” views of people of from the past? I suspect the answer is yes, it is, but it’s not easy and it might take a long time. It isn’t simply a problem of having a correct view and informing someone to change. The mystique of being historical and cultural beings itself goes much deeper than this. In fact, it’s culture which in large part is the function of an individual’s consciousness at all. We are all, in a sense, prisoners of time. Culture and history, is not some abstraction out there, but a spirit of the present working on all of us.

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What would it be like to actually time travel? I would guess that it would be much more disorienting, confusing than our popular fiction usually depicts. Back to the Future’s Marty McFly, in Wellsian time machine fashion, is mentally intact when he zips to and fro. Bill and Ted stay awesomely put together as much as Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. But time travel would perhaps be much, much stranger, more like Twelve Monkeys, whose hero finds his place out of time a psychotic experience.

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To borrow from psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, this is the way history works on all of us – not as a dead past but as an undead present etched into all of our minds as children as enigmatic messages transmitted unconsciously from the adult world. For we aren’t just minds trapped in brains trapped in bodies and the “real world” is “out there,” but ourselves exist in a continual flow of selfness and otherness, producing as much as products of, this inescapable cultural bath. The culture itself is a kind of map inculcating us, delineating the contours of fear and desire.  It’s how the past haunts the present, how antiquated racism, sexism, have their own forward momentum despite our conscious selves or our best intentions.  It is the culture itself that creates what is conscious and unconscious within us all.

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As Queenie fails to re-educate LaLaurie, we too can fail by trying to clean up an ugly past. Historical figures can only be evaluated in their own context, relative to their own time. I imagine if we transported sculptor Horatio Greenough to our own time and made him account for his scandelous statues, he would either have a nervous breakdown of have a psychotic break, his mind hallucinating the massacre of the reds as he’s pilloried by today’s culture was fought on the Twitter battlefield.

 

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Nietzsche vs. Foner:  The Use and Abuse of History

Part of the challenge presented here is how history is used at all in all its time-warping relativity. Nietzsche’s essay “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life” is instructive. He breaks history down into three types, each mutually exclusive of the other. First there is monumental history. This is how a culture uses a culture’s founding figures in near mythical terms. The philosophers, thinkers, discoverers, conquerors, and so on. These can be inspiring and life-affirming figures on the one hand, or can be tormentors of the present on the other.

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A second use of history is the antiquarian. Antiquarians are interested in discovering and preserving artifacts. They are interested in, or nostalgic for, how people lived, what tools they used, how they dressed, what works they did, and so on. Antiquarians can help place the current culture in the context of a cultural history.

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The third use of history is the critical reading. It looks deeply into the how’s and why’s of history, scrutinizing ideas and historical figures.

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It’s worth nothing that each of these stances exclude the others and cannot be cross-pollinated. Monumental history is different than the antiquarian and antithetical to the critical. Antiquarians have no use to either venerate historical figures or read history critically.

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In the controversy over these statues what we have is really a discomfiting crossing of the streams between critical historicism and monumental historicism. Critical history is likely to always find monumental historicism an act of propaganda and lies. Where monumentalists would prefer to pack wax in their ears lest their cultural heroes come out tarred and feathered by the criticism. Monumentalism by nature is a shallow reading – more to do with national myth-making than uncovering any uncomfortable truths. The art of monuments themselves, either in their aesthetics or dedications or plaques, offer little by way of critical thinking about history.

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Monuments themselves are usually beneficial to the dominant culture which erected it, so minorities are usually unrepresented. This is a problem because monuments only ever express the dominant culture’s patriarchal and statist projections. Monuments are made of the victors of this system, which by necessity ignore the vast piles of bones their triumph stands upon. No one makes monuments of the losers of history. Only the graves of the victors are marked, and it is they, as the saying goes, who get to write the history books.

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So why have monuments at all? Nietzsche says it cuts both ways, as monuments can be both good and bad. On the positive side, for instance, they can inspire a people, or inspire leaders, as long as they are able to be inspired. Or the past can be so ossified in one-dimensional nostalgia, it can be held over the present as a once-dignified golden age. The projection of greatness onto the past can potentially crush the present.

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Nietzsche, much the lover of history, very much is an existentialist of the here and now, and believes that history must be useful to life in the present. If it isn’t, history can be disposed of, has it has become a “destructive weed.” Question being, if these old statues of a colonial America no longer serve to inspire, do they have any meaning whatsoever, even within their own narrow monumental task?

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Columbia professor and celebrated American historian Eric Foner, who in his book Battles for Freedom, argues for a nuanced revision of these monuments. It’s somewhat a challenge considering the uses of history cannot, in Nietzschian fashion, be cross-pollinated, but nevertheless, he poses this challenge. He writes in his essay “Our Monumental Mistakes”, “The point is not that every monument to a slaveholder ought to be dismantles but that existing historical sites must be revised to convey a more complex and honest view of our past, and that statues of black Civil War soldiers, slave rebels, civil rights activists and the like should share public space with Confederate generals and Klansmen, all of them part of America’s history.”

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This inevitably puts our history into a dialog, transform the monumental public space with critical historicism. It’s a difficult pairing, but perhaps this is what a culture calls for from time to time to reckon with itself. Times of introspection, a dialectic between the present and the past, which isn’t even past, but exists in the present in some unconscious form. But it’s in the reconciliation of past with attitudes of the present which give space to a new peace so life may persist. This is a much more interesting path for history to take – precisely because it is uncomfortable and potentially offensive.

 

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Racist Statues vs. K-Mart Shoppers

The LA Times piece on the McKinley statue quotes Arcata Mayor asking, “Is there a difference between honoring McKinley and Robert E. Lee? They both represent historical pain.” But isn’t that precisely the point? That history is painful? It is disgusting – perhaps we are appropriately disgusted.  It is our American horror story. It is a horror particularly for native peoples.

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On that count, and according to Nietzsche’s heroic existential humanism, why keep these statues around if they don’t benefit life? What purpose does it serve if it doesn’t uplift? I will suggest though that in America, we have the opposite problem than Europe. Europe, while weighed down by history and tradition is contrasted to the eternal optimism of America. Nietzsche may have added a nuance to his philosophy of history had he visited the New World. The challenge of America is not to smash the idols of the heavy past, as Americans are happy do to so, taking glee in smashing European ancestry for centuries.

 

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The challenge here is embracing cultural ancestors which are now repugnant at least in part. White folks like to imagine that our ancestors weren’t slavers and genocidists and ecocidists. They like to imagine that they were the “good ones” and the whole nation wasn’t founded on racist twaddle and bullocks. And therefore they live with an ungrounded sanitized version of the past, and create fantasies like the Thanksgiving myth of peaceful co-existence between whites and natives.  These racist statues are more honest than Thanksgiving.  It also serves this culture to turn a blind eye to systematic racism, endless war and the Anthropocene ecocide. 

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This historical move may not make sense for native perspectives of history, a perspective which itself puts the rest of the occupying culture in proper context. I imagine it may be signs of cultural renewal for native culture to transcend the story of struggle, to have the luxury of an heroic existential psychology of their own. Perhaps that is true – and if so, they should rightfully want to smash all the idols of occupation. But it may be of even greater importance for natives if whites could reckon with themselves. For it is this introspection, this self-reckoning, that is truly missing in the American soul.

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It has been said, and I’ve forgotten by whom, that natives find their identity by remembering their past.  Whites find their identity in forgetting it.  Unwittingly, by these “reminders of historical pain,” the good white people of Arcata implicate themselves in the myth of the American Adam. The historical-transcendental American.  America, where we can do anything, untouched by gravity, fate, or history.  To borrow from R.W.B. Lewis’ The American Adam, white culture in America always carries with it the myth of newness – new horizons, new frontiers, and new technology, transcending the past. The myth is that America is a land and people of innocence.  This was the great there of modernist American literature – the loss of innocence.  The sins of history, according to this myth, are outliers that don’t fit within the triumphant narrative of the Promised Land, the city on the hill. White America does not suffer from its history, it excels in spite of its history, it excels because it has amnesia, Groundhog Day’d into a forever newness.  The “problems” in this ethnocentric, nationalistic myth are always located in otherness – natives, people of color, foreigners.  It’s in this situation, this cultural brew, in which the mainstream culture needs ties to its past, needs reminders that yes, indeed, its culture is not based on Providence, or Manifest Destiny, the Monroe Doctrine, or supply side economics, or Jefferson’s humble yeomen or the anti-aristocratic free men of Frederick Jackson Turner’s grand frontier, but in fact on the twin original sins of genocide and slavery.  And as cringe-inducing as this history is, it’s more useful to reflect on the soul the nation rather than sweep the embarrassment under the proverbial rug.

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History is a pile of bones, and even if offensive, should perhaps provoke us and shake us from the amnestic waters of late capitalism, which by its own design wishes to maintain the façade of reason, order, and omnipotence making us all feel the helpless consumerist torpor.  Shoppers don’t want to be bothered by statues of Puritans restraining the mohawked red menace.  It’s a historical fissure breaking through the postmodern simulacrum revealing the truth of our world.  Racist statues pierce the veil of McWorld, exposing its menace.  One cannot understand the history of his nation without understanding that its history can be measured in red, brown and black bodies. Both in flesh and wood.

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It’s founded explicitly along racist lines. When the white nationalists march with their tiki torches and shout “you will not replace us,” and cry out to preserve their “heritage” – they are not exactly wrong. These monuments are a testament to the heroism of robbers and murders. It’s a fracture in the soul of the nation, and it has not yet healed. Nor will I suspect this historical shame would heal if the symbols of its bloody conquest are concealed – be they monuments or otherwise. What are we seeking to do when we remove the statues is not rid ourselves of something offensive by Purelling our past, but to erase the reminder that the nation was founded on monumental ethical and moral crimes. It only serves to obviate the guilt of good white people, to separate us from the crimes of the nation’s founding.

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Until at least a time when humanity is done with statism and demolishes any need for monuments at all, these monuments should not need to come down, for something much more interesting is at work than the crude displacement of bronze and marble. Really, the fact that these once venerated works are now interpreted as offensive in the mainstream is a change much harder won than simply removing a statue. From the viewpoint of art criticism, sometimes public art, even triumphalist propaganda such as this, needs to be offensive. These offensive monuments remind us that history is unfair, that the good guys don’t win, that our unescapable past cannot be sanitized.

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Columbus in New York