Monday, June 08, 2020

Public Monuments

We've had a lot of argument about public monuments the past few years. One of the things I find interesting about it is how moralized it is. That's not intrinsic to the topic; how closely memorializing (or de-memorializing) is tied to moralizing is not a stable thing, and varies considerably across time. To take an example of what I mean, an argument that has become very popular with respect to Confederate monuments is that they were traitors, so they should not be memorialized with a public monument. This is always put forward as an obvious and definitive argument; but that someone was a traitor is neither an obvious nor a definitive reason not to memorialize them, and you have only to look around at human memorializing behavior to see that it is not even particularly relevant. Human beings don't memorialize people for loyalty or goodness, which is why we do not have many bronzes in the public plaza commemorating neighborhood grandmas and working-class joes who sacrifice for the lives of others. We don't even make much of an effort to remember good people, usually; and, of course, human goodness being what it is, a 'good person' is always only 'relatively good in some particular set of ways'. Exactly whom you memorialize might be affected by what you admire, but even that is not always set. There are plenty of politicians and bureaucrats whom nobody has ever admired who have their portraits hung up somewhere.

People tear down public monuments for the same reasons they build them, and while moral principle sometimes makes a showing somewhere, it is never the heart of the act. People build or tear down public monuments

(1) because doing so curries favor with those who are seen as powerful; or
(2) in order to express, in visible form, authority, superiority, or dominance over prior generations or a current population.

That's it. We don't randomly go about monument-building or monument-breaking; we have a point, and the point is never a purely moral one but is instead primarily a point about who controls destiny. To be sure, our reasons can still be quite complicated. Why do we have so many Confederate monuments in the South? It's easy to trace it to three reasons: (a) Southern states were reasserting that despite appearances they were in control of their own destiny; (b) definitely in some places and perhaps in most places, whites were asserting that they were still dominant over the black populations; (c) paradoxically, as the South was in fact still in a weak and relatively powerless state, it flattered the people who could have done something about it that they were magnanimous and tolerant enough to throw the South a bone, thus showing their own control over things. Whenever all three happened to converge at the same time, you had a flurry of building of Confederate monuments. And they tended to stay up because it has been the badge of honor of Western liberal societies, one of the things regularly put forward by them as their distinctive expression, to allow freedom of expression, so their remaining showed the commitment of liberals to this feature that they treated as a mark of liberalism, and the sheer power they had in not being threatened by these things. (It's the same reason why you can still find liberals unsettled by monument-destruction even when they sympathize with the reasons; historically, liberals have pointed to their refusal to support things like book-burning or book-banning as a proof of their commitment and strength, but as a book is, in the long run, far more influential and effective than a statue in a plaza somewhere, all arguments for tearing down statues are even better arguments for banning and burning books.) And why are they being torn down? Because the people doing it want to express their superiority over the prior generations and their dominance over certain groups in the present one.

This is all universal, so there is no point in getting bent out of shape about the bare fact of it. Human beings generally need signs to recognize power and authority, so we express power and authority by visible signs, and standing power and authority is expressed by standing visible signs. We memorialize because we can -- more specifically, because we, as opposed to someone else, can, and we are communicating that we can. Occasionally other motives will join forces with this, but they are not the stable ones. And there's nothing wrong with memorializing because you can. We all do it on a small scale; it's not surprising that we'd do it on a large scale. But it is a self-communication, and has more to do with the statement we wish to make about ourselves than with the people and events we are memorializing.

Nor are people who want to moralize the matter doing so purely as a matter of principle. There was a furor a while back over a statue of György Lukács in Hungary; there was a big push to tear it down. I saw a number of colleagues spreading emails and the like about it and crying shame over it. They characterized the movement to tear down the statue as anti-intellectual (Lukács was a historian) and as right-wing (Lukács was a Marxist) and as anti-Semitic (Lukács was Jewish). And you can argue that some of the support for the monument-breaking was powered by precisely these things. But the outrage over it was selective, as well, because Lukács was in fact a supporter -- and the main Hungarian theoretician -- for Communist red-terrorism, arguing that the power of the state should be used to destroy the enemies of Communist policies. This was also a major issue for the movement to tear down the statue; another example of trying visibly to assert power over the past. But is it the case that the Western academics who were crying shame over the intent to destroy the statue simply didn't care about Lukács's complicity? Perhaps in some cases, but really, for most of them it was irrelevant. The fact of condemning was not based on moral principle, but on an assessment of it as an expression of power by groups they thought should not have power; and that assessment was what determined what moral principles were relevant, not vice versa.

Or take a very different case. Just the other day, a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol was toppled and thrown into Bristol Harbour. It was not really surprising, because Colston was a slave-trader, and made some significant fortune through that trade, although it was only one of his many lines of business. That's certainly a reason that could be given for throwing him in the drink. But, of course, the reason the statue was there was that he was one of the most important philanthropists and benefactors in Bristol's history; he poured his fortune into almshouses, schools, hospitals, churches, charitable societies (some of which still exist today) -- and that, of course, doesn't eve count the extent to which his fortune was the seed for other people's fortunes. You can scarcely turn around in Bristol without bumping into something that could not have existed except for Colston. If it were purely a matter of moral principle, the question would not be, "Should we tear down the statue of Edward Colston?" but "Should we raze the city of Bristol and start again from scratch?" Such a thing has in fact happened before; in the long run of history, in fact, tearing down all or much of a city, to express that a new age has begun, is not uncommon. We could very well do it. Or, at least, it could be done. Whether it would be appropriate as an expression of our power and control over our destiny is another question and depends a great deal on how we see ourselves (and who counts as 'we').

Monuments go up and monuments come down all the time. It has only been a common view in a relatively small part of history that monuments should stay up simply because they are monuments; and that, too, was an expression of the power of liberal regimes, a way of communicating their supremacy over all that came before. We memorialized memorialization itself, a visible proof that all progress led to ourselves at the pinnacle, overcomers of all prior defects, collectors of all prior good. It has always been inevitable that any serious attempt to transition to a new age would break with that in one way or another, and this we have seen in the past, and are currently seeing. Whether current attempts will in fact succeed in the long run is another question. Modern liberal regimes have a long history of handling their would-be successors not aggressively but passive-aggressively, and history has shown it to be a very, very effective strategy, regardless of whether the liberal regime that deployed it was controlled by by 'liberals' or 'conservatives' in a party-politics sense. One sees this in the recent protests, in which the primary strategy regardless of party has been tactics of deflection and co-option. We will undoubtedly get a few monuments to the brave people who tore down monuments; nothing about this will necessarily prevent new versions of the torn-down monuments going back up at a later date in some form or other; again it will all show that the regime in power has the power, and communicate that all things are under the sway of the power of liberal democracy. Or so it will go, at least, until the regime in power is not trying to communicate that it is a liberal democracy, because it is another kind of power-regime entirely. And when that happens, whether the regime is good or rotten to the core, their monument-building and monument-breaking will be driven by the same thing that has always driven these things: that they will be the ones who can do them.

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