We Don’t Need Commemorative Statues
“A villain in your land, in his land a ruler” – MF DOOM (1971–2020)
An evolving society is the product of revision. The history books, when contrasted with the world in its current state, are a testament to the gravity of adaptability. Outdated values ultimately face extinction and the documentation of their decline becomes a lesson to mankind.
The human mind is constantly coming up with newer, better ideas — this could range anywhere from minor inventions to a competing social structure. With this, debates over virtue spring up every step of the way and the divergences even between successive generations come to light. The demolition of commemorative statues illustrates the fluidity of popular opinion that separates age groups. That one person’s hero could be a villain to another proves that absolute goodness and pure evil both don't exist.
The United States confederacy was formed with the purpose of defending the right to own slaves. Though the confederate soldiers who participated in the ensuing civil war are essential to the telling of American history, they are by no means martyrs of justice. Contrarily, they represent everything deplorable about the country’s past. Still, the removal of confederate statues is a controversial subject for the same reason that fuels most disagreements in the world: different definitions of freedom. Be it Republicans and Democrats, Protestants and Catholics or Israelis and Palestinians, people form alliances and make enemies based on ideas of freedom. The confederacy has a cultural significance to a large number of Southern locals because it was such a decisive part of their history. Whereas the link between preserving history and honoring those who died to protect slavery is tenuous, they genuinely stand by it.
Consider Adolf Hitler, who is commonly regarded as the epitome of hatred and violence. He managed to sell the mother lode of sinister ideas to an entire nation and his popularity then allowed him the power to kill millions. The residual effects of Nazi Germany persevere even today — the clockwise swastika is still a symbol of pride to many and Hitler an example of staunch nationalism. The reason statues of him don't exist but “Mein Kampf” is still in circulation is because text is a multifaceted medium. For every book defending the Holocaust, there’ll be at least ten condemning it. This positions readers to critically apply their moral sense. Memorials, on the other hand, aren’t constructed to educate us on a shameful past; they honor it. To suggest that removing a statue in any way erases its history doesn’t add up if the books detailing those events remain unburnt.
Symbols are dangerous because their connotation changes with context. The implication of a Crucifix differs depending on which side is facing up. The Swastika, with minor alterations, denotes a diverse set of values incongruent with one another. The gravity of the Hammer and Sickle isn’t the same the world over because priorities vary across cultures. Cubans who recognized the urgency to build more hospitals will remember Fidel Castro fondly whereas those prosecuted for homosexuality will not. In view of this, it seems like a bad idea to set in stone any symbolism of integrity. The universal standard for ethics is ephemeral because it is constantly updated as more people join the conversation.
An anchored celebration of real-life figures keeps us from welcoming new perspectives.
The statues being pulled down today are, for the most part, of figures who grew unpopular over time. This is a cue to audit the ones that remain erect. The Catholic Church recently granted Anjezë Bojaxhiu, once a mother figure to the impoverished, the official cult status that made her worthy of worship. We now refer to her as Saint Teresa. In her days as a corporeal missionary, Teresa garnered a reputation as a savior that helped institutionalize her branch of exploitative humanitarianism. Medical aid was never on her agenda because she embraced human suffering as part of God’s plan. In retrospect, it has become evident that her purpose was to shelter as many people as possible, but only with enough provisions to make sure they stayed — in a country as poor as India, a blanket and a pillow are enough to those dying on the roadside. After all, why wouldn’t they accept even the bare minimum when their government was doing absolutely nothing for them? But to say that they were anything more than numbers to the Church's puppeteers is an insult to the scientific advancements that could have cured them. The millions of dollars Teresa accumulated in donations were instead used to set "lost souls" on a path to heaven (while simultaneously polishing the image of her donors). These souls, of course, weren’t really lost; they were just too caught up in their suffering to realize which god they accepted as the supervisor of their pain. A lot of those people didn’t even know they were going to heaven because one of the many skills Teresa’s missionaries were taught was baptizing the poor without their knowledge.
Commemorative statues of Saint Teresa can be found all over the world, but taking any of them down would be considered heretical. Her name and image remain a strong asset for political gain, especially for those desperate to prove themselves. Hillary Clinton, whose push for women’s rights was a major selling point in her 2016 presidential campaign, has looked back at her collaborative efforts with Teresa quite proudly. The two first met after Teresa’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994, where she spoke passionately about her desire to “fight abortion through adoption.” The procedure Teresa regarded as the “greatest destroyer of peace” keeps children from being born into a life of poverty and suffering, but that, of course, means fewer baptisms. In spite of all this, Teresa remained consistent in her stance against abortion even when it involved victims of rape. Clinton looked past these faults and dedicated herself to opening an orphanage named after the future saint. Fittingly, Teresa’s endeavor to fight abortion complimented Clinton’s effort toward making adoption more accessible. The pro-life aspect of the story contradicts her advocacy for women having control over their bodies, which is why we don’t hear about it.
Bill Clinton, her husband, was the poster child of the Democratic Party for the longest time. He has gone down as one the coolest presidents ever because of his larger-than-life personality; there was a time when playing the saxophone had more milage than human rights. He earned himself a statue in the Republic of Kosovo for his part in the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia in 1999, the cancerous effects of which persist to this day. President Clinton’s heroism came at a price he didn’t have to pay. For decades, he avoided liability for his actions by seducing the public with an image he had carefully honed. The sexual assault and misconduct charges against him were dismissed for being irrelevant to politics until his relationship with convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein raised even more suspicions. The Clinton stock recently plummeted due to such character discrepancies, exposing them as agents of the empire cloaked as “for the people.”
This serves as a disappointing reminder that politics is the business of leadership. It is the vehicle designed to take us forward, so it’s only natural that we champion those behind the wheel. This is a distraction from how politicians act in their own interest, but in a way that overlaps with the public’s. “It often turns out on closer inspection,” Richard Dawkins said, “that acts of apparent altruism are really selfishness in disguise.”
Leaders need to appeal to the maximum number of people within their reach because the political domain doesn't let in candidates who can't move a crowd. Whereas politicians can be decent, well-meaning people, their line of work demands a certain level of opportunism. This is precisely why they shouldn’t be put on a pedestal.
A democracy, one mustn’t forget, sets up a large portion of its population for failure via the electoral process. Donald Trump has been referred to as a fascist as well as the greatest president of all time. When the system permits the people you despise to lead you, greatness becomes a discordant subject. It seems pointless, then, to get comfortable with an idea of righteousness, let alone carving it into a sculpture.
A careful examination of our heroes takes away the poetry of legacy. We are conditioned to make excuses for influential figures because heroism is literally cemented for public admiration. Today, the legacy of Christopher Columbus has changed from that of an explorer to a mass murderer, and several monuments of his have consequently been demolished. Given that culture is constantly shifting, it's best that we hold our applauses. As people begin to understand that their world might not necessarily be the world, the sentiment behind erecting statues of real-life figures will be recognized as insular.