Heroes and Sumbitches

Much is being said about the removal of statues honoring figures of the Confederacy.  In the summer of 2017, a rally to preserve a statue of R.E. Lee brought out the very worst people, shocking many who didn’t seem to realize that Nazis and racial purists and their ilk were so prevalent or so willing to “Make America 1930s Germany.”

Why on earth am I writing this now, with Trump gone but his cult fighting on, and other fronts of the culture wars claiming lives and dividing the country?  Actually, I wrote this in August 2017.  And after some thought, I quietly shelved it.  It just seemed too divisive a topic to broach – a discussion about statues, history and perspective could be seen as throwing gas on social media’s bonfire.  Maybe there’s enough space for people to gauge my intention without assumptions.

 The Lens of History

People and events of the past should be viewed through two lenses: the contemporary and the modern.  You look at a subject in the context of the times, though the eyes of those who were there, ideally through multiple points of view.  Then you look again through the filter of your own time. 

A man can be a hero to his friends and a villain to his foes, and somewhere in between from point of view.  A moderate human being can look cruel across the centuries;  the past’s extremist becomes our visionary. 

Ain’t About You, Jayne

Statues say more about the people raising them than about the folks whose likenesses are fixed in bronze or marble. Joss Wedon said it well (through the voice of Malcolm Reynolds): “It’s my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of a sumbitch or ‘nother.  Ain’t about you Jayne. It’s about what they need.”

Athens Confederate Memorial, removed to the outskirts of town

That’s very true.  Take the epicenter of the  Charlottesville flashpoint: Robert E. Lee .  He was a man.  He thought things and did things as men do.  He was more famous than many. Generations of people made his memory into what they wanted: a wise general, honorable to a fault, devoted to duty, beloved by his men and quick to set the example for reconciliation.  To those whose elders recounted tales of privation, sacrifice, subjugation and the upturning of the social order, he was an icon, a secular saint in the pantheon of the Lost Cause.  Now, a century and a half after the war, a new generation is reframing him with a modern lens, to suit their modern needs: a traitor, a racist, a demented graybeard and patron saint of slavery.  These iconoclasts would have him reviled and then forgotten.   Neither vision truly represents the man, though he may resemble elements of both.

Application of Power

I spent 20 years in a small town where over 40% of the residents live in poverty; in a park, a group of citizens erected a bronze statue of Old Fella, a stray dog.  Why?  Because the dog’s story touched their hearts, and because they had the money and influence to do it. The money might have gone to help other strays, or the poor folks of the town.  But plucky Old Fella meant more to animal-lovers around the nation than children with growling stomachs.  I care more for my dogs more than I do for most people, yet that use of funds didn’t sit well with me.    

Although many modern Americans would cringe at my choice of words, I see the raising of statues as a form of worship–ancestor worship, hero worship, or the exaltation of ideals.  It is also a visible application of power.  A monument goes up with the assent of those in power, and is removed when that power wanes.

The act changes little – one group feels a moment’s satisfaction, another is rankled, but in all my years, I’ve never seen changing a flag or playing musical statuary bring about economic or social reform.    Not once.

The Myths They Carried

We all carry myths with us, even if deep down we realize they aren’t true.  In the same way that Ivanhoe and King Arthur celebrate nobility rather than wallow in the brutality of the age, or how honor, clean living and good diction ensure that the Lone Ranger always triumphed in those thrilling days of yesteryear, many southern elders found comfort in the notion of moral, noble ancestors who were honorable in peace and valorous in war.   All these are myths, only dimly resembling the folk of the time, who carried virtue and flaw in individual measure.  But what are myths but stories that showcase the virtues that a culture aspires to? 

It is proper – indeed, imperative – to revile the Nazis, the alt-right and their ilk, and it is perhaps inevitable that sepia images of the past are swept away to make room for whatever passes for the current “how things really were” that gleeful iconoclasts foist on us.  In between bouts of two-minute hates, take a moment to see the small consequences.   Look beyond the shrill hate-mongers and see the quiet elders who watch with befuddlement and sadness as today’s society strips away their cherished myths.   Search your own beliefs for myths on which you have built your worldview, and delve deeper into their origins.

Addendum

Singer Dolly Parton has been much-lauded, most recently for donating to vaccine research and buying books for children. There was a petition to put her statue on the state capitol grounds. She humbly — and I think shrewdly — declined the honor.

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