“Every record has been destroyed, or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street has been renamed, every date has been altered. …History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.
George Orwell, 1984
Is it three months of social distance, the horrible job market, a half century of #BlameAmericaFirst in college humanities departments, or the lingering effects of racial prejudice and hardship? No doubt a combination, but at this point anyone not seething with bitterness has to be saying, “enough is enough” to this crazy #monumentremovalmovement, which started – with justification – back in Charlottesville and is now a double-barrel assault on monuments to confederate generals, especially in the public sphere where, most seem to agree, they do not belong.
It then sprawled into attacks on Christopher Columbus, Thomas Jefferson, Francis Scott Key, George Washington, Miguel de Cervantes, Ulysses S. Grant, Father Junipero Serra, founding fathers Ceasar Rodney and Philip Schuyler and even the Freedman’s Memorial in Washington, DC, depicting Lincoln and mostly paid for by black civil war vets. Then there is the 1619 project which defines America as incurably racist and our origin story as commencing with the onset of slavery.
From Richmond to San Francisco this has become a moment where resentments seethe. No mistaking, it is an attack on western civilization.
How’s that working out?
Identity politics is a reversion to tribalism which is the antithesis of E Pluribus Unum. Identity politics is a blight on our democracy. We have woven together the disparate threads of a diverse society more successfully than any nation on earth. How? Through the unifying power of the American idea and ideals.
People are not angels – which is why religion matters. America’s journey of freedom has been a bumpy road and there is a lot to atone for. That’s why education matters.
Seriously, where does it end? I recently fielded a query from a journalist wondering what statues in Hartford might be targeted for removal. Well it’s not going to be Nathan Hale or General Israel Putnam or Horace Wells or Rev. Thomas Brownell. Are the three Civil War leaders – two generals and a member of Lincoln’s cabinet – that adorn the capitol’s south entrance okay? What about war Gov. William Buckingham or the figure of the Andersonville Boy?
Scenes depicting the settlement of Hartford, Windsor and New Haven carved in marble on the exterior of the Capitol by Italian sculptors – these represent a triumphalist view of European settlement and colonization. Is that okay?
What about the statue Elizabeth Colt commissioned to honor her husband who made guns, but also developed the technology that made Hartford rich and provided tens of thousands of immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Poland, Russia and beyond with steady employment in a city bursting with optimism and social amenities?
What about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment camps? If a statue of Thomas Jefferson needs to come down, what about Monticello and the Jefferson Memorial? Yale University removed the name of southern statesman and political theorist John C. Calhoun from one of its dormitories. What about its slave trading founder Elihu Yale?
We really need to get from me to WE on all this. If the public sphere is shaped by grievance and effrontery little will survive except ceaseless conflict and a society too self-oriented to imagine the past or shape a meaningful and inclusive future.
Before one more monument is vandalized and removed, let’s have a balanced, adult conversation about them. Let’s double down on using monuments and art to teach, inspire, challenge, and provoke discussion and remembrance. That’s what they’re there for.
Bill Hosley of Enfield is a cultural resource development and marketing consultant, social media expert, historian, writer, and photographer. He was formerly Director of the New Haven Museum and Connecticut Landmarks, where he cared for a chain of historic attractions.