The Confederate Monument Thing Again

On this day, when we traditionally celebrate American independence, I’m a little surprised that I’m having to revisit a post that I wrote in 2017 entitled, “Historical Statues: One Solution“. But yes, indeed, the controversy over whether or not to remove confederate statues has reared its ugly head yet again.

That 2017 blog post describes a brilliant solution that the people of Budapest, Hungary came up with to deal with their brutal communist era statues. It’s really quite fascinating, and I hope it’s an idea that can be adopted here. It would allow the statues to still exist, but in an educational context in a museum-like setting where those who don’t want to see them won’t have to. Please do read it and tell me what you think.

But for those of you who don’t click through, I leave you with a few points to ponder:

  • Monuments are not history. They’re the glorification thereof.

  • No child should have to grow up under the shadow of statues of people who thought they should be enslaved.

  • Removing a statue won’t erase the history, and we can and should still learn from that history. Learn, but not deify.

It really is okay to become older and wiser as a society. I promise. We’ll be okay.

Happy Independence Day.

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Historically absurd.

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Context is Everything

God, but I love Seattle. And of all the unique neighborhoods that make up this city, my very favorite is Fremont. If houses went for something less than a half million dollars and actually came with parking spaces and decent sized yards, I’d live there. I do believe that this quirky, artsy neighborhood may in fact be the center of the universe, as its residents claim.

And right in the center of that center, so to speak, is a 16-foot communist-era bronze statue of Lenin, straight out of Czechoslovakia. The first time I saw it, I almost drove off the road. (I bet he gets that a lot.)

Needless to say, this statue is more than a little controversial. Lenin was the architect of destruction for millions of people. An indescribable amount of evil was done in his name. This is not a man that should be glorified by anyone. At a time when this nation is struggling with whether to keep or tear down its confederate monuments (Get rid of ‘em, I say. Check out my blog post here.) why would anyone even consider letting a statue of Lenin stand?

Context, I say. Confederate statues are still revered by many in the areas in which they were erected. More and more, they are becoming rallying points for hate rallies. Many of them were put up with an agenda, during the era of Jim Crow. They say, “Never forget who’s boss here, boy.”

Fremont’s Lenin, on the other hand, is mocked. People like to sit on his head during parades. His hands are often painted blood red, which I think should be a permanent change. He’s been dressed in drag during Pride week, and has been known to sport a clown nose. People pose in front of him, making funny faces. If that statue says anything at all, it’s, “Oh, how the mighty have fallen.” And thank goodness for that.

Unfortunately, this statue is a source of pain for some. That does make me sad. I hope the fact that in this case he is depicted in front of flames and guns, and the idea that no sane person looks upon it longing for that point in history, as many of the viewers of the monuments of the confederacy are wont to do, will bring people some level of comfort.

So, as long as the current context remains, I hope that this Lenin will remain standing. Lenin, with a clown nose and a tutu and blood on his hands, has much to teach us about the follies of the past.

It’s been for sale for years, by the way. $250,000, or best offer. So if you’re looking for a 16 foot communist lawn ornament (although I can’t imagine why you would be), there’s one available in Seattle.

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The Fremont Lenin, with blood on his hands and “murder” written on his leg.

 

Historical Statues: One Solution

At a time when the US seems to be struggling with what to do with its Confederate statues and memorials, I can’t help but remember my trip to Budapest back in 2006. What an amazing city, with a lot of very tragic history. They were occupied by German forces in WWII, forcing them to embrace Fascism even as the Nazis were applying internal terror to control the people. So it’s understandable that the Soviets might have seemed like liberators to them at first.

The Soviet Red Army occupied the city in 1945. During the peace talks, Great Britain and the US basically gave the country over to Stalin. After much torture, spying, interrogations and fear brought down upon the citizenry for years on end, in 1956, a student-inspired revolution took place, and while it relieved some of the societal pressure, it ultimately failed. The control finally started crumbling in 1989, but it wasn’t until 1991 that the last Soviet occupying soldier left Budapest. By then, all the soviet era statues had been joyfully pulled down.

And lo and behold, despite the absence of these statues in the public squares, Hungary’s dark history has not been erased any more than ours would be without Robert E. Lee gazing at us in our city parks. In fact, the people of Budapest handled their statues in a brilliant way. They dragged them all to one location, and turned that into an opportunity to teach about their past oppression in the hopes that it will never, ever happen again. They created Memento Park.

I remember standing among these monuments, and thinking how intimidating they must have been in their heyday. Some of them are 20 feet tall. All of them make the men look strong, the women look hard-working and dedicated, and for the most part, the people all look like anonymous and mindless machines. It must have been terrifying to pass them every day, knowing that’s what your government expected you to see, feel, and believe.

Now, gathered in an educational park, lined up like so many dominoes of long-dead subjugation, they seem rather pathetic and powerless. Children climb on them. People take pictures in front of them while they make funny faces. But mostly, they learn that none of us should go backward, into an era of the exaltation of hate and control.

History shouldn’t be forgotten. That’s what books and teachers are for. Monuments are not history. They are for glorification, and should be removed from our public spaces as our society becomes older and hopefully wiser. Learn from these silent statues, taken down from their shining pedestals. Learn, but don’t deify.

I hope we follow suit in the US. The time is long overdue. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with some photos of me in Memento Park in Budapest.

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Rooting for the Home Team

When I was 10 years old I moved from my waspy, upper middle class New England house and wound up living in a tent in the rural South. It was quite the culture shock. But the biggest shock of all was finding myself in a public school where only 1 percent of the students looked anything like me. This was something I had never experienced before, and I got beaten up quite often as a result.

I also had a great deal of trouble adjusting to the backward Florida school system. It was several years before I started learning anything that I hadn’t previously been taught in Connecticut, and when they tested me and determined that I was reading at college level at the age of 10, they weren’t nearly as impressed by that as they were that I was voluntarily reading anything at all.

At one point my mother asked me if I even had textbooks. I told her yes, but that I did my homework in class, as it only took a minute. No reason to lug those books home.

Once, my teacher was talking about the Civil War and she asked whose side everyone would be on. “This is easy,” I thought. “Union, of course.” But I was stunned to discover that all the children of color around me chose the Southern side.

I was normally quiet and kept to myself to avoid the inevitable beating. But this… I couldn’t handle it. “Are you guys crazy??? You’re supporting the side of slavery!” None of them changed their minds, however. I was speechless.

As an adult looking back, it’s a bit more understandable. In that school system, they were taught virtually nothing about history or human rights. Most of them were so poor that they’d probably never stepped foot outside the backwater town in which we lived. They were simply rooting for the home team, as if this were a football game. I have no doubt that every one of them came to their senses when they entered the real world.

It wouldn’t be the last time I felt like the only voice of reason in an insane situation. I feel that way now when I see people supporting Donald Trump or denying global warming. Forgive them. They know not what they do.

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[Image credit: theblaze.com]

Reliving the Battle of Olustee

On February 20th, 1864 the battle of Olustee was fought here in Florida. It was the largest Civil War Battle in the state, and the second bloodiest battle for the Union. 296 soldiers died that day, only 93 of whom were Confederates. In the end the Union soldiers retreated 40 desolate miles back to Jacksonville, their collective tail between their legs.

One weekend a year each February, thousands descend on the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park to observe a reenactment of this battle, and in 2005 I bore witness to this event myself. The irony is that I live in Jacksonville, so heading out there I sort of experienced a reverse retreat. And I’m here to tell you that that section of Florida is still pretty darned desolate. I could only imagine the hellish journey amongst the snakes and swampland and sharp-leafed underbrush.

And the thing about that part of Florida is that the deeper you get into, well, absolutely the middle of nowhere, the more you can’t shake the feeling that you’re traveling back in time, and not in a good way. There’s this feeling of free floating anxiety that you can’t quite put your finger on. I wouldn’t want to be there after dark during that weekend. And I wouldn’t want to be there even in broad daylight if I were black. And indeed, amongst the throngs of people and reenactors I only saw one minority face, that of a black union soldier. This just isn’t an event you want to attend if you’re not a WASP, because for this one weekend a year, people who are proud of the south and its history, in all its ugly and misguided glory, get to celebrate. There are confederate flags everywhere, and there’s beer. Lots and lots of beer. That’s never a good combination, if you ask me.

I must say, though, they really pull out all the stops. While you’re there, you can visit the confederate and union camps, and check out a lot of the historic armaments and medical tools, which is kind of interesting. There’s also an arts and crafts fair, a fun run, and even a square dance.

I’m glad I experienced this once, but have to say I’ll never go back. Not only because I came down with the worst case of sun poisoning in the history of mankind, complete with turning a dark purple and vomiting for 48 hours, but also because, more than anything, I got the feeling that here was a crowd of people that were longing for those days, wishing they could have back what so many feel that the south lost when they lost the civil war. Instead of witnessing a battle and thinking, “Never again”, they were thinking, “Yeah Buddy! The South will RISE AGAIN!!!!” And that sort of made me sick. You’re supposed to learn about history so as not to repeat it, not revel in its darkness and long for it to return.

So would I recommend that you go to the Battle of Olustee? Yes, with caution and a rather large companion. But that’s a decision you’ll have to make on your own. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some of the pictures I took while I was getting sun poisoned.

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