On Old Statues, Bad Science, and Ideas That Just Won’t Die
"Tear Them Down: Siri Hustvedt on Old Statues, Bad Science, and Ideas That Just Won’t Die -
From the Confederacy to Eugenics the American Past is All Too Present" is published in Lithub this month.
Monuments often lie. Political elites erect them in the name of one sanctioned collective narrative or another, and they come down by violence or by decree as historical winds shift. In 1776 American patriots toppled an equestrian statue of King George. Not one of the thousands of statues of Lenin that were once all over Ukraine is intact. The Lenins are now officially banned and have become the stone debris of another era. It is time to relegate all Confederate statues in the United States to the rubble heap or to commemorate them as images of a shameful, brutal, white supremacist lie.
In a recent Instagram post I wondered what an American tourist would think if while wandering in German cities and towns she was repeatedly met with statues of Hitler, Goebbels, and Göring, swastikas emblazoned on buildings, and Nazi flags flying from official buildings and sports stadiums? Wouldn’t the open display of these signs be rightly read as a celebration of genocide founded on scientific ideas of racial inferiority? The Third Reich is surely part of German history. Defenders of Confederate statues continually evoke “history” and “heritage” as foggy justifications for these abominations. Media outlets obediently repeat the words to explain the position as if it were self-evident.
History is a story of the past, which can be told in many ways. Merriam-Webster defines heritage as 1. property descended to an heir. 2. something transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor: legacy. What do history and heritage mean in this context? When the South seceded from the union, 40 percent of its population was black and regarded as legal property by the Confederacy. The words history and heritage are code for white glorification of an antebellum past founded on a racial hierarchy repeatedly justified by sinister ideas of biological determinism.
It is hardly an accident that the Confederate battle emblem was added to the Georgia state flag in 1956 after court-ordered desegregation. The message: This is Whiteland. The very same message of white ownership of the country now comes from the top. A single bullet from the ongoing presidential tweet barrage is illustrative: “This is a battle to save the Heritage, History, and Greatness of our Country!” Imagine Angela Merkel tweeting the same message to her fellow citizens about statues of high-ranking Nazi officials left standing in her country. The parallel is worth making because it helps put the current debate about monuments and symbols in perspective. It is illegal in Germany to display the swastika.