Thursday, October 7, 2021

Monuments Are Not History

All the people who weep over how monument removal is destroying history don't seem to care that monuments do a bad job of representing history. Which makes it obvious that these hunks of stone and metal are not history, but triumphalism and domination.

The new National Monument Audit, from the Monument Lab (who knew there was such a thing? not me), shows just how true that is.

After looking at 50,000 monuments in every U.S. state and territory, they found that monuments have always changed, of course, and also that they:

  • Overwhelmingly represent people who are white and male.
  • Reflect war and conquest.
  • Tell a story that misrepresents our history.

Some of my favorite details (from the Washington Post story about the report) are that, of the top 50 real people memorialized in monuments, only three are women (Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, and Sacagawea) and three are BIPOC men (MLK, Tecumseh, and Frederick Douglass). "More than half of the top 50 were enslavers.... Four were leaders in the Confederacy." 

Real, once-alive women (big shock) are rarely depicted in any of the monuments, since statue-makers prefer mythology and fiction when it comes to us. "There are 22... that include mermaids but only two of congresswomen..."

And here's a good quote combining the Post's writing and the report's words:

Of 5,917 recorded monuments that mention the Civil War, only 1% also mention slavery. Of 916 monuments mentioning pioneers and westward expansion, only 15% also mention Native Americans, Indians or Indigenous people.

"Where inequalities and injustices exist, monuments often perpetuate them," the report said. "Monuments suppress far more than they summon us to remember; they are not mere facts on a pedestal."

Christopher Columbus, for instance, is the subject of the third-most monuments in the U.S., and as the report notes, never set foot on what is currently this country. We all know most of his statues were funded by Italian-American organizations to create ethnic pride as they faced nativist hatred. But is building up a genocidal colonizer really the best way to do that these days? As someone said on Twitter back in July 2020:

I still can't believe ... that Columbus is a source of Italian-American pride when there are so many other people who can be just that: Caravaggio? Da Vinci? Dante Alighieri? Versace? Sophia Loren? Like come on. Don't give us that crap.

As a final note, I really have to stretch back to my middle school education to recognize the names of a lot of the top 50, since there are so many now-minor Revolutionary war figures listed. There are three names I don't recognize at all (with 45 monuments among them), and several others I know only vaguely. And I grew up on the East Coast, visiting battlefields.

Which may tell us something about the value of monuments as history.

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