R. Hiyya, a first generation Jewish sage, tells the following story: Terah was an idol manufacturer who once went away and left Abraham in charge of the store. A man walked in and wished to buy an idol. Abraham asked him how old he was and the man responded “50 years old.” Abraham then said, “You are 50 years old and would worship a day old statue!” At this point the man left, ashamed. (Genesis Rabbah 38.13)
The Lost Cause and other Reprobates
I recently read the report that the statue of Jefferson Davis had been removed from the Kentucky State Capitol. For those of you woefully ignorant of American history, you might say so what. But let me remind you of a few salient facts.
- Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederacy that waged an insurrection against the United States from 1861-1865.
- During said conflict, Kentucky was officially neutral and not part of the Confederacy. By 1862, Kentucky had requested assistance from the Union. In all 3 times as many Kentuckians served for the Union than for the Confederacy– 125,000 versus 35,000.
So, how was there a statue of Jefferson Davis at the Capitol, a man who once said, “African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social and a political blessing.” (I guess you could ask the same question as to why a United States Military installation – Fort Bragg – is named for a general that waged war against our nation, and considered by most military historians to be largely incompetent.) Perhaps, the answer lies within the Statue. Upon removal, less than a week ago from this writing, workers found within the base a Glenmore Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey bottle and a newspaper dated October 20, 1936. Yes, the statue had been erected in 1936, more than 70 years after the defeat of the Confederacy and Davis’ imprisonment and indictment for treason.
Across the US and the world, people are rising up and taking down statues. In the Eastern US, it is statues to the Confederacy, although the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond has a (temporary) reprieve from being removed. Erected in 1890 and anchoring Monument Avenue in Richmond, Lee gazes down 60 feet to the street below. Lee was a good student, graduating second in his class at West Point, with no demerits, a feat rarely achieved. Lee was a comer and could have had a major generalship in the Union army, but he chose poorly. Although an adept tactician, he ultimately led his army to defeat, and spent his remaining years as head of a small university. To his credit, Lee opposed the construction of public memorials to the Confederate rebellion, on the grounds that they would prevent the healing of wounds inflicted during the war. His wishes were ignored.
Stock in Columbus is also doing rather poorly lately, his statue removed in St. Louis, and the decapitated remains of his statue in Boston has also been placed in storage. Many Columbus statues were erected during the quatercentenary of his first voyage, around 1892. Columbus was an adventurous explorer, but did not discover the New World. His time in Hispaniola today would qualify as crimes against humanity and genocide. Juan de Onate y Salazar, operating a hundred years after Columbus in what is now New Mexico is also having similar statue problems. I guess the massacre of almost a thousand Acoma Indians and cutting off one foot of the male survivors could leave a bit of a taste.
Personally, I’m OK with dismantling most of the Lost Cause statuary. Onate, and his counterpart in California, Father Kino, can also take a hike, as far as I’m concerned. Columbus has a lot to answer for and if the Italian Americans want a real hero, they can have Dr. Fauci. Virtually every Native American I know has strong feelings about Columbus, and I defer to them. I will be interested to see what the capital of Ohio will be called, as well as the other 53 cities and towns so named. We’ll manage.
So far, so good. Across the pond, slaver Edward Colston was toppled, tied with a rope, and pitched into the River Avon. You have to go back to the end of the Cold War to find monument tippling that classy.
Then the crowd turned its attention to Churchill. For his own protection, the Statue of Churchill across from Parliament, is now encased, as opposing forces of protesters and right-wing hooligans contest for his fate.
Like most of us of a certain age, Churchill meant something. He saved England from the Nazis. He was inspiring. He earned a Nobel Prize for Literature. He made Gary Oldman wear a fat-suit. He looms around in popular culture, almost as much as Lincoln. Yet, digging deeper, we know that Churchill was imperfect. He had his flaws. Perhaps not the same ones that Franz Liebekind saw.
Franz Liebekind: You know, not many people knew it, but the Fuhrer was a terrific dancer.
Max: Really, I never dreamed that…
Franz Liebekind: That is because that you were taken in by that verdammte Allied propaganda! Such filthy lies! They told lies! But nobody ever said a bad word about Winston Churchill, did they? No! ‘Win with Winnie!’ Churchill! With his cigars. With his brandy. And his rotten painting, rotten! Hitler – there was a painter! He could paint an entire apartment in one afternoon! Two Coats! Churchill. He couldn’t even say ‘Nazi’. He would say ‘Noooo-zeeehz, Nooooooooooooo-zeeehz!’ It wasn’t Noses! It was Nazis! Churchill!…Let me tell you this! And you’re hearing this straight from the horse. Hitler was better looking than Churchill. He was a better dresser than Churchill. He had more hair! He told funnier jokes! And he could dance the pants off of Churchill!…Churchill! (The Producers (1968))
Despite a superior mind, he was still in many ways a man of his times, racist and imperialist. For example, he saw no problem with the treatment of either Native Americans nor aboriginal Australians. He supported the use of poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes. He participated in the withholding of food from India in 1943, leading to famine and the death of 3 million people. Gallipoli in WWI. The Black and Tan in Ireland. In short, he was complicated, as humans are wont to be. Bronze is uncomplicated.
You know who else was complicated? George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. Andrew Jackson? Wait, Jackson was just an overachieving genocidal maniac. He can go. To get to the point, most of our leaders, most of whom we respect and have gone so far as to commemorate in statuary were complicated individuals with good and bad sides. Many were products of their times. And just saying the words, “products of their times” suggests that our times today are significantly different, that we have higher, more modern standards for behavior or accomplishment today.
Our Idols Have Feet of Henry Clay
History is about memory and stories. We especially tell stories about individuals who in the moment did something worth remembering. When they do something that we particularly like, sometimes we will erect a monument to them, even a statue. In the purest form, the statue is about that individual and that story, but as a society we also have the tendency to erect statues to individuals as code, as shorthand for some other idea or ideal. Lost Cause statuary feeds on individuals, usually Confederate Generals, and appropriates them for the larger discussion, the larger idea. Lee, despite his request, has become the emblem of that Lost Cause. Lee was skilled, devoted to the South, movie-star handsome. Casting call had found its man. In a symmetric way, Arlington Cemetery had also become the symbol for the Union, the anti-Lee.
Even when society does erect a statue to someone they would consider worthy, like a Churchill, or a Washington, is it ultimately a good idea? As soon as the bronze is cast or the marble polished, the individual has been cleansed and flattened. We could say the statue is about Churchill or Washington, but it isn’t really. It is an idealization of Churchill or Washington, not a real person, with warts and flaws. The statues is now not just a representation, but an ideal, not a person. We like to think we have honored a person, but it is a very small hop to go from honor to worship.
The etymology for statue
comes from Old French estatue, meaning statue or graven image, but also from Latin, statua, statue, monumental figure, representation in metal,” properly “that which is set up,” back-formation from statuere “to cause to stand, set up,” from status “a standing, position,” from past participle stem of stare “to stand,” (https://www.etymonline.com).
If you recall, the Third Commandment forbids the creation of graven images, so already we are in trouble.
Furthermore, when you make that short hop from honor to worship, you are in the land of idols. Looking at the various definitions of idol (from Merriam-Webster):
1: an object of extreme devotion a movie idol, also : IDEAL SENSE 2
2: a representation or symbol of an object of worship. broadly : a false god
3a: a likeness of something
4: a false conception : FALLACY
5: a form or appearance visible but without substance an enchanted phantom, a lifeless idol— P. B. Shelley
I think there’s something of all of the definitions in our statues.
The etymology of idol seems to converge with that of statue, but maybe from the other side of the room:
mid-13c., “image of a deity as an object of (pagan) worship,” from Old French idole “idol, graven image, pagan god” (11c.), from Latin idolum “image (mental or physical), form,” especially “apparition, ghost,” but used in Church Latin for “false god, image of a pagan deity as an object of worship.” This is from Greek eidolon “mental image, apparition, phantom,” also “material image, statue,” in Ecclesiastical Greek,” a pagan idol,”
The older Greek senses sometimes have been used in English. Figurative sense of “something idolized” is first recorded 1560s (in Middle English the figurative sense was “someone who is false or untrustworthy”). Meaning “a person so adored, human object of adoring devotion” is from 1590s. (https://www.etymonline.com)
Could we agree that the statues we have been talking about are more like an apparition or phantom than a standing representation? As such what real role do they have in history, or storytelling, other than fictionalizing the past, whether done to honor or created to symbolize? History is important. Statues more often confuse that history than tell it.
Statues have roles other than ghost-ing. Many have artistic value. They often have created public spaces around them for public use. Some have even started conversations, such as Rumors of War, by Kehinde Wiley.
Some are used ironically, for example the Lenin Statue in Fremont, a suburb in Seattle. Context is key.
Of course, it’s complicated. Erecting statues to flesh and blood people is probably a bad idea in the first place. Certainly, our Old Testament God thought so. But now that they’re up, to suggest removing them all is also probably a bad idea. It does amount to erasure of the past. Regardless of the subject matter of the statue, the event that erected it is part of history and of necessity worth remembering.
If I were the statue czar, I would remove most of the Lost Cause statuary, keeping some of the smaller ones for teaching purposes in museums and possibly a few in prominent places along with a clear framing of context. The proper history of these is the story of white supremacy, plain and simple. It needs to be told. The biggest ones probably need to go. They are just too scary. The same holds for the Columbus statuary, but I am not now suggesting or will suggest that we replace any with statues of Dr. Fauci, Frank Sinatra, Wally Schirra, or Dimaggio. I might make an exception for Frank Zamboni, primarily because I could envisage a really neat statue.
Standing at the corner of the Capitol Complex in Harrisburg is a statue of a man holding a book with one hand and the other in his pocket, staring out into space with what could be interpreted as the look of smug satisfaction. It is Boies Penrose.
Who was Boies Penrose? Does anyone remember or care? Fortunately, the base of the statue helps a bit. Boies was a US Senator from Pennsylvania in the early 20th century. That descriptor does nothing to explain Boies Penrose or why he has a statue there. And it is probably to the statue’s advantage that no one knows or remembers.
To be brief, Boies Penrose was the Republican boss of Pennsylvania politics and the legislature for 20 years at the start of the 20th century, succeeding Matthew Quay, who succeeded Donald Cameron, who succeeded Simon Cameron, who established the Republican machine. Prior to electing senators by popular ballot (the 17th Amendment to the Constitution), the State Legislatures elected them. Penrose had the Pennsylvania Legislature make him Senator in 1897 where he served until his death. Until Snarlin’ Arlen, he was the longest serving US Senator from Pennsylvania. He was also Chairman of the State Republican Party and the state’s Republican National Committeeman. As politician and senator, his politics could be summed up by this quote of his:
“I believe in the division of labor. You send us to Congress; we pass laws under which you make money…and out of your profits, you further contribute to our campaign funds to send us back again to pass more laws to enable you to make more money.”
He opposed labor and women’s rights, and, as could be discerned from his beliefs, consistently was pro-business. Two years before his death, the State Legislature, most of whom were indebted to him for their livelihoods, allocated funds for the statue, which was finally dedicated September 23, 1930.
More than one observer has noted that the sculptor had portrayed Penrose with one hand in his pocket, which was the only time Penrose ever had his hand in his own pocket.
Fittingly, 90 years after its dedication, Boies Penrose still smugly stares out into Harrisburg and the Commonwealth, still representing the corruption and self-interest of today’s Pennsylvania Legislature. For once, an old statue and its message are still as fresh and current today as they ever were. And while removing the statue will not fix our Legislature, it would be a small justice to take it down, drag it to the Susquehanna by rope around the neck and toss it in. One could only hope.