Friday, August 25, 2017

American Idolatry

American Idolatry Logo against American Flag

All "heroic" public statues are a form of idolatry that America can definitely do without. We should view our founding fathers and all other heroes honestly, by recognizing that they were complex people, with strengths and weaknesses. We can't do that when we put them up on a pedestal and worship them like gods, instead of learning the truth about them.

Washington DC is full of magnificent monuments to presidents and other notables, drawing on the royal and religious imagery of the ancient world.  
Statue of George Washington
Statue of George Washington modeled after the Greek god Zeus originally placed in the Rotunda of the Capitol in 1841

Americans constantly proclaim their disdain for politicians, yet the American landscape is littered with monuments to them. We live amid an endless inventory of political idolatry, all reinforcing the idea that the public sector is the ultimate expression of American glory.

Memorial statues are potent symbols. Public memorials are rich in meanings, conveyed not only in what or who they depict, but in what they are made out of, where they are installed, and what style they display, and by whom they were built and sponsored.

Putting up a statue of Robert E Lee is a political statement as well as an historical one. The Confederate monuments represent a certain interpretation of history. Their purpose is to establish a pantheon of heroes, and to preserve them for eternity.

Stone Mountain Monument

Attempting to provide historical context to monuments in public spaces by providing accompanying materials doesn’t provide any balance, because the power of monuments is so overwhelming. They elevate the subject to god-like status and speak not only to who had power in the past, but who has it in the present. It was clear from the voices of the white supremacists in 2017, in Charlottesville who, in their cries of “Jews will not replace us,” rallied not so much for Robert E. Lee, as much as against the broader attack on white power and identity the removal of his statute represents.

Elevating any imperfect individual to the mythical status of a demigod means that only their triumphs are remembered and all of their sins and mistakes are forgotten. This is a disservice to truth as well as historical perspective. Statutes will always have artistic and cultural merit, but they should be removed from public spaces where they can have undue influence, and be on display in museums.



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