A year ago I visited the Finnish capital city of Helsinki and saw what I thought was an odd site: there in the middle of a heavily trafficked public square was a statue of Russian tsar Alexander II.
Russia and Finland have had what one would charitably describe as a bad history as the Finns had been ruled by the Russians for many years. After gaining independence, the Finns fought the Russians again during World War II. Overwhelmed by superior numbers, Finland was forced to make painful concessions to Moscow.
Yet there the “good tsar” has stood, outlasting his Romanov relatives in St. Petersburg and the Communists who murdered them.
In Warsaw and Budapest there are unappreciated yet maintained memorials to the Soviet army, which swept out the Nazis and brought with them their own brand of repression. Soviets were responsible for the deaths of many Poles and Hungarians yet the monuments remain.
In western Romania there is an obelisk commemorating a great military victory- against the Romanians by a country that no longer even exists (Austro-Hungary).
While these memorials are not necessarily beloved landmarks in these areas, they serve as permanent reminders of significant happenings by parties that were not popular even at the time they were erected.
In New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and six of the members of the City Council (I guess conservatives can discard those “Republicans for LaToya” signs now) have gone forward on an action that has been practiced by the some of the worst people to ever hold authority.
Bowdlerization of historic monuments is the trademark handiwork of Jacobins, Communists, Nazis, the Taliban, and ISIS. Not good company to emulate to say the least.
There was never a serious outcry over the monuments, which were supported by the community and erected with their consent. The vandalism that had visited them in recent days was encouraged by elected officials who goaded “activists” into proving a bogus nuisance justification.
Jeff Davis, Robert E. Lee, and P.G.T. Beauregard no longer hold the same esteem that they did one hundred years ago when their monuments were constructed. But they stand as witnesses to another people and time – which is kind of the point of a monument and why they are built of sturdy materials, made to outlast every element but demagogic politicians.
Nobody is compelled to honor these monuments. School children aren’t hauled from class to lay flowers at the base of their respective pedestals and a private concern does a better job taking care of them than a police force that amazingly enough is indifferent to an announced public acts of vandalism, which is another disturbing matter altogether.
If memorials required universal consent then they may as well be made of papier-mache as the public’s mood contemporizes and even historical figures tend to shift with the times.
City Hall rebutted complaints about more pressing issues facing New Orleans’ citizens, particularly repairing roads and tackling crime, with the glib response that smart people can do more than one thing at a time. In that case what does that have to say for the current Nola regime?
Whenever these “smart people” finally come along to do these less sensational jobs, they will deserve their own statues.
Nothing good has come of this manufactured controversy. Nerves have frayed, eardrums have been left ringing, and the city has been further divided. It has brought out the ugly on all sides involved, including the city government.
Yet for the mayor the monument crusade has led to international attention from the New York Times to al-Jazeera, the latter being an expert on this subject as they have covered the Taliban’s demolition of historic Buddha statues across Afghanistan.
Though a bid for the US Senate has been scuttled (I can only imagine how the statewide polling numbers came back), Landrieu might lobby for a cabinet post in the event Hillary Clinton wins the presidency.
Toppling Confederate monuments will almost certainly score the mayor a prominent speaking role at his party’s national convention next year and may even compensate for the mayor’s previously espoused pro-life positions- though those might join General Beauregard in the warehouse too.
The shame of it is that the way out that could have brought everyone together was not pursued: rather than subtracting we could as a community add to the city’s historic landscape, creating new monuments to honor people who have made important contributions to the area.
But instead of lighting a candle to raise awareness about less publicized history though not necessarily less important history, the politicians chose to burn pages they didn’t like from the history book.
Protecting historic monuments has nothing to do with honoring the Confederacy; it is about respecting generations removed who carried the city forward, preserving historic public art, and being cognizant of the perils of utilizing power to “renew” society through burning existing history in order to create “new” history.
Times change. People change. Cities change. And the law is changed to reflect those shifts.
History, even if inconvenient and at times unpopular and unfashionable, belongs to everyone: present, future, and past.