Guest post by Steve-O-in-NJ
Steve’s post below discusses the issues posed by this news [from the Smithsonian]:
…In Charlottesville, Virginia, lawmakers decided to transform one torn-down monument entirely, reports Teo Armus for the Washington Post. Instead of storing a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, officials will melt down the 1,100-pound bronze monument into metal ingots—raw material that can then be used to create new art.
City council members approved the proposal unanimously on Tuesday morning, reports Ginny Bixby for the Charlottesville Daily Progress. Put forth by the local Jefferson School African American Heritage Center (JSAAHC), the plan was one of six considered by lawmakers during months of deliberation.
According to JSAAHC’s proposal, organizers plan to hold community listening sessions in barbershops, places of worship, schools and other businesses throughout Charlottesville. With community input, the “Swords Into Plowshares” team hopes to select an artist or artists to design a new public artwork by 2024.
The museum has already raised more than half of the $1.1 million required to bring its project to fruition and is continuing to fundraise online. Proceeds will be used to donate the transformed statue back to the city, where it will go on display by 2026.
JSAAHC executive director Andrea Douglas tells the Post that the project “will allow Charlottesville to contend with its racist past.”
Something is dead wrong about a museum, which is by nature dedicated to the preservation of the past, even out of the general public view, instead participating in the destruction and rewriting of the past.
You know where they did things like that? The USSR, where art was harnessed to be a propaganda organ of the state, and every museum, gallery, orchestra and dance company was dedicated first to pushing forward the State’s narrative before anything else, and anything that didn’t do that was pushed into the background or destroyed. The world is damn lucky that Russia was able to rebuild the Cathedral of Christ the Savior that was blown up (!) to make way for a “Palace of the Soviets” that never materialized due to WWII. The world is also damn lucky that the Soviets were nothing if not practical, and repurposed most other buildings (including churches and synagogues) rather than destroying them outright, and still didn’t quite dare to destroy things like the tomb of St. Alexander Peresviet (maybe useful as a nationalist hero) or the relics of St. Seraphim of Sarov (though they hid them away for a time). Otherwise, the physical link to all that history would be lost.
Know where else they did things like that? Reformation England under the bigoted rule of Henry VIII and later Cromwell. You can still go to Canterbury Cathedral, but you can’t see the jeweled shrine of St. Thomas Becket. In fact I think the only one of those shrines that didn’t get trashed was the one of St. Edward the Confessor, which no one was brave (or hateful) enough to destroy, and still rests in Westminster Abbey. Know where they’re doing things like that now? Afghanistan under the Taliban, and up until recently the parts of Iraq that were controlled by ISIS.
This won’t be the first, you mark my words. I really don’t like the idea of every city now raising honors to George Floyd as almost all of them did to MLK, who was on a much higher lever. I’m also going to be very disgusted if statues of Columbus, some raised by Italian-American communities by public subscription and donation as a thank-you to the communities where they got their start, begin to be melted down and reforged into either apologetic native statues or statues from the new pantheon of martyrs.
This isn’t about apologies, nor is it about correcting the historical record, and it’s not about righting long-standing wrongs (which it’s never too late to right, especially if you’re on the left). This is a modern-day attempt to erase the past and erase what came before, so that those who come after will never know things were any different, or will believe the past was wrong, and be that much easier to feed whatever the government narrative is. It is disgusting, unethical, and WRONG for institutions supposedly devoted to the preservation of history and the past to become parties to destroying it.
This also raises the question of the ethical use of a gift. It is one thing for you and me as individuals to quietly re-gift bottles of wine we don’t care for, or put a painting or vase that doesn’t fit with the décor in a back room where few see it. Public repudiation or destruction of a gift is something else altogether. If you reject a thoughtful gift that someone went to a lot of trouble to get and give, or you destroy it, or you melt it down and make it into something else, then you are sending a message.
That message is that I reject what you gave me, I reject you, and I don’t think the effort you put into this or what it stands for is worthwhile, so much so that I want to make sure the world knows it. Giving a gift back that is no longer usable or that will be difficult to keep or relocating controversial statues, or giving them back to the organizations that gave them for display is preferable to destroying them, but even that smacks of public disfavor, something that isn’t ethically signaled by favoring one group over another.
It makes me think of a twice divorced friend who took her engagement ring and had the diamonds (it had three, one large, two smaller) reset into a necklace and earrings. In effect she was publicly showing her ex- she was done with him, so what he gave her was being repurposed into an object that had no connection to him at all. It’s definitely NOT like my dad taking Mom’s rather plain engagement ring and resetting it with the diamond that had belonged to her mother (she had died) and one that had been in a rather gaudy pinky ring he’d been given (the giver was long dead) for their 30th anniversary.
The ethics principle here is that gifts should not be weaponized to hurt the givers.
On a slightly lighter note, none of this applies if someone has given you a joke gift (i.e. giving the female intern a sweater two sizes too small and pressing her to try it on) or intentionally offensive gift (i.e. giving someone who collects something you think is stupid, like a garbage can and saying “it’s a place to put all that stuff you collect.”). In that case you’re well within your rights to say “no thanks, I won’t play the “let’s embarrass me and call it a gift” game.”
It’s also not ethical to weaponize gift-giving to hurt or embarrass the recipient. So, as we move toward the holidays, think twice before you give. Don’t give someone who’s put on weight a gym membership (unless asked for), don’t give a relative you think is too gruff a Dale Carnegie book, don’t give books of the opposite political persuasion to the recipient, and, if you are about to leave for a celebration and realize you forgot to get a gift for someone, don’t, I repeat DON’T, just grab some unused something from your dusty top shelf or guest room so you don’t show up empty-handed (everyone can see what you did).
I trust you’ve also taught your kids ethically about presents so they don’t, as my cousin’s kids did one year, count guests, then count boxes, and loudly say they were a few boxes short, and openly wonder who didn’t come through for them. Or, as I have to admit some of my generation did, rate the gifts we received and comment on how cool or how lame they were…before the guests had left.