Statues of limitation
My mom used to tell me to be careful about whom I put on a pedestal. Judging by what is happening to statues around the world these days, I’d say that she was right.
These last few months (years, really, but heightened recently) have forced us to stop and take stock of some of the premises upon which we have based our lives. Our heroes may not be all that heroic. Our history may not be that clear. Assumptions we have about fairness, dignity, respect all need to be reassessed.
Someone like me — white, male, straight — has never had to face the kind of challenges that many Canadians endure daily.
Two documentaries I’ve recently watched have kind of beaten me into an “awakening.” Both 13th and I Am Not Your Negro lay bare the reality of being Black in the U.S. today. Both share a stark message that is undeniable: the U.S. is founded on racism and that reality is as true now as it was in 1862 before the Emancipation Proclamation.
So I cheer a little bit inside every time I see a statue of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson get pulled down or read that the band Dixie Chicks is removing the Confederate-era south “Dixie” from its name. It seems like the message is being heard. There seems to be a fundamental shift in the zeitgeist, and that can only be good.
But I worry, too, that in the zeal to try to fix what is broken, there may be some overstepping. Are all white men who have statues done in their honour a priori oppressors? Who is to determine that? And do people on plinths have to be flawless? Can a man or woman be both a great nation-builder/scientist/artist or humanitarian and also be a deplorable person?
Mohandas Gandhi, reportedly expressed racist views when he worked as a lawyer in South Africa and had a penchant for sleeping next to young women to test his self-control. Mother Teresa who was honored in the Catholic Church as Saint Teresa of Calcutta,was said to be a friend and admirer of notorious Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier and has been criticized for “religious imperialism.” Do these facts undermine any good that these people may have done?
I wonder if people considered these little-known-facts as they put statues up, or named a building in their honour?
Maybe we should just stop putting people on pedestals because they’ll be sure to be pulled off them soon enough.
Paul Demers is a long-time local and high school teacher.