NOTES FROM AN ISLAND, Day 121 Statues and Heroes - 7/22/20

When I was a third grader in Scarsdale NY, I had a teacher who was a daughter of the Old South. Mrs. Langdon was born and raised in South Carolina, never explaining how she happened so far across the Mason-Dixon line.

In general, things worked out fine with her instruction. I had one mortification when I crashed out of a school-wide spelling bee, unable to spell her word ‘iggle’ (which we Northerners would have pronounced ‘eagle’). And she once mischaracterized the location of Cambridge MA, a sin that my Bostonian mother could never quite forgive.

The oddest part of the school year was her treatment of the Civil War in our proto-study of American History. She abandoned the textbooks to instead teach us about the “Real Heroes” of the ‘Late Unpleasantness’ as she preferred to call it. We learned about wise and warm Robert E Lee, crafty and indomitable Stonewall Jackson, stalwart AP Hill, elegant PGT Beauregard and my own favorite, dashing JEB Stuart. She could barely bring herself to name the Northern Generals preferring to say that they won by shear numerical advantage or by somehow cheating at the noble game of war.

It took me a while to unlearn what she taught me. Fortunately, intellectual curiosity and a well-read brother taught me to look for the unvarnished history.

There are many people decrying the disruption of statues as erasing of history. What they are not accounting for is the bias of these statues. It is rare in America to produce a non-heroic statue. City planners do not want to fill public spaces with warts and all depictions of events that are being commemorated. The trend has only changed with Holocaust memorials and arguably with Maya Lin’s inimitable Vietnam War Memorial on the National Mall.

When you see a statue of a great man on horseback or nobly scanning the horizon, you assume that figure was a person of profound influence. You don’t need to know the history of Belgian politics to recognize the power embodied in the statue in Ghent of King Leopold II (at long last removed from display). What you won’t recognize from the bronze itself is that these statues were erected by those in his (or his family’s) political thrall. What you will not learn is the monstrous cruelty of his African colonization or the subsequent disgrace of his entire lineage.

Statues are not history, except wherein they fit into the architectural history lore of a city. The Robert E Lee statue in Dallas, for instance, only represents the history of an era of Black suppression or more recently of the decision to remove it and the protests that occurred. It tells (told) us nothing about the man or his actual time. In fact, its very presence was a complete historical fallacy. Lee had nothing to do with the history of Texas or Dallas. One of my colleagues even remembered it as depicting Lee leading a group of black people to freedom. There were no black figures on the Lee statue, not did the historical Lee ever lead black people anywhere constructive.

The opponents of statue removal are right in one thing. History should not be forgotten or erased. But it is historical fact that should be preserved, not some comfortable legend that plays into anyone’s social agenda. The distinction is that whereas the past should be recalled, it should not be revered. A man like George Washington was a great leader of our country – fact. He was also a slave owner who relentlessly hounded his escaped hostages – fact. Both should be remembered as they are both essential to understanding the nature of a nation’s past. We don’t need our heroes to be untarnished. That’s not what heroes are. Instead, they are humans, fault-ridden and fallible, who happen to do immense things.

Sorry, Mrs. Langdon. There was so much more to your icons than you were willing to share.   


NOTES FROM AN ISLAND Day 105 A. Hamilton – 7/6/20

I missed a milestone.

I could not bring myself to write about the hundredth day of the shutdown in part because I have a distaste for arbitrary celebrations. My hundredth day may have been a New Yorker’s 150th or a Parisian’s two hundred somethingth, rendering my declaration meaningless.

The main reason though was shear frustration. After a hundred days, the situation in Texas (and in the USA as a whole) is worse than it was when we started. Our governor may be finally speaking out in forceful terms, but he is still being undermined by his own Lt. Gov and Secretary of State. What little leadership we have seen, both in this state and from the Executive branch of the Federal Government has been muddled and tentative. Why commemorate a hundredth day when there is no reason to think things will improve by the second or third hundredth?

I celebrated the Fourth of July by watching Hamilton – for once a product that is even better than its hype. The play is a work of genius with stellar performances and a powerful, frenetic strength that is constantly challenging. Where is it written that the theater is meant to be easy? I urge everyone to find a way to watch it.

For those of you who have spent the last five years under a rock, Hamilton is an urban musical biography of one of the towering figures of US history. But it is really a vignette of the times and the brilliance that went into the formation of our country. Its motive force is the juxtaposition of Hamilton and his nemesis Aaron Burr – Burr a man so cautious that he achieves nothing and Hamilton so rash that he almost destroys everything he has achieved. In the end, history is kinder to Hamilton than Burr, who is now barely remembered except for the one shocking act of (spoiler) killing his rival.

The most striking thing about the play, and in fact the historical period it depicts, is the electric energy that crackles throughout. The world was stripped down and turned on its head and American leaders invented an entire country from whole cloth, taking fewer than fifteen years to do so. The production captures this energy in fierce and rapid-fire song and in the constant swirl of action in the background. It can be easy to forget how much effort was involved in the American experiment, of thought and documentation and debate. Hamilton, the play, is an active reminder.

For Hamilton, the man, and his colleagues, History was there for the taking and they grabbed it without hesitation. They recognized the task ahead and flung themselves into work with wit, brilliance and wisdom. Their solutions were far from perfect but created a framework for growth. They strove and accomplished.

Where are today’s Hamiltons or Washingtons? Or even today’s Aaron Burrs? Where are the energy, the wit and the courage to take history by the scruff of the neck and make a move? All these have been lost in the cowering fear of voting bases and approval ratings.