While the President is distracting us with his concern about the destruction of civic monuments, he is simultaneously planning to remove from public protection huge national monuments. It’s the bait and switch thing again, and we fall for it every time.
In the last week, we have been reading a lot about statues. They are being fought over, debated, removed, relocated, and redefined. The images being challenged are of Confederate soldiers because they have become rallying sites for racist demonstrations. The ideologies of the men depicted are now being vehemently debated and many of us are learning a lot about both the American Civil War and the mass-production of statues.
The President has argued that removing the monuments is an attempt to rip apart the history and culture of the country, but we are finding out that the sculptures were put in place (often by the United Daughters of the Confederacy), to try to create a false history. They valourize the losing army and do nothing to recognize either the winners or the slaves about whom the war was fought. It’s almost as if they heard “History is written by the winners” and said “Hell, no! Not while we have anything to say about it!”
So, the memorial statues do a really bad job of representing history. What they actually do is to rewrite history to tell the story of the Civil War in such a way as to divorce it from issues of race or slavery. Instead, the sculptures have helped to develop a story around states’ rights and economics. That is the story that I read about when I visited Fort Sumter in South Carolina, and which I found surprising. (I wrote a blog post reflecting that and you can read it here.) I did not realize at the time the extent to which I was reading a carefully massaged representation of events.
It is indicative of a change in a culture that reminders of a despised or embarrassing past are torn down, and it is not unusual for this to be carried out with vigour by people who represent the new ideologies. The New York Times recently published an article that describes the toppling of monuments to King George III (by soldiers and civilians in 1776 Manhattan), Buddha (by Taliban in Afghanistan), Cecil John Rhoades (in South Africa), Christopher Columbus (in Venezuela), Saddam Hussein (in Iraq), and so on. The article identifies several other notable examples. Apparently, it’s what you do when you are the winners.
While all this debate about monumental sculptures of soldiers is going on, though, we are overlooking a threat to some much more significant monuments. This week the US government is considering reducing the size of protected lands in order to allow increased resource development and economic opportunities. In Canada, we would call these national parks, but in the US they are called national monuments and they are set aside to preserve environments that are of natural, scientific, or historic interest. We are talking about millions of acres of land.
Valerie Volcovici, writing for Reuters, tells us that: “U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will recommend on Aug. 24 whether to eliminate or shrink nearly two dozen national monuments, creating the first major test for a 111-year-old law that gives presidents the power to protect swaths of public land.”
So, before you head out to your next protest or counter-protest about Confederate monuments, please consider sending an email to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to tell him that you want to conserve those national monuments. It may turn out to be another significant fight you can’t afford to lose.