Not a teachable monument

Jun 1, 2016 at 10:36 am
Not a teachable monument

Before we go any further, can we all agree that UofL President Ramsey’s push to have the Confederate monument moved is just a convenient diversion, at least in part, to make himself look like a humanitarian, when all he’s doing is trying to save his own sombrero-wearing ass?

Be honest … you were all thinking it.

So it’s Memorial Day week, and, unfortunately, the most prominent memorial in Louisville these days is for 120-year-old Confederate soldiers. Ultimately, this controversy, or issue depending on your perspective, is reaching its appropriate conclusion: The Confederate memorial will move to a more appropriate venue. And let’s be fair, even Donald Trump would be for removing this statue — he likes his statues to be of winners.

I fully support the relocation of the statue. This is not a bandwagon decision, but rather the result of weeks of consideration, as I looked for analogous situations, and considered how the process has unfolded.

For starters, how we deal with these types of monuments/symbols/relics seems to be made up on the fly. There is no good historical model or proven way of handling these issues. America has been bad at dealing with its racist history.

But in this instance, things are proceeding as they should — the process is working. Not everyone is happy, but that is not how democracy works.

The debate over this monument is not new. It did not sprout up immediately following the controversy over the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina Capitol. The South Carolina case may have piqued public interest and generated momentum to bring about the change. But the people who have been protesting this statue’s presence are not opportunists: Calls to remove it began many years ago. They are advocates, not political-correctness extremists. They are outraged that a symbol of slavery is allowed to sit in the middle of Third Street. They are offended that symbols of racism greet them on their walk to class, and remind them again on their way home.

The debate has been real. Legitimate discussion on the merits of all options has occurred, and both sides have had their day in court. One argument against moving it is that the monument provides a teachable moment, to remind people of our history. This sounds like a stretch, but I have witnessed a scenario where this has worked. The Benton Murals — the 22-panel mural series at Indiana University that Thomas Hart Benton created for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. They show the social and industrial history of Indiana, from Native American mound builders to the industrialized age, and they include a small depiction of a Ku Klux Klan cross-burning rally. They also happen to be in a very public, intimate place: one of the largest lecture halls at Indiana University. Whenever I attended a class there at the start of the semester, we were shown a video explaining the murals’ history and addressing the offensive image. Then we were invited to voice our opinions.

That is a teachable moment.

And while certain parallels can be drawn between the Indiana murals and the Confederate statue, there is nothing teachable about this representation of a pro-slavery insurrection where it stands on Third Street. At its best, it is a gravestone for those fallen, not a warning to us to not repeat the crimes of the past.

For the monument to provide a teachable moment, it needs to reside in a place where it can be contemplated upon by those who look to remember or even relish the past. This could be a museum, or the Confederate cemetery. Driving past at 40 mph is no way to learn from the past. And more important, we shouldn’t need a monument reminding us of the worst of humanity, in order to treat each other humanely.

Maybe how we deal with this relic of our ugly, racial history — our own, compassionate-city process — will be a model for the future.

In this instance, our community demonstrated that a true democratic process can work. Certainly, not everyone is happy. But a mayor — elected by the majority — made the decision. The next mayor can make another decision. And it is important to remember that the decision came as a result of true citizen activism, using dialogue and the system to peaceably achieve a meaningful progress. So, on this Memorial Day week, let this controversial memorial finally represent something that should be celebrated: an America working together.

Now, let’s just hope they don’t screw up the new site selection.