statues, history writ large

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Statues, as with any art, are seldom neutral. Images frozen into stone, marble, bronze or wood are more than a reproduction of an actual person or event.

the medium is the message

We stand before seemingly unchanging massiveness,  firmly grounded and soaring above us. Physical immutability etching a permanent message for the ages.

And yet, messages can change. Sometimes they must change. Should statues and monuments reflect that change?

 

history is not neutral

Many of us learned history by memorizing facts from a text book. The facts we learned depended on the dominant view at the time. For example, as a child I learned of heroic Jesuit missionaries martyred by the savage Iroquois. The historical focus was on courageous colonizers of foreign lands, who brought civilization and Christianity to uneducated natives.

Today, there is an increasing awareness about the dark side of colonialism. European domination and empire building led to enforced assimilation, loss of cultural and linguistic identity, pillaging of natural resources, slavery and war after war after war.

In my university studies, I learned the importance of historical criticism, the need to judge sources carefully. Who is recording the history? What sources are they using? What is their ideological leaning? The most important lesson I learned is that history is never without bias. The honest historian will acknowledge their own bias while trying to be as objective as possible.

But, history is never completely objective or neutral.

historical bias in the church

Some of the most blatant experiences of historical bias can be found in our churches and cathedrals. If history is written by the victors, than those same victors and their followers wanted to make sure we remembered them in all their glory. St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is filled with tombs and monuments of military heroes. Massive statues of the apostles stare down at you as you walk the nave of St. John Lateran in Rome. St. Peter’s Basilica itself is dizzying in its proportions. Statues of saints and popes tower over us lesser humans.

The effect of these historical edifices, at least for me, is an “in your face” shout out to patriarchal leadership. If we, in the present, are standing on the shoulders of giants, then those shoulders are predominantly men. And they are GIANT…or at least their egos were.

sinners and saints

As history is read more critically, we learn that many of our saints were more sinner than than we realized. Our heroes were more scoundrel. The fact is that our public squares and worship spaces are filled with monuments to historical figures who have an odious past; who have no place in the public square. Their pasts were whitewashed by faithful scribes. Their looming presence chiseled in stone.

The question is what do we do with them?

Sometimes destruction is necessary for societal healing. Tearing down monuments of toppled tyrants and dictators can be both cathartic and necessary. The problem is, that one person’s tyrant can sometimes be another person’s hero. There is no easy answer.

education and dialogue

As with all controversies, education and dialogue is vital. The more heated the controversy, the more difficult it is to reach a consensus. Often, a consensus will never be reached. What to do?

One solution is to acknowledge the controversial past of the person or event with a plaque, or other educational method, explaining the controversy and encouraging dialogue and education.

Another positive action is to put money and resources into statues and monuments depicting those who have been denied a place in history,

  • Those who have been silenced.
  • Those who have been erased from history literally and/or metaphorically.
  • Those whose backs were broken to fill the purses and feed the egos of the “giants”.

Today, we are experiencing a resurgence of nativism, racism and white supremacy; evils that we thought were safely locked away in the annals of the past. We are watching, horrified, as history is repeating itself.

We cannot erase history. We must remember the evils of the past in order not to repeat the horrors in the present.

 

Here is an older blog post reflecting on the photo attached to this article…a woman in the the church

 

 

 

 

 

power of political satire

I like political satire. No. I LOVE political satire. When the daily news overwhelms, I find blessed relief in the wit and biting analyses of Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers. I still miss my daily dose of Jon Stewart yet am filled with gratitude that he introduced us to John Oliver.

Some might dismiss these rants as angry, left-wing political commentary masquerading as a stand-up comedy routine. But it is more. So much more.

Bee, Colbert, Meyers, Stewart and Oliver (and, of course, their writers) all exhibit a depth of intelligence and masterful vocabulary that is often missing from the 24-7 news cycle; and even more absent in the superficial, double-speak of many politicians today. Want some serious fact-checking? Check out Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. Want some serious analyses of issues often over-looked by the media? Tune in to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Comedy intertwined with solid journalism is a winning recipe for bringing a message to the masses.

And then there’s Saturday Night Live.

The current cast of SNL, after an understandable period of post-election mourning, has stepped up to the plate and double-downed on its critique of the Trump administration. This past Saturday’s episode was satiric brilliance and Melissa McCarthy’s impersonation of press secretary Sean Spicer stole the show.

Trump is extremely thin skinned, a common characteristic of narcissists. He is known for ignoring more important issues of the day while spending time on Twitter attacking those who dare insult him. He is not a fan of SNL nor a fan of Alec Baldwin and his spot-on Trump impression. But, it seems, Trump watches SNL. Which gives SNL an enviable amount of power. They have the ear, the eye, and the attention of the president. Not too shabby!

What to do with this power?

Considering Trump’s misogynistic history, having a woman impersonate one of the president’s men had a surprisingly powerful effect. A deliciously tempting suggestion is circulating online this morning, calling out for other women actors to join Melissa McCarthy’s Spicer role on SNL. Meryl Streep as Trump? Rosie O’Donnell as Steve Bannon? Ellen Degeneres as Mike Pence?

Now that would be must see TV!

Back in 2011, Melissa Musick Nussbaum wrote a wonderful article for the National Catholic Reporter titled We laugh because we know who we are. She describes perfectly the power of humour over ego.

The dictator’s goal is to be recognized as God, even if God over only this little house, that small nation, or the most modest parish. Dictators work hard at building and maintaining the illusion of godhood. Laughter destroys the illusion. (Melissa Musick Nussbaum)

 

trumpian truth

washington-cherry-treeWhen I was growing up, every Canadian kid knew the story of young George Washington and the cherry tree. Boy chops down tree. Dad asks him who did it. Boy, knowing he faced certain punishment, bravely admitted his guilt. Boy grows up to be the first president of the United States of America.

The moral of the story wasn’t difficult to grasp. Telling the truth, even if it might hurt you, is a sign of good character. It is the kind of good character that is not only exulted in famous leaders of the past, it’s an example for all of us in the present. Good countries are built on the good character of their leaders and their people.

Some truth is subjective. I live my life based on certain religious truths that aren’t shared by all, but there are moral truths that are generally accepted. Truths that are necessary for the common good, and are reflected in our laws. It is wrong to steal from your neighbour. It is wrong to kill each other. It is wrong to slander another. It is wrong to lie.

Our justice system is based on the premise that the truth must be told in courts of law. Oaths are taken as a sign of allegiance to a country, a government, or a group. Vows are a sign of fidelity and love in marriage. None of us are perfect, but we have to believe that the person speaking the words will act on them to the best of their ability. The basic belief and need for speaking truthfully is foundational in our governments, societies and in our families.

All good parents try to instill the importance of telling the truth to our children. One of my kiddies tried to get off the hook by saying, “I wasn’t lying. I was only kidding!” We stressed over and over the importance of honesty whether it was a pre-schooler’s spilled juice cup, or a teenager’s evening plans.

When trust is broken, it takes a lot of work to regain it. How can we trust a person if we can’t trust what they say? This was a basic lesson for all children to learn.

And yet, here we are. The first days of the new American administration are showing that President Trump feels no greater urgency to tell the truth than did Candidate Trump. His staff faces the media and unabashedly speak of “alternative facts” and how their boss’s opinion is based on what he believes is true.

Sadly, there is some truth to this. If I restricted my facts to alt-right news media, Trump’s speeches and twitter account, my view of what is true would be completely skewed from what it is now. I would believe that the USA is a dystopian wasteland, a carnage of poverty and violence. I would blame the “other” for all my misfortunes, and feel free expressing my fear and hatred of cultures that don’t mirror my own white, Christian world.

Trump’s “truth” is not my truth but it is, sadly, shared by many. Politicians are elected by people who agree with the agenda and platform that the politician presents; their truth. Trump is now acting on all the promises he made, promises that seemed so outlandish that saner minds were convinced they would never happen. So, in this sense, Trump was not lying.

Governing requires discerning for the common good, and good discernment requires careful exploration of all the facts at hand. And, here is the danger. As with his horrible “birtherism” movement, Trump’s truths are not based on objective facts. He isn’t a fan of intelligence briefings. He bypasses inconvenient statistics and makes up facts on the fly. He flings numbers around that can’t be proven, just to inflate his own ego. He bullies and threatens anyone who questions him, especially the media, and is already silencing federal employees and departments.

Put simply, Trump’s truths are based on lies. No amount of doublespeak, word spinning or doctoring can hide the simple fact that the man will unabashedly ignore objective facts if they are counter to his version of truth.

If Trump had chopped down the cherry tree, he would have probably pointed his finger at the kid next door, the one from the family with a questionable back-ground. You know, the ones who shouldn’t be here in the first place. All this while still holding the hatchet in his tiny hands.