Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Rethinking White Supremacy on the Mall


 Steven Johnston is Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah and is the author of, most recently, Wonder and Cruelty: Ontological War in 'It's a Wonderful Life' and Lincoln: The Ambiguous Icon.

Donald Trump is running for reelection on a fear campaign. He has concluded that he cannot secure a second term unless he stokes racial fears and animosities in both his base and certain undecided groups of voters. Trump’s conclusion is no surprise given that his record of “accomplishments” amounts to wasteful, destructive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, inflating by tens of billions of dollars an already bloated defense budget, and deliberately reckless deregulatory schemes many of which are animated by racial hatred of Barack Obama. The latter, among other things, pose grave threats to not just the country’s environment but also to the planet. In more ways than one, then, Trump constitutes a global menace.

There are multiple dimensions to Trump’s fear-driven stratagems. One involves dispatching federal storm troopers to American cities to attack racial justice activists and foment violent conflict between citizens and the state. He exacerbates scenes of disruption that he then insists only he can stabilize.

Another involves suggesting to white suburban housewives that their safe, comfortable racial enclaves will soon be overrun by poor people in low cost housing (Trump’s racist code), a threat only he can preempt.

A third involves the celebration and protection of reactionary relics in civic space, more specifically, racially-charged public monuments and memorials that work to efface ugly memories of the American past. Trump deplores the removal or destruction of Confederate statuary. Not only does he object to removing  tributes to notorious racists and traitors such as Robert E. Lee. He also insinuates that those “radicals” who target this aspect of American history (or “heritage,” now another racist code word) will set their sights next on the beloved Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial. Trump’s fear peddling even provoked Joe Biden into defending them, however weak the defense.

While there is no threat to either structure, Trump’s mock hysteria provides a timely opportunity to rethink the Mall in Washington, D.C, the nation’s most sacred symbolic ground, especially its contributions to and celebrations of white supremacy. Let’s assume, then, that Trump’s reaction was warranted, pretending that these iconic structures are in danger. What, if anything, is problematic about eliminating the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial from the Mall in Washington, D.C.?

Historians often object to the removal of civic architecture from public space. Washington and Jefferson, we are told, played significant roles in the nation’s founding, suggesting that it is better to contextualize their historical contributions than deny them, which removal would supposedly represent. Locate an informational plaque in the vicinity of their memorials, explaining America’s fraught origins and the morally compromised lives of these towering figures. In this self-critical way, new generations of citizens can learn more about the country’s birth and its founders. The same purpose could be achieved by building counter-memorials, if space allows, alongside those already in place, pointing to the modes of supremacy they efface and thereby subjecting them to monumental contestation.

If maintaining a statue in place is deemed unacceptable, as with Confederate memorials, which are nothing more than brazen symbols of white supremacy erected well after the Civil War to express the triumphal return of white power in the South, the next best option is to relocate them to a remote destination or museum. Under no circumstances, however, should they be destroyed. This would be tantamount to erasing history, an act purportedly antithetical to the open spirit of democracy.

But is this actually the case? What if we think along more democratic political lines? What if we think of the space of a monument or memorial as site of democratic contestation? In this regard, we might take a lesson, however inadvertently, from Jefferson himself, who late in his life insisted that each generation was sovereign and had the right to institute its own constitution and government. Contrary to much popular belief, Jefferson wrote, nothing that comes before is “too sacred to be to touched.” It would be optimal, he argued, if some kind of democratic reconstitution took place about every 19 or 20 years.

Why not treat public monuments and memorials in the same fashion? When a democracy proposes and builds a monument or memorial, why should it be automatically assumed that the resultant structure must live in perpetuity? Following the inspirational lead of (West) Germany’s counter-monument movement, why not fold a preset time limit into any national monument or memorial? If Jefferson’s 20 years seems too short, why not 30 or 40?

After all, we build monuments and memorials mostly for ourselves, not those they ostensibly honor. They are more political than historical artifacts. They commemorate, but the character of the commemoration exceeds the past it also recovers. Architectural subjects and designs reflect contemporary values, purposes, and understandings. If we no longer find the Washington or Jefferson reflective of those values, contributive to those purposes, or in harmony with those understandings, why not remove them? In their case, the replacement process itself would necessarily occasion a vibrant democratic conversation, even struggle, over the nature of the country’s founding creed and its basic ideals, perhaps contributing to a democratic revival as the country seeks desperately to realize and sometimes recreate those ideals.

Let it be remembered: Washington died in 1799; construction of the monument bearing his name did not begin until 1848; private funds had to be raised and there were never enough; the monument was not dedicated until 1885, a schedule that betrays little sense of urgency. What’s more, there was opposition to it from the beginning, along republican lines (among others). How, then, did this edifice acquire the near-sacred status it now seems to enjoy? How did it become “too sacred to be touched”?

The Washington Monument is an obelisk. Egyptian in origin, an obelisk stands for life, a ray of sunlight. On the Mall, however, the founding it represents came at horrific cost, especially along racial lines—actualities Trump’s demand for right-wing, know-nothing educational indoctrination cannot alter. Given the dispossession, enslavement, and destruction it entailed, the founding was an inherently ambiguous achievement, which the Washington Monument elides, in large part because the founding started well before the late eighteenth century. For that reason alone, a new memorial to the founding is apt. Otherwise, we continue to live—proudly, publicly—in denial rather than truth. If you want another reason, reducing anything as complex as a founding to one grandiose white father figure, whatever his prominence, is a historical, even childish absurdity unbefitting a self-governing democratic people.

While there’s plenty of room around the Washington Monument for informational supplements or even a counter-memorial, the former would lack the drama and excitement of a new memorial, and the latter might be rendered effectively invisible by the gargantuan obelisk. A new memorial could breathe life into a stale, pedestrian space, as it would be conceived and built by a multiracial coalition and could draw for inspiration on more recent architectural innovations that engage America’s terrible histories (such as Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama).

The same is true of the Jefferson Memorial, designed as a glorious testament to freedom and a vehement broadside against tyranny. While its inscriptions complicate the third president’s vexed relationship to slavery (the sentences on the northeast portico condemn the relationship between master and slave as despotism), they can’t overcome, for one, the ugly reality that Jefferson theorized plans to remove every Black person from the United States until the end of his life. This is hardly a figure to be enshrined on the Mall. Besides, Jefferson built two lasting monuments to himself, Monticello and the University of Virginia, which should more than suffice.

Why not a memorial to abolition(ists) and emancipation? Across the Tidal Basin from the Martin Luther King Memorial, a tribute to Frederick Douglass, author of arguably America’s greatest patriotic oration, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” might well replace Jefferson. Douglass’s famous July 5th, 1852, oration in Rochester, New York, models what it means to be a democratic citizen (to others, a critical patriot) committed to his country and shows that commitment by holding it to account and trying to compel it to realize its basic ideals. He is a forerunner of the Black Lives Matter movement and a monument to his life, work, and legacy would encompass America’s founding, the present rebellious moment, and beyond. It’s just one, rather traditional, architectural possibility.

Once the Washington and Jefferson were replaced with worthy “successors,” would anyone actually miss them? Whether the answer is yes or no, in another 30 or 40 years we would start this dynamic democratic process all over again. In the meantime, tearing them down could be the occasion for a bacchanalian celebration of (commemorative) democratic possibility. Think of the outpouring of joy that accompanied the fall—the destruction—of the Berlin wall. It signaled a new day, a new birth of freedom in Eastern Europe. To the extent that we might find such a reference, if not comparison, inappropriate and even insulting is the extent to which white supremacy reigns supreme on the Mall.

September 18, 2020       





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