Thursday, September 09, 2021

Plinth for sale or rent

 As of yesterday there is a big empty plinth in Richmond where the bronze statue of Robert E. Lee and his horse used to be, and the argument about what to put in its place is already in an advanced state of mutual incomprehension.  Ol' Bobby was so big and heavy he had to be cut in half before removal and is now doubtless in the process of becoming twelve tons of curtain rods or something.  A handful of Friends of the Late Unpleasantness were filing pleas up to the last minute, but Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn of the Virginia Supreme Court swatted them away as "Lost Cause fetishism" (President Biden, keep this man in mind when you save America by expanding SCOTUS).  Then Governor Ralph Northam live-tweeted the unceremonious removal.

The nation's loudest, dumbest racist would love to see the Lee statue replaced with another Lee statue, of course, probably in his favorite color, gold.  In his new role as educator-in-chief Trump issued a statement so full of lies, idiocies and cheap politicking it would take hours to...all right, "Robert E. Lee is considered by many Generals [sic] to be the greatest strategist of them all.  President Lincoln wanted him to command the North, in which case the war would have been over in one day."  It's true that Lincoln offered the command to Lee; the rest is opinion and horseshit.  It goes on like that, stuff he probably got from Shelby Foote in the Burns documentary.  If Lee was really a "unifying force after the war," Virginia would not have waited until 1890 to honor him and nobody would have spent years fighting to get rid of the thing.  The rest you can guess (I don't know why I let this fool trigger me), the "Radical Left" is destroying our "culture" and we would have conquered Afghanistan if only a "genius" like Lee was in charge.  I should leave it up to Rep. Conor Lamb, who retorted, "I guess Trump & Robert E. Lee both know how it feels to suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of pro-democracy forces in Pennsylvania."  

As a reader of history, can I address the myth of the genius-general?  It's crap.  They tend to be admired by the military historians without necessarily winning their wars because so many other factors are involved, in Lee's case the overwhelming superiority of the North in numbers and industrial capacity.  Hannibal was probably smarter than any Roman general, surely more audacious in crossing the Alps with elephants.  Rommel was a better strategist than Eisenhower, Zhukov, and everybody else on the winning side including Patton.  Winning makes you look smart, even if you're a plodder like Douglas Haig.

Now, as to the empty forty-foot granite plinth.  "Nature abhors a vacuum," said Aristotle, although a couple of guys at Tulane would differ.  There are already calls to put someone else in Lee's place.  I counsel caution.  

The most famous empty plinth in the world is to be found in Trafalgar Square.  Two of the square's four corners contain statues of Henry Havelock and Charles James Napier, generals who symbolize the Raj and British imperialism.  Both suppressed Indian uprisings in the nineteenth century.  (Napier's alleged witty pun on retaking Sindh in 1844, the one-word cable "Peccavi"--"I have sinned"-- was actually the work of Catherine Winkworth -- I know, a man given credit for a woman's work, shocking.)  A third plinth holds an equestrian statue of King George IV.  The fourth was intended for his brother King William IV, but the money ran out.  Or they decided one fat Hanoverian on a horse was enough.  Anyway it remains vacant, site of temporary installations and more recently performance art.  It's easier, cheaper and less divisive than another referendum on who should occupy it permanently.  Given the reactions to the statue of Mel Gibson as William Wallace freshly unveiled at Brechin City football ground, probably just as well.  Not a golden age of representational sculpture:

The problem with public statuary is that fashions change and today's heroes are tomorrow's embarrassments.  What goes up must come down, at least in the opinion of the next generation, and people have been injured while engaging in ad hoc depositions.  It's not inconceivable that a hundred years from now, public opinion will call for the demolition of Lei Yixin's statue of Martin Luther King on the National Mall.  (Planned Parenthood removed Margaret Sanger's name from its headquarters because a hundred years ago she supported eugenics.  The Theodore Roosevelt statue no longer greets visitors to the American Museum of Natural History, having been found racist.  It could happen.)

The first statues were objects of worship -- gods, goddesses, pharaohs, deified emperors.  The answer, I believe, is to stop erecting statues of human beings.  (Stop defacing mountains, too.  That goes without saying.)  Nobody is perfect enough to worship, certainly not half-forgotten generals and politicians.  Not Ruth Bader Ginsburg, not John Lewis, not even Ralph Kramden.


Take down the plinth.  It's the only way. 


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