It is one thing for people to remove monuments that we also think are offensive. Quite another when they attack monuments that we are fondly attached to. As monuments have been toppled in protest, white liberals were apparently unprepared for monuments of their own to come down. As this happens, as it has in the past week, we will see if white liberals are any better than confederates at seeing things through others’ eyes, any better at being willing to broaden their perspectives.
A statue in Madison, Wisconsin came down that is named “Forward.” Local liberals are shocked and dismayed. They couldn’t imagine anyone taking offense at it. They are hurt and outraged, exhibiting the fragility many white liberals have been trying to overcome.
The statue was constructed in the 1890’s to tout the progressive values of Wisconsin. This was also the time when sacred mounds were being ploughed through by European immigrants who now had ownership of land that had been taken from the First Nations. This was the time when a lake sacred to the local tribe was being called “Devil’s Lake,” not translated “Spirit Lake,” which would have been more accurate in conveying its sacredness. If it wasn’t Christian spirituality, it must be demonic.
The statue depicts a white woman with her right arm outstretched in front of her. In her left hand she grasps the American flag. The statue became a source of pride for Madison liberals and of women’s rights. The sculptor was a woman.
So why would anyone want to topple this statue, with its virtuous values? Protestors say it was deliberate. Madison, the home of the statue, is guilty of great disparity in wealth and educational attainment between its white citizens and those of color. So people of color can easily see Madison’s image of itself as progressive as distortion that just might be standing in the way of progress for people of color.
In California, Catholic Bishops have made written objection to one of their monuments being misunderstood and taken down. They claim the protestors failed the test of history. St. Junipero Serra, they claimed, was instrumental in getting better treatment for indigenous peoples in the area. The statue is of a man in an official position in the church that had brutally oppressed local people. He is holding out a large cross. Consciously or unconsciously, it is an image of domination, not a posture of service.
Also lost on these bishops is the role kindness plays in successful domination. In The Prince, Machiavelli surveys history for the best ways to dominate large populations of people. Genghis Khan did it masterfully. Start out by being brutal enough to break people’s will. Then be kind to them so they won’t feel the need to rebel. So why would they honor someone who led the kindness phase in the campaign of domination? Why? Because it served their interests to do so.
While monuments seem to honor others, they have social agendas to immortalize the values of the people with the means and the power to erect them. But those values are from positions that inevitably include blinders. Some native American tribes were staunchly against erecting monuments of any kind. Perhaps there is wisdom in that.