Three contrasting narratives regarding statues of Sir John A and other historical figures

Three contrasting narratives: the first by Martin Regg-Cohn, of the Star (keep most statues but provide historical and social context), the second by Erica Ifill in the Globe (tear them down, lacking perspective) and the third, by Tom XXX in The Tyee, (focus on building monuments and statues to commemorate Indigenous history). In Hegelian terms, think thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

Focussing on the symbolic, while important, can divert attention away from the long and difficult tasks of improving conditions for Indigenous peoples and can be seen as one form of virtue signalling. If there were easy and simple solutions, we wouldn’t be in this space now.

Starting with Regg-Cohn:

The tug of war over public statues keeps exposing our blind spots — not just our blinkered view of history, but of democracy in all its complexity.

Sir John A. Macdonald is merely the latest historical figure to be pulled down and covered up, his head lopped off or layered with painted graffiti. Protestors in Montreal toppled our founding prime minister last weekend, and Macdonald’s visage is visible no more at Queen’s Park — protected and padlocked in a massive wooden shell after demonstrators hurled paint at his statue this summer.

Unpopular statues, like unpopular governments, ought not to be toppled in a democracy — just put in their place, placed in context, or put in storage.

Controversies over politicians of the past — like those of the present — are as old as history itself, and rarely as simple as they appear on protest placards. How we deal with them, how we heal over them, also matters in the crusade to right historical wrongs.

Sometimes the decision is obvious — like removing Confederate statues that celebrate those who lost the civil war but still succeeded in keeping Blacks down. More often it’s complicated.

Shall we remove the monument to Mahatma Gandhi at Carleton University, given latter-day criticisms of the Indian independence leader for harbouring anti-Black views? What about the monument in Toronto’s Riverdale Park to Sun Yat-sen, the revered leader who brought China into the modern era?

“Other monuments, such as to Sir Winston Churchill, to Sun Yat-sen, have also been called into question,” Wayne Reeves, chief curator of Toronto’s culture division, told the city’s Aboriginal affairs advisory committee last month.

Which raises the question of who decides. Protestors deserve to be heard but not automatically heeded. A representative democracy defined by pluralism, mindful of minority rights and majority sentiments, requires consultation and conciliation, debate and deliberation.

A statue of Edward Cornwallis, founder of Halifax was a festering sore given his infamous Scalping Proclamation of 1749 offering a bounty for any Mi’kmaq adult or child. Ultimately, the statue was removed when elected representatives took a vote in 2018 (they voted again last month to erase his name from city streets and relocate the statue in a new museum of Mi’kmaq history).

That may not be as satisfying as spray painting, or as gratifying as graffiti. But the decision is more enduring.

The controversy over Macdonald is complicated — and in many ways intertwined with the debate over Egerton Ryerson, whose statue at Ryerson University was covered in pink paint by the same protestors this summer. As one scholar looking into Ryerson’s relationship with residential schools noted, his name is “incorrectly linked to the ‘architect’ label;” instead, wrote Sean Carleton, “Macdonald must be understood as its architect.”

(Full disclosure: as a visiting practitioner at Ryerson’s Faculty of Arts, I walk by his statue on campus; I see his visage again inside the legislature when I walk by the Ryerson bust perched just outside NDP Leader Andrea Horwath’s office).

Perhaps that’s why Ryerson University added a plaque in 2018 introducing more context: “As Chief Superintendent of Education, Ryerson’s recommendations were instrumental in the design and implementation of the Indian Residential School System,” it reads.

That he also pioneered the modernization of Ontario’s educational system remains beyond dispute. The question is how to reconcile conflicting legacies for people like Ryerson, Macdonald, Churchill, Gandhi, and others.

At Queen’s Park, Macdonald lies boarded up. What’s interesting is that few other statues, such as one honouring Queen Victoria — who presided over so much of our complicated colonial history — get much attention.

A few steps away, a monument honours the “memory of the officers and men who fell on the battlefields of the North-West in 1885,” which surely invites historical context and Indigenous input. The previous speaker of the legislature, Dave Levac, campaigned for years to erect a new to monument to the Métis leader Louis Riel, who led the Northwest Rebellion and was later executed during Macdonald’s time as PM.

Surely the answer to our complicated historical record is to clarify and contextualize it, rather than censor it — which is why the recent addition of anonymous historical plaques adding context to some of Toronto’s most problematic landmarks and street names is so interesting and educational. Far better to fill in the gaps of history rather than create new historical vacuums in a country where few of us have taken the time to learn it.

“The problem I have with the overall approach to tearing down statues and buildings is that is counterproductive,” said Sen. Murray Sinclair, who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigating the Residential Schools disaster. “We are trying to create more balance in the relationship.”

That’s similar to the approach taken by Nelson Mandela, who launched a pioneering truth and reconciliation commission when he became the first president of post-apartheid South Africa. As president, he avoided reflexively razing the statues of his racist predecessors, opting for a more deliberative approach (some came down, others remained).

Mandela, like Gandhi, understood the frailty and flaws of all humans, not least our leaders. Let he who is without sin cast the first bronze.

Ifill:
In a classic example of what the late John Lewis called “good trouble,”Montreal demonstrators removed the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald from a public space without injury at a protest to defund the police last Saturday. And the outrage from the white Canadian men in whose image Canadian history is taught was swift.

But context has been missing from so many pearl-clutching responses. In this second civil rights movement, where Black Lives Matter has brought global attention to police violence and death wrought on Black people, the traditional framing of criminality is being challenged. Even our current Prime Minister has engaged in at least the pageantry of it; just months earlier, Justin Trudeau attended an anti-police brutality march in Ottawa, going so far as to take a knee reminiscent of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s years-long protest over the same issue.

Fast forward to his response to the statue toppling, and his tone has changed. Much like his reaction to the protests in support of some Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, Mr. Trudeau has morphed from white ally to condescending white settler colonialist. “We are a country of laws, and we are a country that needs to respect those laws even as we seek to improve and change them,” he said on Monday. “Those kinds of acts of vandalism are not advancing the path towards greater justice and equality in this country.”

With allyship like this, who needs enemies?

In doing this, Mr. Trudeau was eager to show off his law-and-order bona fides. But if he is still seeking to advance “greater justice and equality,” he undermines his own allegedly progressive message by vaunting the very laws that underpin many of the problems being protested – including laws Macdonald helped establish at the start of Confederation. (And imagine having the temerity to scold Canadians about respecting the law after proroguing Parliament to avoid judgement from those same laws, in your second ethics scandal in as many years.)

It’s not as if this issue came out of nowhere for Mr. Trudeau, either. The removal of monuments exalting the father of Confederation has been in the national discourse for years. However, Canadians like to engage in the vanity exercise of cherry-picking the history we’re comfortable with, leaving out the icky bits that don’t uphold our worldview of being “good people.” The reality, though, is that Canada’s first prime minister was an oppressive colonist whose deployment of state violence was instrumental in the formation of the nation. These aren’t “mistakes made by previous generations who built this country,”as Mr. Trudeau falsely characterized them; rather, this was a man who committed real atrocities that formed and informed how the Canadian state interacts with Black, Indigenous and people of colour, to this day.

Here are just a few achievements on his résumé: The creation of the federal residential school system, which was used as a form of genocide against Indigenous peoples; the creation of the pass system, a program of social control requiring Indigenous people to attain permission to leave the reserve (and which was then exported to South Africa, where it was used to control Black South Africans during apartheid); the execution of Louis Riel; a starvation policy to clear Indigenous people off their lands and make way for the Canadian Pacific Railway; the largest mass execution in Canadian history, when eight Indigenous men fighting that starvation policy were hanged in what is known as the Frog Lake Massacre; the implementation of the Chinese Head Tax; and the passage of the Electoral Franchise Act, which denied Black and Indigenous people the vote.

Those same racialized groups targeted by MacDonald in the formation and dominion of Canada continue to be the targets of systemic racism and oppression today.

Ignoring inconvenient truths makes for bad leadership. And the paucity of leadership from Mr. Trudeau is evident, or else there wouldn’t have needed to be a protest in Montreal in the first place. Five years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, we are still waiting on this government to implement its recommendations. Nearly three months after Mr. Trudeau took the knee, we are no closer to systemic reforms, despite the credible plans on the table. And in June, the Parliamentary Black Caucus called on the federal government to dedicate real resources toward ending anti-Black systemic racism: “This is not a time for further discussion – the Afro-Canadian community has spoken for many years and is no longer interested in continued consultation or study. Extensive reports and serious proposals already exist.” That call appears to have gone unheeded.

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, his ability to deliver on promises of transformational change has long been in dispute. Now, he has condemned protesters on the destruction of property more than he has the RCMP, for the gratuitous violence against Black and Indigenous people.

The time for double-talk is over. The time for action is now – and it’s not being well used in defending Canadian history’s leading man.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-in-rebuking-john-a-macdonald-protesters-trudeau-undermines-his-own/

Lastly, and I think most useful, Tom McMahon:

Every so often, the removal of a statue or place name causes a minor media moment in Canada. Like this weekend, when protesters in Montreal pulled down a statue of the country’s first prime minister, the notorious racist John A. Macdonald, and beheaded him.

The media dove in. “Trudeau ‘deeply disappointed’ after demonstrators topple John A. Macdonald statue” read one headline. The prime minister’s thoughts on this “act of vandalism” filled papers across the country.

Rarely does news coverage of such stories place the topic of statues in a broader context. And political parties are usually completely silent about it too.

What is the broader context? It’s that while we can seemingly talk forever about whether a statue or place name should exist, we never seem able to discuss what does not exist. And why that might be.

What doesn’t exist in Canada, for the most part, are statues and monuments highlighting great Indigenous leaders, or highlighting exactly which Indigenous groups live in a particular place and their contributions to Canadian life. What doesn’t exist is any effort to create these monuments.

Justin Trudeau is deeply disappointed that a headless John A. Macdonald was put on the ground? Well, I’m disappointed that Trudeau has not lived up to his promise to implement the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Specifically, Call to Action #81:

We call upon the federal government, in collaboration with [Residential School] Survivors and their organizations, and other parties to the Settlement Agreement, to commission and install a publicly accessible, highly visible, Residential Schools National Monument in the city of Ottawa to honour Survivors and all the children who were lost to their families and communities.

I see that the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson, responsible for Parks Canada, has announced that the residential school system is an event of national historical significance and that two residential school buildings in relatively remote, unpopulated areas will be designated national historic sites.

Not in the capital cities. Not particularly publicly accessible or highly visible.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney volunteered to bring the statue of the headless racist to his province. But who will ask Kenney what he is doing to implement TRC Call to Action #82?

We call upon provincial and territorial governments, in collaboration with Survivors and their organizations, and other parties to the Settlement Agreement, to commission and install a publicly accessible, highly visible, Residential Schools Monument in each capital city to honour Survivors and all the children who were lost to their families and communities.

In Winnipeg, we have a monument to the Holodomor in the Ukraine in front of our city hall. A monument to the Winnipeg Rifles who were sent to put down the Riel Rebellion in Saskatchewan in 1885 is across the street.

Or for a more exhaustive example, look at Manitoba. On its legislative grounds alone you’ll find a massive monument to Queen Victoria and a smaller one to Queen Elizabeth II; one for General Wolfe who led England’s takeover of New France from France; two to Lord Douglas, to whom the London governing committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company gave a huge grant of land to settle Scots in Manitoba; one to Scottish poet Robert Burns; one to the Sieur de La Verendrye, the first European to travel to Manitoba from Lake Superior; one to Father Ritchot, Louis Riel, Marc-Amable Girard and John Norquay as early Manitobans who got the province included in Canada through the Manitoba Act (and a monument to George-Étienne Cartier who worked with them); several memorials to Manitoba soldiers killed in wars and to others who served the war efforts; one to the internment during the First World War of Ukrainian and other eastern Europeans as potential enemies of Canada; one to Taras Shevchenko, a Ukrainian poet and symbol of the important contributions of Ukrainians to the Canadian West; one to Jewish victims of the Holocaust; one to Jon Sigurdsson who led the country of Iceland to be independent from Denmark, symbolizing the important contributions of Icelandic immigrants to Manitoba; a B.C. totem pole to commemorate the 100th anniversary of B.C.’s entry into Confederation; and a commemoration of the tenth year of an exchange program between Manitoba and Japanese students.

Plus, there’s a monument to the controversial Famous Five, who won the right for propertied, well-connected women to be appointed to the Senate. Some of the five were also famous for their racism, support of eugenics and advocacy of racist drug laws.

The Famous Five should be controversial because support for being appointed to the Senate did almost nothing for women’s equality generally, and Indigenous women and children in particular are still fighting for equality in various ways nearly 100 years on.

At the University of Minnesota football stadium in Minneapolis there is a marvellous plaza showing the names, maps and a summary of information about each Tribal Nation that is in Minnesota. I have never seen a similar plaza in Canada.

Go to any provincial capital city and see what monuments there are, especially on legislative grounds. How are Indigenous peoples included in those monuments? Are they there at all?

Now go ask your premier what is happening with Call to Action #82.

Every time there’s a news article about monuments to John A. Macdonald, Cornwallis, Amherst, Langevin, Wolseley, Osborne, Douglas, Begbie, Vancouver, etc., do the media show any awareness of what monuments are not there?

Do the media have any awareness of TRC Calls to Action #81 and #82? Do the media ask the first ministers and leaders of the opposition about those Calls to Action?

Did the media ask the federal government: thanks for the announcement about the new Portage la Prairie and Shubenacadie residential school sites, but what is happening with Call to Action #81 for the capital cities?

Let’s get on with building a publicly accessible, highly visible, residential schools monument in each capital city to honour survivors and all the children who were lost to their families and communities.

Let’s get on with building prominent public monuments that show exactly which Indigenous peoples live in a specific region, showing the extent of their traditional territories and the dates and contents of the treaties that we signed with them.

Let’s get on with building prominent public monuments to Indigenous contributions to our lives and to Indigenous heroes.

It’s history by addition.  [Tyee]

 

When we debate complex legacies such as Sir John A.’s, we must not be ahistorical

Good commentary:

These are perilous times to have been a monumental historical figure from the 19th century. The list of names of those under reconsideration is long and growing, with the country’s first prime minister, Sir John Alexander Macdonald, regularly at the top of it.

The latest disgrace to be inflicted upon Macdonald – a leader without whom the very existence of this country may be questioned – occurred on Saturday when protesters in Montreal disdainfully toppled a statue of our first prime minister. A debate quickly ensued around Macdonald and his legacy. In predictable fashion, there has been no middle ground.

That legacy is currently subject to the death of a thousand cuts. Just last month, Queen’s University – an institution from Macdonald’s own hometown – wrote to its community to ask for input on a consultation process about the name of Sir John A. Macdonald Hall on its Kingston campus. Et tu, Brute?

The continued targeting of Macdonald is really as much about our own times as his. But that has always been the case with history. As renowned University of Toronto historian Margaret MacMillan – a continuing voice of reason in our challenged times – once wrote: “We argue over history in part because it can have real significance in the present.”

Canada’s continuing work toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, as well as the systemic racism and violence in all its forms that has been a part of the lived experience of many Canadians, are the issues of our times. But defacing and vandalizing statues of a former prime minister is not going to advance any of those causes. Nor is it justified by history – although it may make some feel better.

“For those who do not have power or who feel they do not have enough,” Prof. MacMillan wrote in The Uses and Abuses of History, “history can be a way of protesting against their marginalization.”

The debate over statues in general, and of Macdonald in particular, also reveals the polarity of 2020 writ large. There are only extremes. In the place of dialogue and tolerance, there is more shouting at each other and less listening. This is not the Canadian way. Nor is tearing down a statue – which, by the way, is illegal.

Critics of Macdonald act as though his regrettable actions against Indigenous peoples in the West were happening now. But his policies, which we rightly chafe against today, took place primarily in the 1880s. “Quite unlike Canadians of today,” wrote the late Richard Gwyn in his two-volume biography of one of this country’s greatest prime ministers, “nineteenth-century Canadians felt no guilt about their country’s treatment of Indians.”

The real historical vandalism is not so much the destruction of public property, but in the singular and contemporary lens with which people are trying to judge actors from the past such as Macdonald. Unlike statues of Confederate “heroes” in the United States, which were raised in homage to the South’s support for slavery and to remind people of it, the statues of Macdonald were not put up in celebration of his genuine and ugly mistakes but for his larger legacy: his undeniable contribution to creating the Dominion of Canada.

It is ahistorical to take Macdonald out of his times and thrust our causes and our fights for justice onto him. “Macdonald has been unfairly abused for being a man of the 19th century,” University of Toronto historian Robert Bothwell told Maclean’s magazine in 2016. “He had moral failings, and was sometimes indifferent to or negligent of serious problems. He did not have our sensibilities, and had many of the characteristics of his period that at the time passed without comment because they were so widely held.”

So, where does that leave us in 2020 as these debates continue? For starters, let’s agree there are complexities to history and this issue – significant ones when you are evaluating someone who was prime minister from 1867 to 1891, save for four years from 1874-78.

Let’s continue to be sure we educate ourselves about not only historical legacies, but also about the nature of history itself. Let’s not cherry-pick the unsavoury parts, but rather add contextual plaques to statues that explain the many facets to readers.

The world is not black or white. And history is as grey as a late November sky.

J.D.M. Stewart is a Canadian history teacher and the author of Being Prime Minister.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-when-we-debate-complex-legacies-such-as-sir-john-as-we-must-not-be/

Royson James: Be careful who gets the honour of a memorial

Good reflections by Royson James on the need for reflection before erecting or removing monuments:

Be slow to tear down; slower to erect.

Heroes and villains are too often aligned — in the same body. So beware the memorials and monuments we construct.

That should be a direct lesson from the mound of past sins now being excavated and tossed on the sculpted images of our once shining heroes.

Once a hero, always a hero — in somebody’s mind. But the conquering coloniser is a miserable picture of pain and suffering to the victims of imperial conquests.

So, rip ‘em down. Tear down that statue. Remove the monument. Behead that statue that causes us so much pain. But be willing to square off against a phalanx of counter-protesters brandishing “Hands off our heritage” placards. America is Exhibit A — raw, extreme, seemingly irreconcilable, attempting to confront the past and a study in how not to get there in the first place.

It doesn’t have to be so, of course. Reasonable human beings can study the lives and contributions of the people our forebears honoured with monuments and memorials and reconsider their place of honour in light of modern norms and practices.

We learn. We grow. We listen to our neighbour. We may have to change our minds.

A tear-down doesn’t have to be a whitewash or a blackout. It can be an opportunity to present an era or person or people in wider context. Still, in real life, on the street, it doesn’t play out that neatly.

Toronto is not a city of statues and monuments. There are a few at Queen’s Park and along University Avenue and on university campuses, but nothing like the affinity found in Europe or the American south.

Maybe it’s because we are so young, compared to ancient cities. Maybe the paucity of public statues serve as a natural inhibitor to erecting new ones. After all, who are you to tower over us when so many before you have not been awarded that honour? Why this hero when we can name another 10 or 20 worthy competitors?

Count me among those who have advocated for more piazzas, grand boulevards, fountains and statues. Maybe we are fortunate not to have a proliferation because it is so difficult to install perfect human beings. Prime Ministers and presidents owned slaves. The British monarchy sponsored slave-ship expeditions. The Anglican Church owned slaves and branded them on the Codrington estate in Barbados.

In the midst of this tangled time stamp, affirming the victims, confronting the ugly truths and moving towards reconciliation and reparations is no easy feat. Denial is the worst option. So is a blanket erasure of evidence of the past.

We could be Richmond, Virginia, where the mother of all statues — the 21-foot high horse and rider General Robert E. Lee, head of the pro-slavery Southern Confederate states in the U.S. civil war — is coming down after years of protest that it is a symbol of white supremacy and racism. Opponents see it as symbol of southern heritage. The work, completed in Paris in 1890 is considered an artistic “masterpiece.” It took 10,000 people to transport the pieces from port to platform. Dismantling it and its granite base that’s almost twice as high as the stature itself, is a feat.

Here, we worry about spray paint on the King Edward VII statue at Queen’s Park.

Here, the city of Vaughan is embarrassed when a citizen pointed out that by changing the name of its August civic holiday in 2013 to Benjamin Vaughan Day, the city was celebrating a man of who not only owned hundreds of slaves in Jamaica but fought against the abolition of slavery. (Educated, Vaughan city council dropped the holiday name this year, returning to Simcoe Day.) There’s no word on the fate of the city’s name itself, cut from the same cloth.

Clearly, we pay scant attention to the names we give our streets. So many streets to name in so many subdivisions. Developers name your street address after their girlfriends. Architects throw in ninny names to satisfy whatever fantasy overcame them. Who’s to know?

Maybe Toronto city planners were a bit more fastidious when they laid out the old city by name. You can’t go wrong with Front or Lakeshore, er Lake Shore, or King, Queen, Princess, John and Jane. Who would suspect Mr. Bathurst or Mrs. Dufferin of having damaging secrets that might render them unfit to adorn our boulevards? Dundas? Harmless.

Oops. Apparently, only as harmless as Ryerson and Macdonald — names and esteemed people now under scrutiny for questionable racial history.

Toronto’s city manager has issued a brief committing to “broadly understand and respond to how systematic racism and discrimination are embedded in city assets, commemorative programs and naming policies.”

Chris Murray says “this might ultimately touch all named city streets, parks and facilities, public monuments, and civic awards and honours, potentially leading to a variety of actions (e.g., renaming streets, removing monuments, revoking awards or reinterpreting any of these).

“Addressing the historical legacy of Dundas Street is one of these steps” necessary in challenging systemic institutionalized racism and build a more inclusive Toronto,” Murray writes.

If these are more than just words — and if city council next month adopts the philosophy and true intent — we are in for a turbulent period that will test our maturity as a city. If the effort doesn’t get messy, it’s a sure sign it isn’t real.

We honour people who touch us and move us to dream and aspire to greatness. When the very visage of our “heroes” evoke the image of “villains” in our neighbour, this clash of vision can only crash at our feet — assuming we are equally invested and rooted and valued.

How we clean up the mess will define our future. It will also remind us: Be slow to tear down; slower to erect.

We Don’t Have to Like Them. We Just Need to Understand Them.

Good commentary on historic statues in a way that understands the differences between historical figures, their contexts, and the need for case-by-case consideration of whether to remove or relocate:

Some sights are so searing that you can’t unsee them. And, like it or not, you end up seeing the world through them. Reality hasn’t changed; you have, which makes you want to change reality. Right now.

That pretty much describes the cause-and-effect physics surrounding the release, on May 25, of the cellphone video of George Floyd pinned to the ground and having the life squeezed out of him, second by second, by a Minneapolis policeman.

In the protests that followed, white supremacist images of all kinds — Confederate memorials, statues of slave-owners, tributes to colonizers — have come under attack. Some have been destroyed; others forklifted into storage; still others left in place to await an uncertain fate.

More recently, the anti-monument movement appears to be spreading beyond a focused demand for racial justice. Earlier this week in Madison, Wis., protesters toppled a statue of Hans Christian Heg, an abolitionist who died trying to end slavery.

Among a number of racially charged images in New York City, one of the most contested, the equestrian statue of Theodore Rooseveltat the entrance the American Museum of Natural History, has finally had its day of reckoning. Last week the museum itself asked the city for permission to remove the statue, and got the O.K.

In a press statement, the museum was careful to explain the reason behind its request for removal. Roosevelt himself — whose father was a founder of the museum — was not the main problem. The monument’s optics were.

Roosevelt is a complicated historical figure, an unstable ethical compound of bad and good. As an ardent conservationist, he put vast stretches of American land under federal protection, but took much of that land from Native Americans. He was internationalist in his thinking, but largely because he considered the resources of the world, particularly parts of the world with dark-skinned populations, to be ripe for the taking.

A Smithsonian Institution website describes him bluntly as “a racist whose beliefs reflected those of the elite of his day. Roosevelt thought African Americans to be inferior to white citizens.”

But even if you didn’t know any of this, one look at the monument tells you that it’s a problem, one that no extenuating information can make right.

Twenty-four feet tall, including an eight-foot high base, the 1940 sculpture by James Earle Fraser depicts Roosevelt, armed with pistols and perched on a spirited charger. Below him, walking on either side of the horse, their heads reaching barely higher than its back, are two other male figures, one Native American, one African, both in “native” attire. Each carries a rifle. Are they meant to be Roosevelt’s gun-bearers? His guides? His security detail? Whatever, he doesn’t look like he needs them. His face is alert, resolute, forward-directed; theirs, passive, withdrawn, cast down.

The image is, of course, a fantasy, one that can, and has been, interpreted in varying ways. One historian reads the standing figures as allegorical embodiments of Africa and America. To Fraser himself they represented “Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” But to contemporary eyes, the white supremacist import of its composition is unmistakable, and unacceptable: heroic white man on top of the world. No question, the thing has to go. And in the vaunted “great awakening” to racial injustice underway in the country now (how long will it last? How deep does it run?) the museum, and the city, figured that out.

But here comes a question. What do we do with other monuments that have similar compositions but more complex images and histories, and are, in addition, works of aesthetic distinction (a claim rarely made for the Roosevelt statue)? I’m thinking of the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment in Boston — a monument that got graffiti-tagged during protests in May.

This bronze bas-relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, installed on the Boston Common in 1897, also centers on a dominant white equestrian figure, in this case surrounded by black men in military uniforms. It commemorates Shaw as the leader of the first all-black volunteer Union army brigade that formed in Boston in 1863, and marched to a battle in South Carolina, where many soldiers, including Shaw, died, and where they were all buried together.

The visuals here say “white supremacist,” too: the racially hierarchical composition, the single-name dedication, the suggestion of the Union army’s enforced segregation.

At the same time, does a narrative of interracial loyalties between leader and troops add a mitigating factor to a judgment of the work? Or the fact that Frederick Douglass came to Boston to attend the 1897 unveiling? (Two of his sons were in the 54th Regiment.) Or even the fact that the Saint-Gaudens relief is widely regarded as a masterpiece of American public art?

To fully weigh such factors requires some knowledge of history, a discipline that has long been shunted aside in education. The story of Shaw and the 54th Regiment, or at least a highly romanticized version of it, has had the advantage of popular exposure: It was the subject of the 1989 film, “Glory. ” But even so, the monument was targeted by protesters. And the real question is, what’s the correct — meaning useful — response to the monument’s image of an egregious racial power dynamic? Eliminate or obscure it, or explain it?

All to say that the disposal of monuments should be approached case by case. Public political images are never innocent. But some are complex, with questions to ask and lessons to teach, while others — so-called “Lost Cause” Confederate monuments, created long after the Civil War to reassert white power — are, and were intended to be, racist assault weapons, plain and simple. In the current, healthy drive to neutralize assaultive images, it’s necessary, for history’s sake, that we first stand back, look hard, sort them out.

As for the disposition of the Roosevelt monument, which has not been officially announced, I have an idea. Clearly a racist artifact, the work cannot continue to serve as the visual introduction to an institution that, through its modern department of ethnology, is deeply devoted to the study of human culture.

I suggest that the museum retain the sculpture but display it for what it is: an outsize ethnological specimen, the product of a specific era and culture (the piece was unveiled in 1940, a year after the release of the “Lost Cause” film “Gone With the Wind”), now subject to critical evaluation in a different, Black Lives Matter era and culture. This conceptual change in use and value would require moving it, minus its base, into a gallery — and an apt context for display already exists.

In 2019, in response to earlier protests around the sculpture, the museum organized a small, ongoing documentary show called “Addressing the Statue,” which details the work’s history and includes commentary by contemporary ethnologists, social historians, art historians and artists.

Almost everyone says, in different ways, that the monument’s not a good thing and never was. And it would be useful for present and future audiences to be able to learn why it’s not a good thing, and why this not-good-thing — as big and bullying as a Tyrannosaurus — stood where it stood in this city for so long.

As for what might replace it out front, at the entrance: Something should. Why let an empty stone base the size of a small stage go to waste when we have so many politically savvy artists, young and old, who need a platform for their ideas?

As least one has already had a say about the Roosevelt monument: David Hammons, in a 1991 group show called “Dislocations” at the Museum of Modern Art. For his installation there, titled “Public Enemy,” he surrounded photomurals of the sculpture with sandbags and, police barriers. Who was being protected? It — or us? Way back then he wanted it gone, and now the deal’s done. The museum should ask him over for a victory lap.

And the museum could commission new work, keep it impermanent and have it change often, even daily. Mr. Hammons’s “Public Enemy” was ephemeral. When the MoMA show ended, his installation disappeared, perhaps into closets, studios, dumpsters; I don’t know where. More and more right now, impermanence makes sense. Losses from Covid-19, the flood of violent deaths and a new political art that seems to exist entirely on plywood and pavement contribute to this perception.

We’re at an inflection point in this country, potentially the most significant one in generations. Black Lives Matter brought us here. Now it’s everyone’s job to sustain the momentum. New art certainly has a contribution to make. So do our historical public images.

Some examples, like the Roosevelt and Shaw monuments, are eye-and-mind grabbers, dense packages of information and emotion. We should study them as closely and critically as we do the monuments of any age and culture. We don’t have to like them; we just need to understand them, examine their mechanics, what made them persuasive in their time, and how that persuasion works, or doesn’t, now.

By comparison, most of the commemorative statues now under attack across the land — and there are more and more each day — have little visual charisma. They’re generic period images of white male power. You’re tempted to think: If they go, small loss. Let’s move on.

Then you remember that each of those images comes with a name and a history, and some of those names belong to murderers, enslavers and genocidists. And their history is our history. It’s good to keep reminders of that visible, somewhere. Sometimes the most effective way to push yourself into the future is by reviewing the record of how bad the past has been.

Holland Cotter is the co-chief art critic. He writes on a wide range of art, old and new, and he has made extended trips to Africa and China. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2009.

HASSAN: The fury over statues and symbols continues for a reason

Thoughtful reflections by Farzana Hassan. The one element that is missing is how should we balance the negative and possitive  aspects of historical figures. Statues commemorating Stalin and Hitler are the easy cases along with Confederate symbols.

But others, like Churchill, MacDonald, Ryerson and the like, made major positive contributions (winning WWII, creation of Canada, education respectively). In these cases, my preference is always for historical plaques that captures that mixed nature and complexities of character and the times that are important to recognize.

And there is the risk that overly focussing on the easy and symbolic may detract from the hard ongoing work to reduce barriers, discrimination and racism:

One of the several issues that have cropped up in today’s racially charged environment is the tearing down of monuments and statues.

Calls have become louder all over the Western world to destroy these and replace them with symbols that are more in line with today’s pluralistic sensibilities.

But this has also ignited a debate between those who believe even tainted history should be preserved, and those who seek racial equality with symbolism that reflects it.

Symbols are powerful; statues publicly commemorate and celebrate.The ones whose value is being questioned were erected when racial discrimination and bias were accepted in society – either openly or tacitly. Their symbolism informs North American history – the good and the bad, but mostly the ugly, especially the ones that symbolize the Confederacy’s racist past.

The question then is why celebrate and commemorate something as odious as slave-owning and its accompanying brutality?

Visual history, which these statues represent, is important. But what is more crucial in this environment is achieving racial harmony.

Heritage can be preserved in other ways. History books should record unsavoury events and document the changes of attitude that led to the anger towards these monuments.

Soviet Russia was littered with the statues of Lenin and Stalin, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of its Bolshevik symbols were gone as they failed to represent the sentiments of the majority of post-Communist Russians. It has been left to history books to acknowledge this.

The Holocaust was one of the most despicable events in human history. The landscape of Hitler’s Germany was dotted with swastikas and Nazi memorials, none of which exist today. We can still read about the despair of those terrifying years before and during the Second World War.

We must consider whether America’s slavery era can be equated with the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the brutality of Communist Soviet Union. Were its effects on human lives as far-reaching and destructive as the other two more recent examples in history? And if so, what should stop a more enlightened modern government from erasing public celebration of this brutal past, especially when that past evokes anger caused by continuing discrimination?

We should also ask why Confederate symbols have lasted this long. Their persistence may show a kind of reluctance to break away from a racist heritage that divided a country over the issue of slavery.

The statues were actually commissioned post-slavery by Confederate organizations such as the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. One of the strangest outcomes of the American Civil War was the construction of these monuments in the late 19th century, perhaps with the intention of reclaiming a past that was lost after the defeat of the Confederacy.

The racist connotations of these statues cannot be ignored, and the fury over their preservation continues for good reason. They also represent a secessionist era of American history.

Canada has its own monuments to consider.

The name of Ryerson University in Toronto is very much in contention, Egerton Ryerson having forged the move toward residential schools for children of native communities. Supporters of preserving the name of the university point to Ryerson’s contributions to education.

Canada has no history of slavery. Yet the fury behind the move to remove certain symbols is nonetheless understandable.

Source: HASSAN: The fury over statues and symbols continues for a reason

History catches up with Komagata Maru villain — and it’s good riddance

In general, oppose taking down statues and monuments, and prefer interpretative plaques and panels that educate and inform:

In recent years, various Canadian government bodies and institutions have “unerected” monuments and renamed buildings commemorating historical figures who contributed to the cultural genocide of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples.

John A. Macdonald, Hector-Louis Langevin, Edward Cornwallis, Joseph Trutch and Matthew Begbie — men who were proponents of odious anti-Indigenous institutions such as the residential school system — have all had their names scrubbed off plaques or statues mothballed into permanent storage.

Clearly these “complex” individuals, or “men of their times,” merited a historical reputational downgrade and/or some form of legacy asterisking. Whether they deserve further amendment, or even censure, however, is problematic.

But if there is any Canadian figure who merits historical erasure — as nearly impossible as that is to defend, thanks to George Orwell — it’s the latest and fully deserving figure to be added to the list above: H.H. Stevens.

Why giant statues of Hindu gods and leaders are making Muslims in India nervous – The Conversation

Not encouraging:

Statues – big statues, the largest in the world – are being built all across India.

Like many public monuments, they attempt to convey history in a concrete form. But India’s new statues convey something else, too: the power and vision of one dominant group – and the vulnerability of others.

That’s because India’s biggest new public monuments all pay tribute to Hindu gods and leaders.

As a scholar of social change in India, I see statues as a projection of a nation’s values at a particular moment in time. For many Muslims and other religious minorities, then, these hulking public monuments of Hindu icons send an ominous message about their status in society.

Rising Hindu nationalism

The mammoth public shrines to Hindu nationalism are a pet project of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party.

Since taking office in 2014, Modi has used his power to promote Hindu nationalism, a polarizing ideology that sees Hindus as India’s dominant group. Yet India is a constitutionally multicultural country with the world’s second largest population of Muslims – comprising over 170 million people.

Twenty percent of its 1.3 billion people are Muslim, Christian or another religion.

By 2021 India, which is already home to the tallest statue in the world – Gujarat state’s 597-foot-tall “Statue of Unity,” commemorating Indian independence hero Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel – plans to unveil two more record-breaking monuments, both portraying icons idolized by Hindu rightists.

A 725-foot bronze likeness of the god Ram planned for Uttar Pradesh state will soon surpass the Statue of Unity in size. And in Mumbai construction has been halted on a 695-foot-tall likeness of the medieval Hindu warrior Shivaji, pending the results of an environmental review.

Guinness World Records also recently judged Tamil Nadu state’s 112-foot depiction of the face of the Hindu god Shiva as the world’s largest bust statue.

All this is happening under Modi, who is up for re-election in monthlong general elections that start on April 11.

He was voted into office in 2014 on a platform of “development for all.” Promising to boost the economy in a country where nearly 22% of people live in poverty and millions go hungry, Modi and the BJP won an historic parliamentary majority over the center-left Indian National Congress, its main competitor.

Since then, India has improved in international “ease of doing business” rankings, passing regulations that improve commerce and the protection of property rights.

But some of Modi’s boldest moves to improve cash flow and boost public revenues, including a 2017 tax reform initiative and a ban on saving in certain high-value currencies, have failed. Unemployment has risen under BJP rule, particularly in rural areas, and the national economy suffered during the “demonetization” process.

Over the last five years, under Modi’s administration, India has also seen a startling rise of Hindu vigilante violence.

Indian vigilante ‘cow killings’

The attacks – often called “cow protection” – are sometimes deadly assaults that target Muslims and other Indians who, unlike many Hindus, do not consider cows to be sacred.

Hindu militants killed at least 44 Indians and injured 280 in about 100 attacks between May 2015 and December 2018, according to the international not-for-profit Human Rights Watch. Most of the dead were Muslims in states run by Modi’s political party.

The prime minister and his BJP have faced criticism for being slow to condemn anti-Muslim violence and for prioritizing legislation to safeguard cows, not the victims of vigilantism. Cow protection violence has also crippled India’s beef and leather industries, since they are primarily Muslim-run.

Muslim men who date Hindu women are another common target of vigilante violence, as are students, journalists, academics and artists perceived to be critical of Modi’s leadership.

The Hindu nationalists’ crusade against pluralism takes place even as the Modi administration cracks down on civil liberties. Between 2014 and 2016, 179 people were arrested on charges of sedition for protests, critical blogs or anti-government posts on Facebook, according to government crime statistics.

Fears of religious minority groups

This is the cultural context that has Muslims worried over India’s statue-building spree.

The BJP is not the first party to build public monuments celebrating only one segment of Indian society.

From 2007 to 2012, a top politician named Mayawati built numerous memorials and parks across Uttar Pradesh state commemorating leaders from India’s marginalized Dalit class, formerly known as the “untouchables.” Mayawati, a Dalit, commissioned statues of herself, her political mentor Kanshi Ram and other Dalit icons who fought against India’s caste system.

It was the first time such grand homage had been paid to the Dalit leaders who crusaded against India’s deep-rooted caste system.

But the US$800 million price invited scrutiny, and the courts have asked Mayawati to repay some of those funds.

India’s election commission also insisted that Mayawati’s statues be shrouded ahead of state elections in 2012, saying the visibility of the then-chief minister and her party symbol might sway voters.

In contrast, resistance to India’s giant new statues has been muted. And Hindu nationalists are pushing for more public commemoration of their faith.

In November 2018, tens of thousands of Hindus gathered to demand the construction of a Hindu temple in the Indian city of Ayodhya – at the same spot where, in 1992, Hindu zealots demolished an ancient Muslim-built mosque.

The proposal to build instead an enormous statue of Ram in Ayodhya is widely seen as an effort to placate Hindu nationalists in their decades-long quest for a Ram temple.

Fearing a repeat of the deadly violence that destroyed the ancient mosque, some local Muslims fled the city last November.

Indian elections

Indians will decide whether to give Modi another five years when they vote this spring in the world’s biggest election.

Recent polls show Modi and his BJP leading in a race in which several competitor parties have allied to defeat him.

The prime minister’s public approval got a 7% boost, to 52%, after India’s brief but sharp escalation of recent tension with neighboring Pakistan, a majority Muslim state.

Border disputes are a classic move for a strongman leader during election season. Paying homage to Hindu nationalist icons in the form of giant public monuments, however, is something different. Modi is transforming secular India, one statue at a time.

Source: Why giant statues of Hindu gods and leaders are making Muslims in India nervous – The Conversation