NEWS-SENTINEL GUEST COLUMN: Paint complete portraits of historical figures
It was discouraging to read the simplistic comments made by some City Council members regarding General “Mad” Anthony Wayne Day.
A few comments were indicative of the lack of introspection seen in recent national discussions regarding historic memorials and monuments.
We as a society are obsessed with simplification — everything is right or left, rich or poor, patriotic or treasonous. In the same way, we paint historic figures as either heroes or villains. We have lost all willingness to think critically and to recognize the shades of gray which define reality outside of television and social media.
For example, America’s founding fathers were among the most brilliant statesmen in world history; they were also very lucky, benefiting from a series of unique geographic and economic circumstances. These were men of high ideals and great conviction; they also owned slaves and had various other moral failings. So which is it? Were these brilliant, moral men who should be carved into mountains? Or were these merely lucky, corrupt men who have been falsely glorified?
As The News-Sentinel’s Kevin Leininger recently wrote on the same topic, “U.S. history is full of such paradoxes.” We foolishly pigeonhole historic figures because it’s more convenient than meaningful discussion, the type which requires time and mental effort, and which doesn’t result in answers of 140 characters or less. We are indolently failing ourselves while simultaneously failing to educate our children.
Most of our faces will not grace currency; if we’re lucky, we’ll be remembered by two generations of immediate descent. But even for us, wouldn’t we appreciate an honest and nuanced remembrance? I don’t want my children to have just two choices for remembering me, one foolishly positive and one shamefully negative. In terms of their success and happiness in life, I can’t decide which would do them more harm.
Statues of soldiers aren’t the only evidence of our societal lack of effort in understanding history with nuance. Consider, for example, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the National World War II Memorial. One, a dark sunken scar featuring the names of individuals lost in a generational failure; the other, a shining fountain of glory featuring the names of theaters conquered in a generational success.
How does one reconcile these contrasting themes, other than as a representation of our desire to cast history in simple terms of good and evil? Was the man killed on a hill less of a hero than the man killed on a beach? Was the former’s name the only thing worth remembering, while the latter’s accomplishment was so glorious that his name matters less?
And what of the asterisks belonging to each story? For example, what of the rapes of Okinawan women, or the rescues of South Vietnamese children? Are neither deserving of consideration in our national monuments, simply because they don’t fit our black-and-white societal narratives?
The purpose here is not to compare any two memorials or historic events, but rather to highlight the fact that any monument is influenced by the zeitgeist of the time it is built and the demographic which commissioned it. One can’t expect a national museum about the Indian Wars to express the same tone as a local statue of Anthony Wayne. No memorial or monument would look the same if it were built a generation earlier or later.
“Judge not, lest ye be judged.” What do you think our descendants will have to say about the wisdom of our version of history? That thought should be frightening enough to encourage us to stop judging past generations by condemning them as less enlightened than ourselves.
A better approach is to make sure that we take it upon ourselves to paint complete portraits: Who was this person? Who built a statue of them, and why? What flaws did they have, and what mistakes did they make? Who or what else about this story was important and should be remembered?
With this mindset, we can give our children a chance to understand history outside of the hysterics of the news feed. We also stand a chance at keeping our generation’s monuments from being painted over, torn down, and cast into the rubble pile.
Tim Roy is a Hoagland resident.