I cannot add anything to Rick Maschall’s erudite and sensible article on Theodore Roosevelt the other day, and I like the idea of a national gallery of statues. London’s National Portrait Gallery preserves the likenesses of people whom we should know about, regardless of what feelings, painful or happy, they evoke. Too, portraits and statues give us insights into how they were viewed in their own times.
At the same time, the removal of statues from our public squares is a form of totalitarian rewriting, erasure rather, of history, which diminishes us as humans. After the current zaniness, sensible town fathers across the land will restore statues of persons or events that marked our past, and they can send the excess, if there is any, to a national statue gallery, which could commission modern versions, because after all the perspectives change and why not see them.
As it happens, I worry about overdoing the memorialization, or commemoration, bit. Washington, D.C., as a museums-and-memorials town is okay for the tourist industry and school trips, but you cannot but notice that with overhyped commemoration comes a decline in citizens’ interest and emotional investment in our country’s history, and its present.
The recent disturbances have shown how poorly history is known and indeed experienced in contemporary minds and souls. The vandals are manipulated by power-mad radicals who know at least one thing about history, which is that those who edit it master the present. You do not know where you come from, you do not know where you are, or where the wicked may lead you.
For a spell I worked out of a research institute on a street called the avenue Benoit Frachon in Nanterre, a western suburb of Paris. Frachon was a leader of the French Communist Party and the CGT trade union during the decades of their strongest influence.
Nanterre is the seat of an electoral district long controlled by conservatives. The Institute’s library was named after Boris Souvarine, the first anti-Stalinist.
There is a Place Stalingrad in an eastern arrondissement of the city. Every now and then you hear about changing these (and other) place names.
I am not sure how I would feel, were I Russian, about living in a city called Stalingrad. How about living in a place called Wounded Knee? Or Little Big Horn? But where would we be — what would we be — if we were not reminded of what happened in these places? If we just forgot the sorrow and the pity of it all?
TR was a great president. His statue in front of the Natural History Museum, one of the world’s greatest cultural institutions, should stay where it is, perhaps with some documentation embedded in the plinth, and why not a few verses from a famous poem Rudyard Kipling dedicated to him. Correctly read, it speaks to our humanity, to our duty to others:
Take up the White Man’s burden —
Have done with childish days —
The lightly profferred laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!