Walking the Cat . . .

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Archive for March 2014

Don’t Hide History — Show It, Share It . . .all of it

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An article in Sunday’s paper from Reuters caught my eye and I thought I’d like to write something about it.  For those of you not familiar with my blog, let me just say I’m a big fan of history, any history — big, small or in-between, I’m a fan of history.  So it was only natural this particular item caught y attention.

A statue which once graced a pedestal in front of the Queens Borough Hall has been “transplanted” to the grounds of the Green-Wood cemetery.  According to the article, two years ago the statue was deemed “sexist” and “offensive” by some group or individual (the article never says who) with little taste in sculpture and a less-than- healthy amount of time on their hands.  The statue, created in 1922 and titled, “Triumph of Civic Virtue”, features the figure of a nude male of imposing stature (and a strategically placed sash) standing in a defensive posture with a group of “supposedly virtuous” ladies huddled at his feet.  I’m not exactly sure what is “offensive” about the statue, unless you add the “sexist” sobriquet: doubtless, some lady or group of ladies found the idea of a woman in need of having her virtue — civic or otherwise — defended (by a man, no less) to be both “sexist” and “offensive”.

I suppose, in today’s world, where women have the advantage of “equal protection under the law” (well, not exactly equal) and a host of laws enacted to ensure that protection over the years since this statue was created, offense could be taken, and there is, I guess, a valid argument to be made on those grounds.  But such was not the case in 1922 when the statue was installed.

A similar brouhaha is presently attending another statue, this one New York’s Central Park.  A memorial honoring James Marion Sims (who the article notes, is revered as the “father of modern gynecology”) has come under fire because it was recently revealed the “good doctor” experimented on female slaves (the memorial was erected in 1892).  Yes, slavery was and is a terrible thing and unwilling experimentation, whether perpetrated on slaves or anyone else, is anathema.  But we have even more illustrious historical figures, men with a host of “skeletons in their closets” which are not causing the outrage surrounding this one memorial.  Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States, was known to have waged a genocidal war on Native American tribes.  Jackson’s face adorns the $20 bill.  I don’t hear anyone demanding we burn all our twenties.  Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence, was an acknowledged slave owner (and according to an article in Smithsonian magazine, devised a slave-breeding program to increase profits.  Jefferson’s visage graces the $2 bill.  (Of course, there are a great many people who’ve never even seen a $2 bill unless they frequent their local racetrack.)  Haven’t heard any demands to burn $2 bills, either.

Make no mistake, I’m not trying to lionize these men and ideas.  I’m trying to point out (and doing a poor job of it, at that) we should not destroy these memorials or hide them away, lest others see them.  These memorials and ideas should be held up as “teaching tools” so the next generation (and the generation after the next) can see and hear what it was like for different segments of our society before the walk-ins, sit-ins, marches and out-and-out riots forced the government to enact laws that led to improvements for those segments of society who suffered (and died) as a result of bigotry, hatred, intolerance and just plain stupidity.

In his book, 1984, George Orwell wrote the following:  “The frightening thing — the frightening thing was that it might all be true.  If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened — that, surely was more terrifying than mere torture and death. . .And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all the records told the same tale — they the lie passed into history and became truth.  “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”  And yet the past, though of its nature alterable, never had been altered.  Whatever was true now was true from everlasting to everlasting.”

If we, as a people, continue to hide our history, if we continue to refuse to acknowledge both the good and the bad of our past, no matter how painful, sexist cruel or offensive, we will effectively erase that history. It well be as though the evils our predecessors fought never existed, as though the rights and privileges they secured for us were always with us,  The old adage, “Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” carries with it another, simpler truth:  If you have no history, you can’t learn from it.

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