“The Most Controversial Statue in America Surrenders to the Furnace”
By Erin Thompson
The New York Times
October 27, 2023
The piece is verbose, bloated, windy; and is way too long for an op-ed.
Generic writing characterized by simplistic formulations that are foreseen as sounding good to the target audience, but which, in themselves are simplistic and nonsensical. It’s equivalent to the type of writing (in different venues) known as psychobabble.
One can imagine (the writer is a professor) the writers of such essays being products of the educational system predominant now and which seems to have existed since the 1970s, in which English composition classes were watered down — and anything purporting to be a statement of a student’s views was judged to be worthy of an A, despite questions of intellectual rigor and what our English teachers in the 1960s told us to avoid: fuzzy writing and generalities.
Some of the broad, sweeping, meaningless assertions — devoid of any informational content or substance — are highlighted by me below in bold. The quotations are from Professor Thompson’s op-ed.
Last Saturday in a small foundry, a man in heat-resistant attire pulled down his gold-plated visor, turned on his plasma torch and sliced into the face of Robert E. Lee. The hollow bronze head glowed green and purple as the flame burned through layers of patina and wax. Drops of molten red metal cascaded to the ground.
[Roger W. Smith: re “Drops of molten red metal cascaded to the ground.” I highlighted this sentence because it is meant to affect us with a profound sensation as a poet or novelist might do — or, if not quite that — to achieve a rhetorical affect. like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
Here it is bathos.]
I stood next to Andrea Douglas and Jalane Schmidt, who had invited me to witness the last moments of the figure that had gazed down on Charlottesville, Va., from atop a massive steed from 1924, when it was installed, until 2021, when it was removed by the City Council. Dr. Douglas and Dr. Schmidt are the founders of the Swords Into Plowshares project, a community group that led a campaign to melt the statue down and use the metal to make a new public artwork. ,,,
Lee’s journey to the melting pot began more than seven years and two lawsuits ago, when a Charlottesville high school student, Zyahna Bryant, started a petition to remove the monument. “I am offended every time I pass it,” she wrote. “I am reminded over and over again of the pain of my ancestors.” The Charlottesville City Council voted to move the statue, but a lawsuit was quickly filed by a coalition of Confederate heritage supporters to keep it in place. A series of rallies by Klan members, white nationalists and others sought to protect the “world of gods and heroes like Robert E. Lee,” as Richard Spencer put it while leading a tiki-torch-lit march. …
Yet we never reached any consensus about what should become of these artifacts. Some were reinstalled with additional historical context or placed in private hands, but many simply disappeared into storage. I like to think of them as America’s strategic racism reserve.
What should we do with them? Just leaving them there for some future generation to deal with dishonors the intensity of emotions for all involved. But each possible outcome has costs and consequences. Each carries important symbolic weight. And no, we can’t just give them all to the Smithsonian.
The way our communities dispose of these artifacts may influence America’s racial dynamic over the next century, just as erecting them did for the hundred-year period now ending. Three years after George Floyd’s death, seven years after Ms. Bryant’s petition, 99 years after the monument’s installation and 158 years after the end of the Civil War, it’s high time we start figuring this out.
… Dr. Schmidt … described the Lee monument as “a lie from the time it was put in.” More than half of the residents of Charlottesville and the surrounding county were enslaved during the Civil War, meaning that “the majority of our community was elated when the Union troops came.” …
But as her perspective evolved, Dr. Schmidt no longer wanted to put Lee in a museum. She was thinking of something much more primal.
Confederate monuments bear what the anthropological theorist Michael Taussig would call a public secret: something that is privately known but collectively denied. It does no good to simply reveal the secret — in this case, to tell people that most of the Confederate monuments were erected not at the end of the Civil War, to honor those who fought, but at the height of Jim Crow, to entrench a system of racial hierarchy. That’s already part of their appeal. Dr. Taussig has argued that public secrets don’t lose their power unless they are transformed in a manner that does justice to the scale of the secret. He compares the process to desecration. How can you expect people to stop believing in their gods without providing some other way of making sense of this world and our future?
Swords Into Plowshares might have been the first to propose melting, but other communities are working out their own creative visions for Lee’s afterlife. …
Covering this story over the past few years, I’ve come to realize two things. First, when a monument disappears without a ceremony to mark why it is coming down, a community has no chance to recognize that it has itself changed. (Ideally the ceremony is public, but because of safety concerns, the melting I attended was not.) Second, if you are outraged that something’s happening to your community’s heroic statue of Lee, you’re not going to be any less outraged if the statue is moved to some hidden storeroom than if it’s thrown into a landfill. So if all changes, large or small, will be resisted, why not go for the ones with the most symbolic resonance?
[Roger W. Smith: “the melting”: this is new jargon indeed, a neologism that is ridiculous … what is “a melting?: .. is it of the same order of words as a christening or a seance?]
That’s why the idea to melt Lee down, as violent as it might initially seem, struck me as so apt. Confederate monuments went up with rich, emotional ceremonies that created historical memory and solidified group identity. The way we remove them should be just as emotional, striking and memorable. Instead of quietly tucking statues away, we can use monuments one final time to bind ourselves together into new communities. …
A very different process is consuming the world’s largest Lee, who rides, 76 feet tall, across the granite cliff face of Stone Mountain, just outside Atlanta. …
Lee’s face was the last piece to go into the crucible. Given how often the monument and its ideals were celebrated with flames — from Klansmen’s torches to the tiki torches of white nationalists in 2017 — it seemed fitting for flames to close over the monument.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
The Washington Post also published on op-ed:
“Lee’s statue is gone. What it unleashed remains.”
By Theresa Vargas
October 28, 2023
Reader comments touched upon the question of destroying a work of art. I feel that this is regrettable and depressing to contemplate. It’s similar in my mind to the removal of the Theodore Roosevelt Statue from in front of the Museum of Natural History three years ago.
A few random comments from the current Washington Post article:
* * *
What you’re missing is that it’s a work of art. Shall we destroy paintings of [Lee] and other people in history that we disdain today? A statue is no different. Did you read the story of Napoleon’s statue? He was forced out of France into exile. But the statue is art.
* * *
Somehow your reasoning feels disingenuous. When art causes maltreatment of another, it needs to be done away with.
* * *
The Lee statue was not a work of art. Art informs. Art brings joy and peace. Art is inclusive. This statue was erected during the height of the Jim Crow era to intimidate Black Charlottesville residents. Learn your history. And don’t begin that journey by looking at statues.
* * *
Are you aware that the National Portrait Gallery in Washington has a portrait of Benedict Arnold hanging on its walls? What’s the difference here? It’s a work of art, my friend. Put it in the Smithsonian.
* * *
You mean blasting off the images, like the Taliban did to the Buddha statues at Bamiyan?
See also my posts:
“I like it the way it is.”
pompous pontificating, clumsy locutions, a tissue of generalities; doublespeak … how NOT to write
how to say nothing in 1,035 words … generic writing II