Privatize the statues

In an age where there is no consensus on which historical figures should be honored by public monuments – except maybe Dolly Parton, and I’m sure someone will find a reason to cancel even her before long – J.D. Tucille of Reason says the state should get out of the statue business altogether and leave it to private organizations to honour whomever they wish:

What all of these statues had in common is that they offended members of the public at a time when everything is up for grabs and Americans agree on exactly nothing, including the proper balance of virtues and flaws in fallible human beings. The majority of statues torn down were erected at taxpayers’ expense, maintained on land paid for with money extracted from everybody’s pockets, and offended (rightly or wrongly) people who resent being represented by them.

Less controversial has been the decision by the American Museum of Natural History to remove a statue of Teddy Roosevelt from its front entrance. While the statue is officially on public land, it clearly is intended as part of the museum and is seen as such. The museum is a private entity and is no longer comfortable with the way the statue represents the organization—a decision it has the right to make.

Much the same is true of the statue in Seattle of Vladimir Lenin, the communist dictator of the Soviet Union. While Lenin was a totalitarian and a thug, the statue is located (hilariously, given the subject’s militant socialism) on private property, leaving its fate in the hands of its owners.

And that, in an age in which there are few shared values or heroes, is the best way to deal with monuments. We no longer agree—if we ever did—on which qualities should be celebrated and what failings should be overlooked. We’re increasingly vocal about such disagreements, to the point that people are willing to tear down statues that offend them, and any future images are bound to cause more offense.

A statue on private property, erected with funds only from supporters, dragoons no unwilling parties into the message it expresses. Nobody need feel that they’re being forced to share in the celebration of people or ideals they oppose. A private construction can be left up as long as it pleases the owners or pulled down at their whim. And anybody who damages or destroys the monument without permission is an obvious vandal, subject to appropriate punishment.

[…]

If the confinement of monument construction to a private activity sounds like we’re giving up on the idea that we have much in common to celebrate, that’s probably true. But agreements of the past were overstated anyway. African-Americans didn’t just recently start resenting paying for statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest—they’ve had reason to loathe him from the beginning.

Now, the old disagreements are just more visible than ever and new ones set us ever-further at odds.

To give us less reason to fight, make all statues private projects, to be erected and maintained at the expense of the willing. Private funding of monuments won’t eliminate our disagreements, but it should help keep the resulting conflicts out of the streets.

I think this idea actually has a lot of merit, if you assume people are willing to respect your right to keep what you want on your private property.

If.

What do you do with a problematic statue?

Some good sense from Jeff Jacoby in The Boston Globe: some statues of controversial people really should come down from their places of prominence, while others deserve to stay up despite their subjects’ flaws. And either way, it’s not up to angry mobs (some of whom have been targeting monuments to anti-slavery activists, whether out of ignorance or sheer nihilism) to decide.

There are two issues here to contend with.

One ought to be straightforward: The disposition of public art and public spaces should not be settled by mob action. The wanton and malicious destruction of public property is a crime, and not prosecuting serious vandalism is tantamount to inviting more of it. The case for getting rid of a statue may be entirely compelling, but the issue shouldn’t be decided by the impulse of an angry crowd. Militant activism is a dangerous substitute for the democratic process, and almost inevitably goes too far.

But the deeper issue — when is it appropriate to purge statues and monuments that people find offensive? — is less clear-cut.

Plainly there will be instances where the case for removing a statue or other form of public acclaim (such as the name of a street or building) is compelling; there will be other instances where the case for not doing so is equally irresistible. A good example of the former is Leopold II, who was reviled even in his own day for his ghastly crimes against humanity in the Congo, and who is remembered today for almost nothing else. Good examples of the latter are the statues of Lincoln, Churchill, and Gandhi, who — however unenlightened some of their racial views by 21st-century standards — were towering figures of extraordinary importance who indisputably changed the world for the better.

But often the issue won’t be as easy, because there are strong arguments both ways.

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How should we decide when it’s appropriate to remove a statue or monument to some person from a public place of honor? I argue for a two-part test: (1) Was that person honored for unworthy or indecent behavior? (2) Is that person known today primarily for unworthy or indecent behavior? When the answer to both is no, the statue or monument should stay.

Back home in St. John’s, a statue of Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real is in the crosshairs. This CBC article tells the strange tale of how it got to Newfoundland in the first place:

Erected in 1965, the statue — according to a plaque at the site — not so much celebrates Corte-Real himself as recognizes the connection between the province and Portugal, through their mutual fishing of the Grand Banks.

The statue has been notorious for years. In contemporary accounts, Corte-Real was said to have abducted around 57 Indigenous people on his 1501 arrival in Newfoundland or Labrador to sell as slaves.

That is enough for many to want the statue removed.

However, according to York University professor Gilberto Fernandes, the history of the statue is even more controversial than critics suspect.

[…]

One push of the propaganda wing of Portugal’s right-wing regime, the Estado Novo, was to clear up their image by promoting the Corte-Real brothers — Gaspar and Miguel — as important founding figures in the colonization of North America, thus making Portugal a more legitimate player in Canadian and American identity. 

During an official visit in 1963, the Portuguese ambassador suggested a Corte-Real statue to celebrate the connection between that country and Newfoundland. Premier Joseph Smallwood enthusiastically received the proposal.

The piece was sculpted by Martins Correia, an artist frequently used by the Estado Novo office of propaganda.

“Smallwood … promised to place it in front of the new legislative building in St. John’s and surround it with Portuguese soil and proclaim an annual Portugal day in the province,” said Fernandes.

Smallwood even invited dictator António Salazar to attend the unveiling.

Turns out it’s not just left-wing dictators with whom Smallwood was besotted.

Corte-Real’s connection to Newfoundland may have been tenuous in any event, and maybe it is indeed time to move his statue. But I also think its unusual history means it should be preserved somewhere.