Talking statues.

Donald Trump has devoted his life to fame. He lives to immortalize himself. This is no casual narcissist. Huge. Bigly. Think Trump Towers. Think his preposterous claim, in the sixth month of his Presidency, to a place on Mt. Rushmore. Aspirational monuments to his self pre-occupy him.

The destruction of statues - made of stone and metal - imperils his delusional and empty claims to greatness, permanence and immortality. Does Trump recall the moment in 2003 when the statue of Saddam Hussein was destroyed in Baghdad City in 2003 and broadcast world-wide? Maybe Trump fears his own fate will be in such rubble?

Certainly, when he speaks of preserving our "beautiful statues and monuments," Trump has no interest in art or history. This is a man who didn't object when his advisor Stephen Miller disparaged America's most famous and admired statue, the worldwide symbol of America, the Statue of Liberty. Miller offered a covert anti-Semitic attack on Emma Lazarus, the poet of Sephardic Jewish background, whose poem ("Give me your tired, your poor"), inscribed on the base of the Statue, has welcomed immigrants to America for more than 150 years.

This is a man who didn't hesitate to destroy a historically significant Art Deco relief when he demolished the Bonwit Teller building in 1980 to make way for his namesake gaudy gold edifice.

When Trump championed the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, he spoke to change the conversation – to move us from his rants in support of violent Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. First came the rant. Then came the Tweet: "The public is learning (even more so) how dishonest the Fake News Is. They totally misrepresent what I say about hate, bigotry, etc. Shame!" Then came multiple Tweets - Protect our Parks! Protect our history! What they meant is stop talking about my racism. Keep America white.

In his defense of historical monuments about the Confederacy, Trump spoke from sympathy and fondness for the Alt-Right and Neo-Nazis and from his own needs.

Art and history are his excuse, not his concern. Even Newt Gingrich said, "Trump's not a student of history."

For Trump, the materialist, history is a collection of statues and monuments, a gallery in which you browse and shop; or names you memorize, stories you repeat because they affirm you. His understanding of history is primitive at best, a grade school bully approaching the past to find his own type, a soulless man collecting anecdotes as mirrors to point to his own inevitability. Trump sees himself as the culmination of history…the man destined to "make America great again." The story of what came before must support his arrival.

Alexis de Tocqueville, the astute French traveler visiting the new country of America in 1831 on occasion observed the worst of America: "As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?" De Tocqueville could have been describing Trump, who grasps only the most superficial and material concept of worth. Remember how he recently degraded the value of the White House, which he called "a dump."

At various points in the eight months since he has occupied the White House, Trump has again and again badly mangled historical facts. For example, he suggested that Frederick Douglass (whose name and formidable accomplishments he didn't know) is still alive. He seemed to think that the Indian-killer, slaveholder, Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the Civil War, was a "big hearted" statesman who could have stopped it. He was surprised that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. He mounted a plaque at a golf course marking a Civil War battle that never happened.

Trump is not just someone who gets facts wrong. Our contemporary understanding of what history is takes into account that a diversity of perspectives may support multiple accounts from the same "evidence," and may bring forth conversation and arguments among multiple people and groups who joust eternally about what is true. Trump, on the other hand, sees history as a static list of facts, a single narrative, which meets his own fantasies and values. He distorts facts because the distortions and lies serve his narrative.

For example, statues of confederate military men on horseback conjure up "strong" white supremacists as America's forefathers. He fabricates a story about General Pershing and pig blood in order to support violence against Muslims. He wants us to feel we have to defend Robert E. Lee and Andrew Jackson in order to defend George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Trump and others who see the removal of statues of Confederate leaders atop horses as a way to "erase history" know nothing about history of those statues. This weren't art made by individual artists. City or state governments, using tax money, offered commissions for many of them on public land. This gave government validation to them.

As Adrienne Edwards, visual arts curator at large of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis said to The New York Times on this subject, "The Confederate monuments are meant to convey a message that we value the history of oppression."

They were sometimes commissioned sixty, seventy, even hundred years after the Civil War, during the era of Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise and intimidate African Americans and prevent integration; or in the 1930s when nativists became more powerful in America, as they did in Germany and other parts of Europe (though to a lesser extent); or in the 1960's when Civil Rights progress was being made. It is in these racial climates that cities and states ramped up their construction of Confederate symbols. The image of the armed Confederate Soldier, with his gun, in front of the Leesburg, VA courthouse was placed there, in 1908; the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville was put in its park in 1924.

No wonder Confederate statues are a rallying point for Neo-Nazis, and their defender in the White House.

If they are to be saved at all, as some have urged, the statues needn't be destroyed— simply moved to an environment where they can be studied and understood as historical relics rather than be admired and serve racism. They can become part of Monuments and Museums of Conscience, a way to face our past honestly. If this happens, we can be sure of one thing.

Donald Trump will not come to visit them in those museums.
Addendum. Trump's Vice President, Mike Pence joined the fray about the removal of statues too. He managed to defend Trump while taking a middle ground himself. According to the New York Times, August 22, 2017, "Pence says state and local authorities should make decisions about Confederate statues, and he calls himself 'someone who believes in more monuments, not less monuments.'"

In that case, perhaps someone should ask him if he would like to support the movement to create a national monument to slavery, and perhaps one to the victims of lynching.

The Equal Justice Institute of Montgomery, Alabama has been leading the effort to construct memorials for the victims of racial lynching as a way integrate this painful history into the national conversation about America's past and present.

According to the EJI website,"In 2018, EJI will open a new African American history museum in Montgomery, Alabama, that explores the legacy of slavery, racial terrorism, segregation, and contemporary issues of mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and police violence. The museum, From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, is expected to open in April."

This follows the example in Europe to keep the Holocaust and its victims in public consciousness by neighborhood memorials. In Paris, for instance, there are multiple plaques placed on homes where victims of the Nazis once lived, and on sites where Nazi atrocities occurred. These "museums of conscience" are opening in many places including Germany and Rwanda.

According to an NPR report, mini-memorials, "Stolperstein" or "Stumbling stones," 55 of which were first created by the artist Guenther Demnig in Berlin in the mid-90s, now number 30,000 in cities and towns all across Germany. As the German memorial activist, Hendrik Czeczatka, said, "Everyone is responsible for remembering." He added, "All of us must continue to insist that Nazis are not welcome, that we must keep the memory alive and learn from our history so that it does not happen again."

Does Mr. Pence want to help these efforts with regard to slavery and the KKK in our country?

Annette Niemtzow is a theatre producer in New York and in the West End. Since 2016, she has edited the website, (FB @Voices4HillaryakaVoices4America,Twitter @Voices4Hillary


September 3, 2017

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