Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Politics of Memorialization

Many criticize the United States for whom it honors on monuments.  They point to memorials to Confederate figures such as Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and most of all Nathan Bedford Forrest, controversial for alleged massacres of black Union troops.  Even presidents who owned slaves, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, come under attack.  Some of these critics are right: memorials lend themselves towards valorization and glorification of these particular individuals, and their actions as slaveholders including rebellion do not sit well with us today.

Well, you're not the only ones to do this.  Case in point: Many Canadian schools are named for British imperial heroes, some of whom are definitely not 'politically correct.'  I've seen schools up there named for Kings and Queens, but also Earl Kitchener, 'victor' at the Battle (read: Massacre) of Omdurman in 1898, General Gordon school ('hero' of Khartoum), Lord Roberts of Kandahar (won the Victoria Cross in the Indian 'Mutiny'), and most incredibily, Cecil Rhodes.  This one is just as heinous as Nathan Bedford Forrest with one exception: more people criticize Forrest than Rhodes.  Several people to whom I have related this information have laughed in amazement at such a school name.  There are some good ones though: John F. Kennedy High School in Montreal, Nelson Mandela School in Toronto, and Ecole Apollo-XI in New Brunswick.

My other example is Trafalgar Square in London.  A statue of Lord Nelson stands proudly overlooking the city.  Surely he ranks among the greatest of British heroes for stopping Napoleon's fleet off the Spanish coast in 1805, giving his life in the process.  The square, however, also honors other British heroes whom the casual observer may see as approaching Nelson's status.  They are: Charles James Napier, conqueror of the Punjab  (the Sikh part of India) in 1850 and Sir Henry Havelock, who died suddenly in 1857 while fighting the Indian 'mutineers' in 1857.  Are these men still 'heroes' today?  Some will disagree.  Previously a statue to Charles Gordon sat there.

Most astonishingly, but unrelated, a statue to George Washington is also in Trafalgar Square.  I cannot think of another occasion when someone put a monument to their greatest enemy in the very shadow of one to their greatest hero.  Go figure!

I am certain, though, that other countries have their own strange politics of memorialization.  Americans should not feel unique or alone.  I'd say everyone cleanses and purifies their past to make it palatable, regardless of the damage it does to public consciousness.

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