By Cliff Ennico 

Like many Americans, I have viewed with dismay and confusion the systematic and wanton destruction of statues and monuments honoring people I was taught in my youth to view as “great Americans.”

In a city just down the road from me, a mob pulled down a statue of Christopher Columbus that had stood in a vest-pocket park of the same name for over 100 years — this over the vehement objection of the city’s Italian American community who hosted an annual parade on Columbus Day centered around the park.

Why? Because Columbus was allegedly cruel to Native Americans.

OK, before I start getting hate mail, I get the whole thing about statues honoring the Confederacy and the “lost cause” of the Civil War. I get it because I know the history of these statues: They were erected in the late 1800s and early 1900s not so much to celebrate fallen heroes as the end of Reconstruction and the restoration of African American servitude under Jim Crow. I have no problem with those statues being removed and placed in a museum or somewhere private where they can be used as teaching tools to remind people of what really happened in the post-Reconstruction South.

I have a problem, however, with those statues — many of which are quite beautiful and moving as a tribute to all people who die for lost causes — being wantonly destroyed.

And I have a huge problem with tearing down statues and monuments that were intended to honor positive achievements made by individuals, some of whose actions or opinions, while contrary to our current worldview, were actually fairly commonplace during their lifetimes.

For example, recent teardowns have included monuments devoted to Woodrow Wilson, Kate Smith, Teddy Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant.

It doesn’t look like Wilson had a high opinion of African Americans. But he led America through its first war fought on foreign soil. He presented his Fourteen Points at the Versailles peace conference in 1919 and fought hard the rest of his life for a League of Nations that would put an end to all war — so hard he suffered a stroke that effectively ended his presidency.

Kate Smith recorded a couple of songs (as did many other artists) with lyrics based on black stereotypes, but she spent most of her life promoting “God Bless America,” a patriotic song written by a Russian Jewish immigrant many people (including yours truly) believe would make a better national anthem than “The Star-Spangled Banner” or John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  How can you have a national anthem with the lyric “imagine there’s no countries?”

In New York City, they’re fighting to take down a statue in front of the American Museum of Natural History featuring Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by representations of an African American and a Native American. There is absolutely no evidence that Roosevelt was a racist; he was a close friend of Booker T. Washington and, as a South Dakota rancher, was intimately friendly with local Native American tribal leaders. There’s good evidence the statue, erected by progressive New Yorkers, was intended to symbolize his support of nonwhite races.

And Ulysses S. Grant? OK, he smoked and drank too much, but he led the Union Army that defeated the Confederacy and, as president, sponsored the Civil Rights Act. Given the abominable way history is taught in schools, I can only suspect the San Francisco mob who pulled that statue down thought he was a Confederate general.

People are complicated, and only an infant looks at people as either entirely good or entirely bad. If we erect statues to honor only perfect people, then we will not erect statues of anyone. Not even the saints led perfect lives, as the most honest of them (such as St. Augustine) acknowledged.

Speaking of saints, anyone looking for a precedent in this world of icon-bashing should read Catherine Nixey’s book The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. After the Edict of Theodosius established Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire in 383 A.D., monks and other Christian zealots went on a rampage of epic portions, destroying and defacing statues of pagan (meaning non-Christian) deities, mythical figures, Roman emperors and anyone who didn’t fit into the Christian worldview — one of the greatest destructions of art in human history — which helped launch the 1,000-year Dark Ages of violence, savagery, intolerance and oppression.

Sometimes the pagans fought back, and some of the foul-smelling, violent, often- drunk Christians who were killed in street brawls were later venerated as saints. Ironically, their statues now stand in churches throughout the world.

If you have ever visited a museum of ancient art and wondered why most of the statues are defaced in some way (cutting off noses was especially popular, as ancient people viewed statues as being partly alive and removing their noses symbolically deprived them of breath and, therefore, life), you now know why.

People who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it (George Santayana), and the most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history (George Orwell).

As John Lennon once sang, “You say you want a revolution/ ... But when you talk about destruction/ Don’t you know that you can count me out.”

Cliff Ennico (crennico@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series “Money Hunt.” 

COPYRIGHT 2020 CLIFFORD R. ENNICO
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