One of the most compelling and surreal bits of sightseeing I did while living in Budapest was visiting Memento Park, a collection of disgraced, even damaged, communist monuments relegated to the outskirts of the city. Marx, Lenin, Engels, and many Hungarian communist leaders loom over the park, established in 1993, only two years after the last Soviet troops left Hungary. Their scale is daunting, overwhelming. On the bleak winter afternoon I visited the park, I could feel the oppressiveness of a regime I had never known.
At home, however, we’ve seemingly done the opposite, at least when it comes to memorializing the Civil War, especially from the perspective of the Confederacy. At a talk given at Emory University this month by art historian Kirk Savage, I learned that many monuments to the Confederacy went up well after the war ended – in some cases not until the middle of the 20th century. In a particularly bizarre case of a Confederate monument near the government buildings in Rockville, MD, a liberal suburb of Washington, D.C., the statue was rededicated as recently as the 1990’s and eventually moved to another location, intact.
Now, of course, the blighted history of these monuments has come into the national spotlight after the recent violence in Charlottesville, which resulted in the death of counter-protestor Heather Heyer. The flashpoint of course was the impending removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.
So why not move our monuments to a faraway park or museum? Savage argues that the cost would be staggering. In her response to Savage’s talk, Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory, says we should put those resources into affecting real change. Invoking the victims of the shooting at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston and Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Andra says, “so their deaths will not be in vain.” We must take real action.
But there doesn’t seem to be a simple solution. On one hand moving statues with problematic histories does help erode the symbolism they embody. On the other, it doesn’t get at the root issues. In the case of Hungary, the current government reeks of its totalitarian past with a xenophobic, autocratic prime minister at the helm. In this country, would moving or destroying statues really eradicate racial tensions and bigotry?
In thinking through what a servant-leader approach to handling this issue might be, I thought of an interesting proposal that some residents of Charlottesville had come up with and that Savage presented in his talk. The suggestion was to enclose a statue in a glass box and to etch opposing narratives onto its sides. Expense aside, this might serve as an interesting solution to preserve our complicated and sometimes ugly history along with its counter-narrative. Perhaps in creating this polarity, we would be taking a step in affecting some real change.
Mark Elberfeld, President