Tuesday, May 2, 2017
The Most Practical Monument
Every capital in every empire has its monuments. The Arches of Triumph. The Columns carved with stories of some great war of liberation. Huge seated figures watching benevolently over the city across reflecting pools. Blind Justice with her scale. Liberty with her torch. Walls carved with returning heroes leading slaves in chains. How the people cheer.
Every culture builds monuments to remember some grand event, usually a struggle, a war, a sacrifice of blood and labor for the greater good, a great work of art or science. Lenin on display for the Socialist Soviets to remember. Egyptian obelisks. Museums. Statues. Parks. All talismans of remembrance. All there to remind us how our prosperity was bought with blood and our worth is measured in courage. Blood and courage from the past, lest we forget.
And all put there so we can remember.
Whenever I am in a new place it is not uncommon to come upon a hallowed space. In Old Stonington Village in Eastern CT, for instance, there is a little triangle of land. Rusty chains surround it. Granite pillars hold them up. Within are a rusting cannon and a monument with a plaque.
I always read the plaques if I can, whenever I am in a new place. I figure someone took the time and effort to build this. Someone wanted us to remember. The least I can do is to read it. Read and remember.
This monument is to the War of 1812. There was a battle here, in the waterway approaching Groton and New London, a strategic part of America at the time. Still is. Lives were lost. The country was defended and preserved. I read. And learned. I remembered. And honored their sacrifice. If I was so inclined I would have said a prayer.
It’s important to remember.
In Manhattan, on the west side around Greenwich Village. There’s a little park. Benches. Flowering shrubs. Old men feeding pigeons. And a very old, crumbling pillar with a soldier standing on it. I could barely read the plaque. It was dedicated to those from this borough who had died in the Great War. That’s what they called it back then. In loving memory. Well I can remember. And love.
In Colchester, CT. While I had my car in for service. I walked down to the center of town. There is a park. People were walking their dogs. Playing ball. Passing through. There are monuments there as well. One to the Civil War. Others to World Wars One and Two. I read the inscriptions and the names of the dead. I remember.
In Norwich, CT by the hospital there is a cemetery. In one section is a monument that you can’t miss. It’s a Civil War monument. There is a cannon pointing outward. Around it, in a ring, are nine stones raised to nine Civil War soldiers who had died in the war. These are different. These are remembered specially. Specifically, different from all the other Civil War casualties from Norwich. On each stone, along with their names and dates of birth and death, there is one other word: Andersonville. These men had died in the Andersonville prisoner of war camp in Andersonville, Georgia. The Commander of that horrid place had been hanged for war crimes after the war. Lest we forget.
As time passes, things change. Revolutions come and go. Sometimes revolutionaries become worse than the things they rebelled against. And then someone else has to rebel against them. The French Revolution was followed by the Reign of Terror, which was much worse than any excesses of the Aristocracy. Then they got Napoleon. The Bolshevik Revolution was followed by the Communist Revolution. Then they got the Soviet Union under Stalin, who was much worse than the Tsar. Modern Russia is only today recovering from that brutal time. And after 9/11 the US embarked on a global rampage. Now we are the terrorists, and the rest of the world stands appalled. What comes next for us?
So what happens? As empires, countries, and cities decay, they continue to hold dear to their monuments, their myths, and their sense of grandeur. There was Pax Romana, Liberté, égalité, fraternité ,the Soviet Socialists workers’ Paradise, and American Exceptionalism. As the earlier accomplishments are replaced by tyranny, excess, and betrayal, we refuse to see it. We cling to the past, and forget that every craven society grew out of a great one. So we keep thinking we are great. Keep up the traditions. Keep remembering. Remembering the sacrifices of the past and the heritage of the present. We owe them, no matter how different we are from them. Or, they owe us. They owe us to keep thinking we are like them. We are the good ones.
Don’t disagree. Don’t criticize. Critics are blasphemers to our glorious past and traitors to our glamorous present. Don’t question. Don’t ask how the past relates to the present or predicts the future, even though the monuments to our glorious past are there to teach us about the present and the future. Teach us… something.
Teach us what? That every great civilization must be eventually overthrown? Must be, because every civilization becomes fixated on its glorious past and doesn’t see what’s happening in its decaying present? Every civilization has refused to look into the mirror, preferring to look into the monument, instead. Believe the myth, ignore the monster. History teaches. What? That we can also go the way of all past failures? That every past State stands in judgment of us? Or does history teach us that we are the exception? We’re the ones who got it right? That we are at the end of history? We solved history’s puzzle? History has chosen us? For greatness? That’s what every other civilization thought it taught. History teaches. But do we learn?
So. Maybe it’s the monuments’ fault. In our efforts to preserve and remember the victory and struggle of our successes, we forget to remember the mistakes and shortcomings of our failures. Why don’t we raise monuments to the losers? To the deposed? The Tyrannies? To the failure of Rome? To the decay of the Aristocrats? To the tortures of Stalin? To the Nazis? After every revolution we tear down the monuments of the deposed. The statues of dictators like Saddam Hussein. The sacking and burning of cities that have fallen. Fallen. And will be rebuilt in our image. Babylon the Great, built on the ruins of Babylon the Previous.
Yes, we have the Holocaust museum and Anne Frank’s house. We remember the Armenian Genocide and someday we will have a plaque in the Gaza Strip commemorating the Palestinian genocide. We can spend some time and money commemorating the excesses of an empire. As long as it is not our empire.
But these are not prominent enough. They are memorials to suffering people, not to a suffering world order. Not to a suffering empire. Instead, we deem the fallen country as corrupt, morally bankrupt, Nazis, Communists. People so bad that we could not possibly ever be like them. We mourn their dead and congratulate ourselves for not doing the same. They have nothing to teach us. Nothing good. And no reason to be remembered. Let alone honored by a monument. No?
Yes. I propose a new monument: A monument to change. A monument to the Fall of Empire. A monument to those tyrannies; Nazis, Soviets, Israelis, Americans; who departed from their noble roots and fell into the empire trap. This monument must be placed at the entrance to every emperor’s palace, prominently. Every Congress. Every Rada. Every Duma. Every Knesset. Every Judiciary. Every Peoples’ House, Supreme Court, Executive Mansion, and Prime Minister’s residence. Every Kremlin. Every forbidden city. Every White House. And also at every other seat of power. On Wall Street. The Bundesbank. By the Stock Exchange and next to the charging bull. Fearless Girl can be standing on it. In Brussels. On the Cayman Islands. Next to the Pyramids. Next to the Brandenburg Gate. On every sacred high place in every world power, great and small.
It should be placed in Davos and wherever else groups like Bilderberg, the IMF, BRICS, the G7, SCO, NAFTA, the EU, or all of the other economic, political, or international summits may meet. Let this monument stand to remind people. Not just of the glorious accomplishments and sacrifices of the past, which become the feedstocks for today’s corruption. Not as a boot to stand on the failings of the past and now stands on the necks of the present. But to remind the ruling world of what can happen to people like them; to the wealthy, to the powerful, to the 1%, to the unseen oligarchs. And to the complacent masses like us. As thus we stand accused. We let them go so far, until we let them go no more.
I propose that in front of all these institutions there stands a fully functional guillotine. Let every congressman, representative, judge, banker, mogul, president, dictator, or world leader walk past it every day, to remind them who they are responsible for. And answerable to. And what sometimes happens when they forget.
Let them remember that.