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Letter to the Editor - The trouble with monuments


August 23, 2017


My town has no monuments to heroic Confederate generals waving swords or hats. The closest we come to that is a statue of a mild fellow with hat lowered at his side, the other hand holding his coat open in oratorical style. This monument, rising next to our railroad depot, depicts James Hill, 19th century railroad baron.

What could be more fitting than a memorial to James Hill, a prophetic entrepreneur who helped make the great “Westward ho!” expansion possible? Without his railroad, very likely there would be no town (some even credit the town’s peculiar name to Hill and his associates). Yet I can imagine that over the years some would have preferred not to see that memorial. Imagine a failed homesteader, one of thousands lured to ruin in this hard country by false advertising from the railroads of plentiful rainfall and reliable crops, looking at that statue on the way out of town. Perhaps, too, some of the Native Americans for whom the railroad meant an ending, not a beginning, would have voted against the memorial.

The solidity of shapes in stone and metal conceals a meaning that changes over time. I do not think we can ever fully know what some monuments from the past meant to those who came before us. All we can know is their meaning today. Today, memorials to the Confederacy evoke recent and sometimes continuing injury for many. Today, the loudest defenders do so in the name of the ugliness of white supremacy. Both objection and defense condemn these memorials.

Perhaps on some tomorrow, those same Confederate statues might be simply history, but we cannot know tomorrow either. Some thousands of years later, it would be nice to have more examples of Middle Eastern statuary of the great bull god, but Moses had reason to pulverize the golden calf. Still, there must somewhere be an enormous room where the calf bawls in the corner Moses assigned him; golden robed Athena, who unnerved those manly Romans, towers over ages of dishcarged monuments; a stony Jaguar god roars; jolly old Uncle Joe Stalin greets General Beauregard just now stumbling through the door.

As to James Hill, his perch at the edge of the railroad yard appears safe. I have never noticed anybody reverencing the statue, nor glaring at it either. Time, it seems, has delivered his memorial to calm history.

Will Rawn



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