Cinna, the poet: I am not Cinna the conspirator.
Fourth Citizen: It is no matter, his name's Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going.
From William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
Well, now he's being proved right. Salon editor and Baltimore professor, D. Watkins claims statues of Washington and Jefferson "actually" make his "skin crawl." At CNN, Angela Rye is angry that purging the two presidents isn't universally accepted. A BBC commentator says the presidential downfall is "exactly what is needed." NBC News describes the issue as "complicated."
This mob stupidity, because that's what it is, reminded me of Cinna the poet, as rendered in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Awaiting Caesar's funeral, a crowd of his supporters confuses Cinna the poet for another Cinna they hold responsible for the dictator's killing. Cinna convinces the crowd that he is not the conspirator, but they murder him regardless. Shakespeare's point: individual rationality is quite easily subsumed by the self-replicating irrationality of the mob.
Still, when it comes to those statues prioritized for purification; Civil War statues, it's worth considering what the mob actually want to do with their prisoners. Because if we take one prominent statue-remover at his word, the path ahead looks very dark indeed.
Enter Holland Cotter, art critic for the New York Times.
Cotter explains, "Basically, I take the move to isolate and banish Confederate nationalist images as a healthy one. The citizen in me - daily witness, like every other American, to viral racism, the national disease - embraces the possibility of unloading traces of its history. The art critic in me welcomes the unloading, too, though for different reasons. Unlike President Trump, I see no beauty in the Robert E. Lee monument, with its bland neo-Classical suavity. And I see in Lee a traitor who waged war against the United States in defense of the indefensible, slavery."
There is a lot of tediousness in that quote.
First off, it is profoundly troubling that an art critic could find "healthy" sentiment in efforts to "isolate and banish" historic images. Second, in his callous and dictatorial self-regard - "The art critic in me... I see no beauty in the Robert E. Lee monument, with its bland neo-Classical suavity" - Holland is a perfect specimen for the elitism so many Americans despise (and partly elected Trump in response to).
Cotter thinks he's won the argument before it even begins. But he's just getting started.
It's not enough to put statues in museums, Cotter argues, instead "we need to learn to be symbol readers with our eyes wide open in our own political moment of rapid-fire tweets and manufactured distraction." But, he continues, "For this to happen, though, museums will have to relinquish their pretense of ideological neutrality. They will have to become truth-telling institutions."
Think about those words, "relinquish their pretense of ideological neutrality." Cotter doesn't want statues in any old museum with any old exhibit explainer, he wants statues surrounded by propaganda of his own making. After all, his words speak to a man unwilling to allow individuals to form their opinion.
Doubt my assessment? consider Cotter's pledge that "You can change history... scholars change history, map its cycles, make it yield fresh news."
From a historian, that statement wouldn't be too concerning, but from Cotter, who has already shown his ideological hand, it is an alarm bell. When Cotter speaks of "fresh news" what he really means is an Orwellian purge of thought crime. Cotter wishes to sow a tale of a simple Civil War: one that shows the injustice of the South, rather than that reality and the complexities of those who led its cause.
And let's be clear, Cotter is an ideologue.
Scrawling through Cotter's archives, I found a gem from March 2006. Praising a viral marketing campaign for a non-existent movie, Cotter explained that "The images in the poster and trailer, with barely disguised but heroicized references to the current war in Iraq, can be taken as typical examples of Hollywood-style propaganda-as-history."
Personally, I would suggest that American heroism in the Iraq War was real, not fiction. The difference between Cotter and myself is that when an Iraq War memorial is eventually constructed, I'll trust visitors to make their own conclusions. He will not.