Protect the statues, please!

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Statue of Christopher Columbus in Providence since 1893, now removed. (Wikipedia)

The statue of Christopher Columbus in Providence has been defaced in 2010, 2015, 2017, 2019 and 2020. Yesterday, amid American history’s most perfervid bout of iconoclasm, the statue was removed by the city for its protection. The municipal government of Providence is as feckless as they come, however, so it is far from clear whether Columbus was taken away to protect the statue or to protect the government’s derrière (CYA). Wikipedia asserts inanely that it was removed to protect the neighborhood.

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This particular statue of Columbus is a bronze copy of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s statue cast in silver by the Gorham Co. for display at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Bartholdi had previously sculpted the Statue of Liberty for New York Harbor. An article that year of 1893 in the journal Inland Printer described the art of his Columbus: “Life and vigor are implied in every line and feature, and the general effect is one of great beauty.” Its artistry is evident in the photos to the left and at the top of this post.

My dog in this current fight over statuary is largely aesthetic. I defend this Columbus because his statue is classical and beautiful. Although the statue aims to remind us of his bold voyage of discovery in 1492, when most Europeans, including many of his crew, feared that they would sail off the edge of the flat earth, my observation of this and other statuary takes the form mainly of thoughts generated by their quality as works of art.

I understand and sympathize with those who are concerned by Columbus’s sins as a colonizer. I don’t think those sins warrant defacing his statue or knocking it down. It is a reminder of an important part of our American history. This and other statues, including those of Confederate generals, are part of our history. Removing them would erase part of our history, hurtful especially to those who do not normally study that history, many of whom experience statues as an inert decoration that may grant them a passing pleasure. (Perhaps I fall into that category.) Removal would make their lives and mine shallower. They (we) are people, too.

Any statue’s removal should be undertaken only by its public – local, state or national – in a process of civilized democratic deliberation.

The reaction to statuary covers a range of feelings, from my largely aesthetic ones to understandable feelings of anger caused by the iconic reminder of, say, colonialism or slavery. But my guess is that those are rare. Feelings are pitched high these days, ginned up by events in the news, but I suspect that most people passing by a statue of Robert E. Lee in normal times would not feel anger or rage but, at worst, sadness or depression. They feel intuitively the symbolic meaning of the statue, and its implications for their lives.

In such feelings reside the importance of statuary to the individual experience of history. Nobody denies that history hurt some more than others, blacks and natives more than whites, but getting rid of the statues would rob these individuals of an important connection to their past and an incentive to desire or even, let us hope, to work for positive change. Nor would such removal do much to bring about the comity required to assist progress in resolving the ills that spring from our history.

Whatever the degree of anger over society’s continued hangover from slavery and Jim Crow, it cannot be denied that significant progress has been made toward the equality sought by our founders and emblazoned (for the first time in human history) in the documents of our foundation, and ratified by the blood of hundreds of thousands in a civil war fought to end slavery. That progress of a century and more was made in the company of more than 1,800 existing statues and memorials of Confederates or the Confederacy. Will their removal now add to the likelihood of further progress? Certainly not.

Rage has removed many statues in recent weeks. A large number of the statues under attack honored abolitonists, Union generals, President Lincoln and others dedicated to ending slavery, or who had nothing to do with slavery or, for that matter, with George Floyd. Indeed, rioting wrecked a unified belief held by all Americans that Floyd’s murder was a tragic wrong, and that justice should punish his killers. The riots destroyed that unity, that comity which might have been the result, and destroyed what progress might have arisen from peaceful marches seeking justice. The destruction of statues that have nothing to do with slavery has only made it harder to promote society’s effort to address police brutality and other injustices.

It has been noted that the incoherence apparent in the destruction of statues that have nothing to do with slavery reflects the ignorance represented, today, by the average college degree. I’d go a step further and say that the current iconoclasm is the first in history, or at least American history, where the intellectual capacity of those who attack statuary – mostly young, white and college-educated – is smaller than the intellectual capacity of those who don’t support that attack: the average American citizen.

Over the past few decades, the learning and the understanding conveyed by four years or more of higher education renders degree holders, in many fields of study, less capable of intelligent thought than those without degrees. In the field of architecture, for example, the public in its intuitive skepticism of modern architecture is more sophisticated than are the holders of almost all degrees from schools of architecture. This has been true for generations. It feels odd to say that the most educated members of society know less than the members of society generally, but that is the situation we face, with the attack on statues only the latest example of the broader decline in education and expertise. The wisdom of the masses now often bests that of the highly educated, but the masses lack power to bring fake expertise to heel.

But I don’t believe that this ignorance is the primary cause of the apparent incoherence of the attack on statues. Rather, not ignorance but calculation is behind that attack. The rioting and iconoclasm have been falsely predicated on the protests spawned by George Floyd’s murder. And the incoherence of the attacks is only apparent. The true cause is hatred for western civilization as manifested in America by its history, its institutions and its symbolic icons – including statues. The forces behind this destruction target the foundations of society itself. Statues are merely the easiest to find and attack, especially when timid police departments stand aside. Our difficulty grasping that reality is what causes this seeming incoherence. How convenient!

What better time for these forces to act than amid the re-election campaign of a president both widely hated and deeply admired, an opponent widely considered corrupt and incapacitated, global pandemic, economic meltdown, riots and the worst political scandal in American history? Current events have set up an unprecedented host of potential societal collisions. This has shaken confidence in the ability of our national institutions to guide and protect us. When we are at our weakest is when we are most likely to be attacked. Aside from the Civil War, our history has seen no period of greater vulnerability. (Let’s hope that our troubles will remain domestic.)

In spite of this, as the attack on our imperfect but striving society mounts, institutions public and private throughout the nation are surrendering their honor and dignity in mostly feigned apologies and mea-culpas. Their empty pledges are just words meant to deflect anger. Panic fanned by a complicit media fogs the sense of moderation and self-preservation that once prevailed among our most respected institutions. The reluctance to defend statues is just one instance of society’s refusal to defend its own honor.

The United States and its institutions have brought more progress to more people of all races, creeds and ethnicities – progress in health, in wealth, in safety, in freedom and political representation, just to name a few – than any previous society. Its founding documents erected high standards – equality and justice for all – and Americans have worked harder than the citizens of any other society to reach them. We’ve never claimed to be perfect, and yet hopeful immigrants continue to seek to live in our nation, warts and all.

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Columbus’s removal on June 25. (NBC-10)

The public stands foursquare against letting mobs topple statuary, and the protection of those statues can now serve as a rallying point in the defense against genuine enemies of our society, our nation, civilization itself – the good, the true and the beautiful.

Christopher Columbus should not have been removed by fiat of the city from Elmwood Avenue, but ought to have been allowed to remain so that its neighbors and the good people of Providence could have the opportunity to defend both him and the great civilization for which he stands – great for having proved its capacity, despite its flaws, to strive for the unprecedentedly just and equitable goals of our national foundation.

We in Providence still don’t know where the statue is now stored, or what fate will be administered by the committee that has apparently been formed to adjudicate its future. Its members are probably already suffering from the Stockholm syndrome. But maybe not. You never know. May history preserve Columbus from the deliberations of our self-appointed experts!

I would be even happier to see him moved from Elmwood Avenue to Federal Hill, former sanctuary for the city’s historic Italo population and today a mecca of restaurants. There I’d be able to enjoy looking at him more often. And there would be more police around to protect him, especially if he stood tall in DePasquale Square (al-fresco dining at its finest). Is Federal Hill up to the task? Heavy responsibility! It seems rattled by the uncertainties involved.

Be brave, Federal Hill! Stand strong, Providence! Viva America!

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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32 Responses to Protect the statues, please!

  1. Carol Delaney says:

    As noted, I have read the mountain of scholarship as you have not and Columbus is not the man you think he was. see my comment below This was meant for Peter Van Erp above! [Below, actually. db]

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  2. This post is a great resource on this topic – couldn’t agree with you more!

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  3. Peter Van Erp says:

    This outpouring of undirected rage by the overeducated is a direct consequence of elite overproduction.

    For decades we have been churning out more and more university graduates, and insisting on the titles bestowed thereby to qualify for jobs which used to be available to high school graduates. The pay for those jobs hasn’t kept pace with the cost of the “education” required by those jobs, so we end up with a large cohort of over educated graduates incapable of clear thought, but knowing that they have sold themselves into debt peonage for life. Since much of what they’ve learned includes the culpability of white privilege, so the rage of our indebted class turns to the symbols of white privilege*, and hey, hey, ho, ho, Chris Columbus has got to go!

    *Italians only became accepted as ‘white” in the second half of the 20th century.

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    • Anonymous says:

      You know nothing about Columbus. Maybe should read his writings and more about him. He is not the man people are thinking he was..

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      • I am pretty sure that Peter, in his comment’s conclusion, isn’t dissing Columbus. He is mocking the disrespect of Columbus by people whose education is so pathetic that, even after years of study paid for with scores of thousands of dollars, they still don’t know who he is. Peter, please correct me if I am wrong, but you are not of the “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Chris Columbus has got to go!” persuasion, are you? You are absolutely on target in regard to the education and life prospects of those people.

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        • Peter Van Erp says:

          David, your reading comprehension is obviously the product of a superior education. I’m not of the class in lifetime debt peonage.

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      • Peter Van Erp says:

        Hello anonymous,
        Perhaps you should read what I wrote and reflect on it a bit. I neither praise nor denigrate Columbus in what I wrote. I’m sorry if you see yourself in my comments, and feel the need to lash out in reply.

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        • Carol Delaney says:

          All I am saying is that most people know nothing about Columbus and are blaming him for things he did not do.

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          • Peter Van Erp says:

            Dear Mrs. Delaney,
            If one is to use an appeal to authority, a demonstration that said authority is capable of reading and understanding the texts cited would be a strong support for one’s argument. I would suggest that the anonymous commenter above failed to read and understand my text.
            I would further suggest that anonymous’ post is a demonstration of my original point: the overproduction of elites has developed a large cohort of people for whom certain objects or phrases invokes a ritual incantation, whether or not said object or phrase is in any way related to the incantation brought forth.

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          • Carol Delaney says:

            I have no idea what you are saying. I have done years of research about Columbus – reading his writings and those of knew him and wrote a well acclaimed book about him.. so not sure what you are saying or implying.

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  4. barry schiller says:

    I see a difference between honoring Columbus who for all his faults and the devastation he unleashed on native Americans was an explorer of consequence who succeeded in widening the world significantly. Confederate generals are known only for fighting for slavery and being a traitor to the US, they do not deserve any place of honor. Being Jewish, I see honoring a confederate general would be like honoring General Rommel with a statue even though he fought for the nazis, I’d find that obnoxious no matter how beautiful the statue.

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    • I agree, Barry, that the Confederate statues pull me harder for removal than the Columbus statues, but I don’t think any of them warrant removal, and certainly not by mobs. A statue of Rommel would be even more offensive to me in, say, Detroit (which has lots of Arab-Americans) than a statue of R.E. Lee or Columbus – but he is a German historical figure, not an American one. I’m sure that Germany has removed all of its Hitler statues (if there were any) but maybe not statues of Rommel. I don’t know. The Confederate generals were Americans – traitors, perhaps, but Americans. Most Confederate soldiers did not own slaves and probably went to war because their states went to war, or maybe they hated Lincoln. Many behaved nobly as soldiers. I’m not sure what that counts for, but it is also true that some hated slavery as much as any Union soldier. Many monuments were erected as part of a movement to remember the spirit of the Confederacy, and possibly advance the reunification of the country (as in Lincoln’s “with malice toward none”) but I am not sure this effort was at all intended to remember the South’s slavery policies with any fondness. There is also, of course, the consideration of beauty and civic space.

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    • Carol Delaney says:

      First of all you are blaming Columbus for things he did not do. It was the horrible men Queen Isabella send over who went against his direct orders [and they were written as well as said] who did he horrible deeds. Columbus liked and was friendly with the natives… please read his diary. carol

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  5. Arthur Mark says:

    REMOVING THE THE SMALL CONFEDERATE FLAG FROM MISSISSIPI’S OFFICIAL FLAG SAYS MORE THAN SMASHING STATUES AND RIOTING.

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  6. Nancy Thomas says:

    What is happening now has gone well beyond any issue of black history – it is mob mentality – as can be seen when statues of people who had nothing to do with slavery are being taken down just for the sheer violent act of it all. There are ways to get things done. There is a system to work through. We should not be ruled by the mob of the month or by the loudest voice – because there always is another one. Anarchy vs. Democracy.

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  7. John the First says:

    The true cause is (as nobody will admit) as the ‘aesthetician’ Oscar Wilde wrote:

    ‘High hopes were once formed of democracy; but democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.’

    Democracy has been about discontentment, agitation, demagogy, violent uprisings and destruction from the beginning, with admittedly some good causes. After the changes, new ruling powers and authority becomes settled, but other parties and newcomers on the stage will continue to destroy, agitated by new demagogues, aided by a by now highly professionalized network of demagogy, internationally funded by big global money, empowered by the newest modern technology.

    Democracy is by necessity a temporary system, those who are more intelligent, those who think bigger and are more active (regardless of good or bad) will take over in the long run. Which is good because the rule of the mediocre (democracy), ‘settled mediocrity’, makes evolution impossible, and even leads to cultural decline (as standing still is impossible).

    The only question of democracy in its current phase is how to limit its continuous cycles of destruction, which with the mentioned professionalized networks of demagogy, and the democratic means of publishing, the internet, seems about impossible. Settled democracy, in order to maintain status quo, to limit continuous destruction would then have to attack its own historical means and methods.

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  8. This statue should come out along with all of the Confederate statues. I worked at the University of Mississippi (aka Ole Miss). Their campus is full of Pro-Confederate garbage. It may well be the last place on earth where slavery is openly defended. Columbus isn’t anyone we should be venerating either. Put it in the Smithsonian or some other museum where it can be contextualized and children can learn from it. Leaving these sorts of statues where they are implies that we endorse the wicked acts these men committed. Hopefully, we don’t.

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    • Carol Delaney says:

      YOu know nothing about Columbus. see my post below or read my book. Become more informe

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      • I don’t mean to insult you or your work. There’s a mountain of scholarship that points to Columbus perpetrating atrocities. I don’t think young people or indigenous people are interested in a thoughtful defense of Columbus. I expect this statue and others like it have a shelf life of about 6-24 months.

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        • I hope, Justin, that young people are indeed capable of a nuanced appreciation of Columbus and all of these historical figures once the shouting stops, if that ever happens. Under the influence of such nuance and rethinking, perhaps the shelf life of statues will be extended.

          How is your book coming along? Did the readers of your script offer helpful advice?

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          • Carol Delaney says:

            I think your comments to Justin were meant for me?? If so, my book is out, published in 2011 and available hard back or paper. Was considered one of the best books of 2011 by the London Ties. carol

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  9. Carol Delaney says:

    I spent years of research reading works by Columbus [there are many] and those who knew him that resulted in my acclaimed book, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem. Most people know nothing about the man. He was friendly with the natives: “I believe that in the world there are no better people… they love their neighbors as themselves and they have the sweetest speech,, are gentle and always laughing.” After the first voyage Isabella sent 17 ships and thousands men. They are the ones, against CC’s strict orders, that went marauding, raping, and killing. He kept asking for priests to be sent to teach and baptize the natives. Baptized people could not be enslaved. When he took 6 back with him all were baptized and one became his godson. So there needs to be alot
    more education about the man. I am appalled at the destruction and desecration of Columbus statues. carol Delaney

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  10. LazyReader says:

    Destroying statues is just a practice run for destroying people. they wanna trash history let em. they Cant prove what they have no evidence of; a clean historic slate negates all reason for their thuggery; someone says “Slavey and Colonialism” My response would be…”Prove It”
    It’s easier to tear down statues than build communities.

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  11. Steve says:

    Fully, completely, emphatically agree.

    May I suggest you condense this powerful piece in an editorial to ProJo, to the City Council, and to the pandering Mayor.

    A disgusting display of fraud and freckles leadership!.

    Like

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