On Statues and Moving the Ball Down the Field
Yesterday, we talked about measuring figures from previous ages against their own times and mores and not against ours and used the image of “moving the ball down the field”. Basically, it’s the idea that when an ancient Mesopotamian cuts off somebody’s hand for stealing, we tend to cut him more slack than if a modern store owner were to do the same. It’s why, when we read the Good Thief say, “We are receiving the just punishment for our crimes” our first thought is of the humility of the Good Thief and not “WAIT! THAT MANIAC IS SAYING CRUCIFIXION IS JUST PUNISHMENT!” It’s why we give credit to David for refraining from executing enemies who were (by the standard of his culture) worthy of death for insulting his Royal Person, but we don’t venerate somebody on the internet for not killing the combox guy who mocks him.
The idea is to neither exonerate pre-modern figures of real sins nor to merely “cancel” them when the sins they commit are ones that excite special horror in us, but to weigh them by their own lights as best we can. In the words of Jesus:
That servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more. (Luke 12:47-48)
For this reason, we don’t spend a lot of time worrying about why Augustine has no solid grasp of the Church’s teaching on double eternal predestination and instead praise him for the astonishing advances he makes on a dozen other fronts. We cut slack to the Mongol Empire for its views on imperial conquest and instead praise it for figuring out the idea of meritocracy over mere tribal nepotism. We hail the Greeks for inventing a huge number of the things the human race ever invented and cut them slack for assuming, along with the rest of the human race of the time, that slavery was perfectly normal and unremarkable. We commend Ezekiel for realizing that people are personally responsible for their sins, because it was a real advance in his culture which tended to ascribe corporate and tribal guilt to enemies.
This idea of “moving the ball down the field”, of overcoming cultural blindness and structures of sin, brings us back to how we honor figures from the past; specifically, those who chose to honor Columbus a century or so ago.
As noted yesterday, Columbus statues are getting torn down in some places. And as we also noted, Columbus initially became an honored figure in this country, not in an effort to celebrate the genocide of Native peoples, but in the generous and deeply Christian attempt to welcome Italian immigrants who were hated by the MAGA nativists of the 19th and 20th century just as much as Latinos are hated by them now. The statues and other Columbus tributes were a way to communicate to despised Italians that they were welcome members of American society, an altogether admirable goal.
So why do some want to tear them down?
The answer is that the Universe of Discourse has changed in the US.
What’s a Universe of Discourse?
Very simply, a Universe of Discourse is “What most people are thinking about when a society talks about something.” So, for instance, when Paul tells the Colossians that the gospel has gone out into “the whole world” what he means is the “whole world” that he and his readers think of as the whole world, not all of planet earth. In the universe of discourse of Greco-Roman civilization, the “whole world” means Greco-Roman civilization. Paul is aware that there are people off the edges of the map. He knows that there are tin mines in Cornwall and lands in the Indian subcontinent beyond where Alexander ceased his conquests and places down the African coast where traders sail their ships. But for Paul’s purposes “the whole world” means what the average Joe in his audience is thinking of, the general territory of the Mediterranean.
We talk this way all the time. “Everybody” knows X and “we all agree” that Y is true. Until somebody from the Z Community interrupts the party with a perspective that upsets the apple cart. Indeed, no small amount of humor comes precisely from the moment when somebody inside a Universe of Discourse which takes certain things for granted is suddenly forced to re-adjust his assumptions by somebody outside that Universe of Discourse:
Another famous example of the Universe of Discourse being suddenly shattered by the perspective of an outsider comes from one of the most famous Outsider comedians of all time, Lenny Bruce, whose membership in the most consistently challenging Outsider community in Western History–the Jewish people–made him a natural for upsetting the consensus of the comfortable. It was he who has the hero of every red-blooded American kid in the 50s–the Lone Ranger–say to his faithful companion Tonto “I guess we’re surrounded by Indians, Tonto” only to be have Tonto reply, “What you mean ‘we’, white man?”
Suddenly the Universe of Discourse is expanded in a way that never occurred to Bruce’s audience. Natives were invisible. They didn’t matter. They didn’t count. They were, until that moment, outside the Universe of Discourse. And the sudden assertion that they did count was funny–and threatening. Because the joke was on the audience of comfy whites.
And that is essentially what happened with Columbus. In the original Universe of American Discourse. Columbus was seen as a symbol intended to welcome a despised Italian immigrant population into white Anglo-Saxon Protestant America. It was a generous and good gesture–in that Universe of Discourse.
But with the expansion of American consciousness to include the Native peoples we shamefully slaughtered and committed genocide against, Columbus and his brutal treatment of Native people under his rule necessarily becomes a problematic figure and the honor accorded him raises real moral issues. An argument can be made that as a figure in maritime history, he remains important enough to merit a statue or two for discovering the New (to Europeans) World. But do we really need to have a Columbus Day or statues all over the US? I feel pretty confident that Italians (like we Irish) are pretty well integrated into American culture and aren’t suffering too much these days. But the figure of Columbus as exalted hero does inflicted real pain on Native Americans. So the game does not seem worth the candle to cling to Columbus. The honoring of Columbus did the job for Italians. They are welcome and integrated into American society pretty well, as are the Irish. The same cannot be said for Native peoples who still suffer from the genocidal oppression visited on them by whites. Undertaking for Native people something similar to what was done to welcome and love Italians a century ago seems like a better thing than merely clinging to a bunch of slag iron that has passed its sell-by date. Personally, I’d like to see a hero like Chief Joseph get a lot more press than Columbus.
One final point for consideration and debate. Given that the point of statuary is to honor and the way in which our civilization has done that well is by neither cancelling nor whitewashing, but by trying to honor sinners when they “moved the ball down the field”, I think reader Darren Provine has a point worthy of consideration:
Robert E Lee opposed commemorations of the Confederacy: “I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife & to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
I think statues of General Lee in his uniform should be taken down, and replaced with statues of President Lee of Washington College in civilian clothes. The wrong that he did was significant, it’s true. He was pardoned, and after that pardon he lived his life in an honorable and decent way as an educator, and lived up to his own statement that “I think it the duty of every citizen in the present condition of the Country, to do all in his power to aid in the restoration of peace and harmony.”
As I say, this is open to debate and consideration. Unlike so many talking about statuary of figures associated with the Late Unpleasantness, I don’t really think that a lot of energy should be expended on assuaging the feelings of butthurt MAGA cultists upset that statues which should never have been erected in the first place are coming down. The last thing such people need is everybody dancing attendance on them and breathlessly asking if some sort of participation trophy will help their hurt feels. If somebody decided to fork out some money to stick up another statue of Lee at Washington and Lee University like one described above, I would not care. But I also would not care if they don’t.
Instead, the focus of our statuary should be on honoring those who moved the ball down the field and who have not gotten the public honors they rightly deserved. We could do with a lot more Harriet Tubmans (one of America’s greatest badasses). We could really use more Sojourner Truths, some Bass Reeves (another great badass), as well as some Henrietta Lackses, some Henriette DeLilles, and a host of others. Merely dishonoring Confederate statuary, while important, will not serve. The honorable must be honored in their stead. A house swept clean and empty is not good because it only invites seven demons worse than the one driven out. Just as we fill our Churches with images of saints worthy of veneration, so let us fill your public squares with people worthy of honor whose names many of us do not yet know.
It is our turn to move the ball down the field.