By Kathleen Parker
As beauty exists in the eye of the beholder, so does the ugliness of a statue.
Latest to the list of soon-to-be fallen monuments is one of President Theodore Roosevelt, who has presided over the entrance to New York’s American Museum of Natural History for the past eight decades. Set high on his steed and bookended by a Native American and an African warrior, both below on foot, the sculpture is supposed to represent Roosevelt’s love of hunting and his dedication to conservation, both facets of his successful presidential mission to create our national park system.
But in the midst of today’s era of outrage, his legacy is being viewed in a different, more-modern light. With passions fully engaged after the death of George Floyd in police custody everything is in question and some, it would seem, want to delete history altogether.
At whose expense did Roosevelt collect all those trophies on his hunting expeditions, is the question of the moment. And, by whose disenfranchisement and suffering were our beautiful parks created? Real people lived in some of those spots before ticket takers deployed at the garden gates. But so have real people lived in every place and time throughout history. Should we pretend otherwise? Or, should we review the past through a filtered lens of today’s woke-fullness? It’s one thing to be informed and mindful; quite another to be perpetually wounded and vengeful.
Had the two other men accompanying Roosevelt also been on horseback, would the statue have been more acceptable? I wonder. As it stands, activists as well as the museum itself, have decided that the trio’s hierarchical construction implies superiority and servitude. In fact, the standing men were supposed to represent guides in the places Roosevelt liked to hunt and survey. They were helpers, in other words, not slaves, but never mind. Historical accuracy is no obstacle to self-absorbed nihilism.
Thus, the consensus among the chosen few is that Roosevelt was a white supremacist, racist-colonialist, who exploited indigenous peoples and robbed them of their homelands. The headline on a recent Smithsonian Magazine story about the statue seals the deal for resistant minds: “The racist statue of Theodore Roosevelt will no longer loom over the American Museum of Natural History.”
Hurrah, I guess. I’ve walked past that statue dozens of times and never much liked it. Too much testosterone for my druthers. And, frankly, I’m not a fan of great white hunters off on safari to exploit the life and native species of lands not their own, assisted by local talent who are treated as servants. By that standard, of course, there would be no male statues anywhere on the planet, given women’s inferior status throughout the bulk of history. For every Cleopatra, ruling from her barge, there have been millions of women beaten or stoned to death by men, often guided by dogma created by men in the first place. Just sayin’.
The world hardly needs to concern itself with my personal preferences, a concept I wish others would embrace. I’m constitutionally averse to depictions of suffering, human or animal. And, yet, I’ve learned much more from art books and museums about life and history than from all my years in public-school classrooms. Some art deeply offends me, is hard for me to look at, and is nothing I’d ever want to hang on a wall. But I don’t feel compelled to destroy it. Civilization, at least as practiced here, provides lawful means to change what we don’t like. While vandalizing or destroying objectionable property may provide a momentary release, nothing good comes from letting loose the dogs of anarchy.
The protests, by focusing their attention on destroying monuments, have moved past the death of George Floyd. As a nation, we may be ready to let go of monuments to our past divisions; I know I am. There is value in purging the landscape of a past that continues to sow division. But there’s no erasing history if we hope not to repeat it.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.