The pain of memory

October 21, 2018

I read a few weeks ago that California State University removed a statue because some people deemed it offensive. "Prospector Pete", as it was called, depicted a Gold Rush-era prospector; it was removed "because of the impact the 1849 gold rush had on indigenous people".

Truth is important; when I find something offensive, I try to ask why, before I demand we put it out of sight. The reason is simple: great art is basically one long story of outrage, from the sensuality of Mona Lisa's smile, to pictures of peasants raising the flag during the French Revolution, through to the Impressionists pissing off the Academy with their "sloppiness". Censorship is dangerous; the Louvre could have ended up a lot emptier.

Beyond my general skepticism of censorship, I read a Chronicle letter to the editor that made two points about "bad" statues like this I feel are worth repeating.

The first: though it may not be their original intention, such works of art are important reminders of the evil we're capable of, even though what we were doing may have seemed fine at the time. Berlin has perhaps two of the finest examples of such reminders, the Holocaust Museum and the Stolpersteine, both monuments ensuring the mass slaughter of 6-12 million people will never be forgotten. Such monuments ennoble their victims, forcing us to confront what happened, and ensuring it's never repeated.

Second: the ugliness reminds us of the potential for progress. The United States was once a nation of slave-owners. We denied women the right to vote, sent students to segregated schools, and detained thousands of innocent Asian-Americans during WWII. In each case, we acknowledged our error and resolved to do better, resulting in major social change: our culture, our morality and laws, even how we educate our children. In the short term, progress is never certain, but it seems like a pretty good bet long-term.

Maybe moving the statue from a prominent outdoor spot was justified. But I hope it remains somewhere where it remains something people see, not shoved into dusty closet somewhere to be forgotten. Nobody wins when we stamp out the parts of history we don't like.

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