The image of U.S. soldiers blindfolding the massive stone head of Sadaam Hussein’s statue with an American flag before toppling it over in Baghdad’s Fidros Square is an iconic symbol of the Iraq war.
The larger-than-life dictator was erected to represent something specific, and bringing it down signified something altogether entirely different. Symbolism begets symbolism — yet why do Americans bristle at the suggestion of removing controversial historic statues, murals and figurines from our public spaces?
The SF Chronicle’s Carl Nolte even took us all tumbling down a slippery slope in his piece earlier this month in suggesting the ‘logical’ endpoint of removing and renaming figures and murals at places like UC Santa Cruz is the eventual renaming of San Francisco, or even the state of Washington.
Does society need to idolize and immortalize human figures anyhow? Truly significant deeds and worthy events are themselves monumental and far more durable than any concrete or plaster casting. Would America be remiss in the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation without a statue of Lincoln?
This is not to say we should not have reverence for an individual’s contribution to history and humanity, but rather, to realize the course of any historical event, now matter how small or large, is multi-faceted and involves many actors — stories that are best recorded in narrative and open to multiple and perpetual interpretation.
What significance has someone’s likeness truly had on any of us that we could not or did not get a thousand-fold over in feeling the real impact of their work or contribution? History’s best (and worst) monuments are us, the living, and second to that what we may read and discern in the writings, art and stories of our ancestors.
Statue-ism is inherently flawed and reveals our fear of being deemed irrelevant. We erect monuments in a feeble attempt to freeze human time — as if to scream into the future: “Look at us, we were relevant and must remain so!”
This is of course an arrogant notion — that we could possibly predict the true and final interpretation of any current or past event is more pompous than the effigies themselves.
As an advancing society and civilization we’d serve ourselves better, and certainly placate our future kinship, by ridding our compulsion for such public idolatry — be it the raising of statues, naming of bridges or other attempts to immortalize and unflaw the mortal and flawed.
The recent preliminary decision by the San Luis Obispo City Council to change its public policy to focus public monuments on commemorating ideas rather than people is commendable and ought to be a template for the rest of the country.
Henry David Thoreau perhaps said it best in his response to a request to support the placement of a statue honoring Horace Mann: “... a man ought not any more to take up room in the world after he’s dead.”
Chirag Asaravala attended Cal Poly in the 1990s where he studied biology and philosophy and was a member of Cal Poly Wheelmen cycling team. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area and is a frequent opinion contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle.