Thursday, July 19, 2012
Over at the Faculty Lounge, Al Brophy has a very thoughtful meditation on the future of the Joe Paterno statue in State College. Al writes, "There are a lot of factors one should consider in statue removal - like who had a say in the inital placement, what was known at the time of placement, what is known now, and the meaning of the statue now. A lot of those factors counsel in favor of removal, I suppose . . . . But I continue to think that the monument should be left up; now it can serve as a reminder of what happened." Al's sentiments are echoed in Ta-nehisi Coates' recent New York Times' column. Coates makes the case that removing the statue amounts to erasing history.
Although Al's position carries some real theoretical punch, I want to argue that it would be a mistake to leave the Joe Paterno statue intact.
On the larger point, I don't fully agree with the proposition that removing monuments amounts to "rewriting history." The fundamental difficulty with that position is that the landscape has never been a neutral record of the past. The built environment has always worked as a normative discourse fashioned by powerful groups and used to express messages about who belongs and who does not. Thus, changing the composition of a jurisdiction’s monuments does not erode any universal truth. Here in Kentucky, for example, there's a statue of Jefferson Davis under the rotunda of the capitol building with the inscription "Patriot - Hero - Statesman." Many Kentuckians remian committed to the proposition that removing the statue amounts to whitewashing Kentucky's history in the name of political correctness. But that just isn't true as a factual matter. Kentucky never seceded. Thousands and thousands of its sons died in the defense of Union. The statue isn't about history. It's about sending a (government sanctioned) message that blacks aren't welcome.
On the specific issue of the Joe Paterno statue, I don't think that leaving the sculpture intact would serve as a particularly good reminder of the shameful events at Penn State. The aesthetics of statue--it depicts a creepy-looking Paterno running onto a football field with his finger in the air--convey nothing about child abuse, shame, moral frailty, or abuse of power. Over time, the intact statue may do more to re-deify Paterno than address the problems so entrenched in the culture of Penn State. Moreover, I don't think Sandusky's victims, many of whom still live in State College, should be forced to confront a corporeal rendering of the man who may have enabled his conduct.
The best course of action, I argue, would be to remove the statue and then hold some kind of memorial competition to find its replacement. Done correctly, the destuction of the Paterno statue could initiate a process of critically rethinking what values the community holds and who deserves the honor of being remembered in steel and stone. A community-wide deliberation about what should replace Paterno would do more to promote reflection and sophisticated thought than simply leaving the statue intact.