Sunday, June 28, 2015

About Those Monuments

The Confederate flag controversy that exploded following the nine murders in Charleston landed on millions of Facebook pages. My Facebook posts of articles about the flag and other commemorations of the Confederacy, etc., brought in a range of comments. Some of the more entertaining reactions were prompted by a facetious post of mine: 
With the way Richmond has allowed for some plain old buildings to get decorated with murals, mostly with good results, maybe City Hall has enough time before the UCI World Road Cycling Championships, in September, to get some artists to wrap the Confederate monuments in town with fabric -- a la Christo. Maybe throw some abstract expressionist tarps over them, or whatever. We've got the artists who could pull it off right here in town.
It inspired some wiseacre responses, as I hoped it would. But I also hoped it would goose Richmonders into thinking about how the rest of the world sees Monument Avenue's famous sculptures on pedestals 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

Of course, there were folks who took my satirical suggestion to wrap them seriously. Some enthusiastically agreed. Others disagreed, fearing a papering over of history would result.

However, it has become obvious we're living through a momentous time – a tipping point, to do with symbolism referring to the so-called Lost Cause. Hey, I never expected to hear Republican statewide office holders in South Carolina call for the removal of the Stars and Bars from its flagpole on statehouse grounds. The momentum to retire that same image from license plates, etc., ASAP, has skipped to other states – including Virginia.

Stemming from the sea change underway, just how many public commemorations of the Confederacy will be affected remains to be seen. For the time being the focus is mostly on flags. Which makes some sense, because flags are graphic symbols of ideas and events. What about public schools and bridges named after Confederate heroes?

The flags can easily be put in museums. Renaming a bridge might ruffle feathers, but it won't be all that difficult. Bringing it all the way home, what to do about heroic sculpture in our midst that's extremely offensive to a significant portion of the community is a problem not so easily solved in a lasting way.

The story of how the statues situated on Richmond's most recognized tourist attraction got there is interesting enough. Yet how the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee on horseback was generally viewed when it was unveiled in 1890 and how it is generally viewed in 2015 is different.

That needs to be addressed, but there's a complication. So many people who grew up in Richmond still believe what amounts to pickled history. Letting loose of the propaganda many Virginians were spoon-fed as children will be nearly impossible for some folks.

In 1961, my seventh-grade history book, which was the official history of Virginia for use in all public junior high schools — as decreed by the General Assembly — had this to say about slavery at the end of its Chapter 29:
Life among the Negroes of Virginia in slavery times was generally happy. The Negroes went about in a cheerful manner making a living for themselves and for those whom they worked. They were not so unhappy as some Northerners thought they were, nor were they so happy as some Southerners claimed. The Negroes had their problems and their troubles. But they were not worried by the furious arguments going on between Northerners and Southerners over what should be done with them. In fact, they paid little attention to those arguments.
In 1961 I had no reason to question that paragraph's veracity. Now those words read quite differently.

Tomorrow, if not sooner, Richmond's citizenry needs to start a conversation about Monument Avenue. It would be nice if leaders would lead. Yes, there will be people who will want to bulldoze the Lee Monument, even though some of Richmond's most respected art experts say it's pretty good art. It's a stretch to say that of the Davis Monument.

Some of my Facebook friends have suggested moving the Confederate statues to a museum or a theme park. Hey, I'm ready to dismantle the Jefferson Davis eyesore on Monument Avenue today and ship it down to Mississippi – his home state.

However, the suggestions that appeal to me the most, so far, go something like this: 
  • Add signage around the monuments to put them in a context, which would turn Monument Avenue into a museum of a sort.
  • Add more monuments to the stately avenue, statues of Virginians who we now want to celebrate; maybe less emphasis on war.  
Two of the first names for new monuments that come to mind for me are Maggie Walker and Lewis Powell. The aforementioned discussion would surely produce more names and additional ideas worth considering. Such a discussion might also open the door to an investigation of how our history books were cooked to facilitate denial and glorify infamy. Who did that? Why?

Regardless of our views about today's political issues, all of us in Richmond probably need to know more about our city's slave market days before the Civil War. That dark chapter of local history needs a good deal more sunlight cast upon it.

These discussions have been a long time coming. As far today's school children in Richmond are concerned, better late than never.

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--Words and photo by F.T. Rea

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Over-Awareness of the Camera

Behind makeshift barricades in the basement of a small church there will be 18 people, 17 of which will be hostages of an assault rifle-toting, 21-year-old schizophrenic full of sweet red wine and homemade speed.

The cops surrounding the church know he has already killed at least three people. Unbeknownst to the specialist negotiating with him on the telephone, the hostage-taker will have his finger on the trigger of a portable nuclear device.

To buy time the culprit's demand that CNN broadcast his message to the world will be met. His laptop will transmit his image and voice as he announces: "I am the Looney Tunes Bomber, my presentation will be a short subject." Then he will hurl accusations at a list of people, some of them celebrities. The final minute of his rambling performance will be consumed by a rapt audience of millions of viewers. 

After chuckling, “Tha, tha … that’s all folks,” the wannabe celebrity will set off the first nuclear bomb to be used by a terrorist.

It will blow Boise, or maybe Baltimore, off the map. The first video of the suicidal bomber’s diabolical stunt will go up on YouTube less than a half-hour after the appearance of the mushroom cloud.

Somewhere, in Rio, or Tokyo, or elsewhere, a heart will be beating faster in the chest of another angry child abuse victim, a boy who will be inspired by LTB’s bloodthirsty audacity. Instantly, he will decide to somehow set off an explosion to overshadow it.

In 2015 we are watching a generation grow up with an awareness of the camera that goes far beyond previous generations. And, we are witnessing a snowballing of the ability of anyone to transmit words and images about love, hate, religion, style and politics, by way of the Internet, to a worldwide audience.

It’s anybody’s guess where the current generation’s insatiable thirst to record and share voluminous records of their everyday lives will lead ... good or bad. We do already know that revolutionaries everywhere are relying on social media in a way that is mind-boggling.

Meanwhile, more and more we are seeing news stories that are tantamount to stunts staged for willing cameras. While it's fashionable these days to scold the press for its tasteless and excessive coverage of certain events, it's not entirely the fault of media executives and editors. The stories they encounter, in some cases, have been planned and packaged by people who are damn good at planting a story.

A precedent-setter in this area occurred in 1979 with the shameful cooperation that developed between news-gatherers for television and the Iranian "students," who demonstrated on a daily basis in front of the American embassy during the hostage crisis that sabotaged the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Now we know that much of the feverish chanting and fist waving was done on cue. Now we know the camera shots were pushed in tight because the angry horde yelling, "Death to America!" was only a dozen souls deep.

Today, it seems cultural and religious grievances are routinely becoming more heated, here and abroad, by provocative or slanted news coverage. Moreover, much of the reportage these days actually seems designed to inflame situations being covered.

On top of that, in America, the press scrutiny of angry the anti-government firestorm being stoked by some for political gain is surely helping to push some alienated militia types closer to the edge -- the sort that sees Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh as a hero.

Speaking of McVeigh, the future’s bomber in the church basement will have already seen how plenty of sullen murderers have been made into celebrities by the press. So his last thoughts might be about who he hopes will play him in the movie about his precedent-setting stunt.


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