On Icons and Iconoclasts

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God…”

                                              —Exodus  20:4-5 (King James Version)

“Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy
Because summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy”

                   —Mick Jagger / Keith Richards   Street Fighting Man

Yes, the time is right for revolution and I’m thinking of those in my lifetime and before—1776  (American Revolution), 1789 (French Revolution), 1917 (Russian Revolution), 1968 (Chicago), 1965 (Watts), 1992 (Rodney King)—and on? The Confederate statues are coming down, and more as well, those who reflect lesser associations with slavery or images of minorities which show them in a subservient light.  There is really nothing new here, though it has now reached a fever pitch which America has not seen before.  A new culture seeks to erase the vestiges of the old. 

I remember while traveling in Ireland several years back, reading of the sacred sites of Celtic religion—trees, springs, rocks, symbols of the old animistic religion.  (Hey, you in the Judeo-Christian tradition, you had ‘em too.)  In this case, some were destroyed, but others were given a new spin and were converted to Christian ones.  In 2001 the world was shocked and horrified as the Taliban dynamited the ancient Buddhist statues carved in the rocks at Bamyan on orders from their Mullah that they were idols.  There weren’t many celebrating then (other than the Taliban), but tragic as it was, those desert dynamiters were carrying out a precept of their faith—no graven images.   

The story is much older than that. There is Akhnaten, the “Rebel Pharaoh” of Egypt.  Akhnaten’s legend looms large in the history of religion.  We may have him to thank for the monotheism transmitted to Judeo-Christianity.  Before Abraham, before Moses, the supreme symbol of the sun-disk which adorned all his temples announced the monotheism of a universal, benevolent, God as opposed to the many gods which existed at the time.  But his reign was short, Atenism ceased to exist, and a concerted effort was made to, you guessed it, perish the memory of his theology.  Temples were vandalized and sun-disks in great number were obliterated.  But not all.  Archaeologists dealing with the remaining evidence connected the dots and reconstructed the story.  Scholars translated the Aten scriptures and, more important, connect them with the later writings of the Psalms.  We can give thanks that his memory was revived. (For more about Akhnaten, see my post Start with the Sun.)

All of this leads me to believe that, somewhere in our DNA, we are programmed to make representations of our reality, to symbolize. This lies among the other attributes of homo sapiens, tool maker, inventor, critical thinker, etc.  We create these symbols (statues, monuments, and icons among them) as representations of religious, political, historical, and other cultural ideas.  Many become so deeply held, or abhorred, that people will live—and die—by their symbols.  So, to the inventory of human attributes may be added that of “symbol-maker” and its counterpart, “symbol-destroyer”.  The meaning of these symbols may also change over time.  For example, the swastika, now one of the most abhorrent symbols in human history, was co-opted by the Third Reich as the touchstone of the extensive Nazi mythology, which relied heavily upon symbolic content to guide (need I say delude) its adherents.  Suzanne Langer, in her groundbreaking book Philosophy in a New Key, writes that people spend much of their lives engaging in symbolization (which relates ideas to other ideas). However, much of symbolic expression is “a transformation of experiences that cannot be conveyed by means of language alone.”  This metacognitive significance, in my view, is what gives symbols their power. We are all idol-makers and idol-breakers—we build ‘em up and we tear them down.

And so, here we are, and it is good that we are here because the time is right not just for a revolution but a conversation—what are we doing with all of this.  What should be celebrated?  What should be tolerated?  What should be destroyed or put away?  These are important questions which speak to the heart of our nature and must be faced.  This reckoning has been a long time coming, for if we don’t do it now it will certainly come back to us at a later time.

It’s happening here in my home on California’s Monterey Peninsula.  In this case, statues of (Saint) Junipero Serra have been moved for safekeeping.  This is because, in the previous uproar over Serra’s canonization, someone lopped off the head of the famous Jo Mora statue, requiring surgical reattachment.  The arguments run pro and con.  Monterey’s Bishop claims that Serra protected the indigenous people, but slave owners used to say they did that too.  A few years before that, a wooden cross which had long stood on Del Monte beach was sawed down, arousing emotional controversy on both sides of the issue: a religious symbol on state property, a symbol of religious oppression of indigenous people, and more.      

Out on highway 68 heading toward Salinas there is a small settlement known for many years as “Confederate Corners”.  There wasn’t even a sign.  The name existed only in local memory and tradition.  As it turned out, veterans from one of the southern states built a small settlement in the final years of the 19th century and the name—coined by someone—stuck.  It was passed on until it attained its most recent scrutiny, with the demand that it no longer be used. It has now been renamed “Springtown”, clean and unoffensive and what the hell does it mean?  I laugh when I think of Salinas, where the Steinbeck Center is located and many of his books are sold.  In the 30’s these books were gathered up and burned after local businessmen and politicians said that Grapes of Wrath misrepresented the reality (but it didn’t).  We’ve all heard that line before—Hey, we take good care of our migrant workers (or slaves, or native Americans, take your pick). In 2003 I attended the ceremony for the release of the Cesar Chavez commemorative postage stamp.  This was at the Steinbeck Center.  Yet only a few decades back he was in jail just down the street for organizing a workers’ strike against the Bud Antle Company, the region’s largest lettuce grower.  Back then they were saying “Keep Cesar out of our salad.”  Catchy, huh?  

Symbolism is expressed in actions as well as signs.  Most prevalent these days is “taking a knee” in sports.  This is the one that really gets the President pissed off—says he won’t watch NFL football if it happens.  Colin Kaepernick has sacrificed much as a leader of this movement, and it is still unknown as to whether it has spelled the death to his career.   He joins a mighty host of heroes who have similarly protested by their actions, Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to sit in the back of the bus (which is said to have sparked the Civil Rights movement), the Selma marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge, and Gandhi’s 1930 “salt march” to break the British tax on this essential Indian commodity (and one of the first examples of organized nonviolent resistance). 

Getting back to sports, I must ask a question here.  Why exactly do we wrap ourselves around patriotism at these events anyway?  Just play the damn game.  And that goes for education too. The little children put their hands over their hearts and recite the pledge, including “one nation under God”, which someone inserted back in the 50’s, not even a part of the original, so we drag God into it, too.

Kaepernick’s sports protest was not the first.  During their medal ceremony in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City on October 16, 1968, two African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the US national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner”. While on the podium, Smith and Carlos, who had won gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-meter running event of the 1968 Summer Olympics, turned to face the US flag and then kept their hands raised until the anthem had finished. In addition, Smith, Carlos, and Australian silver medalist Peter Norman all wore human rights badges on their jackets.  In his autobiography, Silent Gesture, Smith stated that the gesture was not a “Black Power” salute but rather a “human rights” salute. When The Star-Spangled Banner played, Smith and Carlos delivered the salute with heads bowed, a gesture which became front-page news around the world. As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd.  International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage determined it to be a domestic political statement unfit for the apolitical forum of the Olympic Games. In response to their actions, he ordered Smith and Carlos suspended from the U.S. team. When the U.S. Olympic Committee refused, Brundage threatened to ban the entire U.S. track team. This threat resulted in  the expulsion of the two athletes from the Games.  Contrary to a common misconception, neither Smith nor Carlos were forced to return their medals.  An IOC spokesman said their actions were “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit”.  On a side note, Brundage, who in his long career was president of the United States Olympic Committee in 1936, had made no objections against Nazi salutes during the Berlin Olympics. He argued that the Nazi salute, being a national salute at the time, was acceptable in a competition of nations, while the athletes’ salute was not of a nation and therefore unacceptable.  Smith and Carlos were largely ostracized by the US sporting establishment and they were subject to criticism. Back home, both Smith and Carlos were subject to abuse and they and their families received death threats. Brent Musburger described Smith and Carlos as “a couple of black-skinned storm troopers” who were “ignoble,” “juvenile,” and “unimaginative.” With time they received vindication and a reassessment of their actions.  Smith and Carlos received an Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2008 ESPY Awards honoring their action.  In 2005, San Jose State University honored former students Smith and Carlos with a 22-foot high statue of their protest titled Victory Salute, created by artist Rigo 23. A student, Erik Grotz, initiated the project, stating “One of my professors was talking about unsung heroes and he mentioned Tommie Smith and John Carlos. He said these men had done a courageous thing to advance civil rights, and, yet, they had never been honored by their own school.” The statues are located in a central part of the campus.  As with the other acts of symbolic protest, public perception predictably runs from outrage to acceptance to adulation, often within a generation or two.

There are other collisions of sports and politics as well, such as the time that U.S. Women’s Soccer Team star Megan Rapinoe was asked about the team visiting the White House.  When she replied, “I’m not going to the f%#@&*g White House”, it unleased a predictable tweet-storm by its occupant, accusing her of disrespecting our country.  Her words doubtless inspired other women who refuse to be controlled.  It did for them what Muhammad Ali’s comment did years before when he learned he could be drafted.  His reply, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong” gave support and confidence to the antiwar movement long before it attained critical mass, as well as pushing the young black freedom fighters of the time to connect the brutality of police dogs and fire hoses with the inordinate price that minorities and the poor were paying in the war effort.

Artists, musicians, and writers have dealt with the perennial problem of censorship, as their work, too, can have symbolic value.  The most recent issue which came to my attention was the vote of the San Francisco Board of Education to spend $600,000 to remove a 1600 square foot mural painted in 1936 (with more public money from the WPA) by Victor Arnautoff.  His offense?  In the mural, titled “Life of Washington” he depicted Native Americans as well as  slaves picking cotton.  Complaints about the mural had been made for decades, but Arnautoff did not include these figures because he approved either the killing Native Americans or slavery.  On the contrary, it could be said that he was honestly depicting the conditions of the time, as well as making the statement that the success of the colonies was achieved at the expense of Native Americans and slaves, now part of the current conversation, especially Washington as a slave owner. Two months later the board retracted its decision.  Arnautoff was no stranger to being in hot water.  His 1955 cover for The Nation magazine, which depicted Nixon and McCarthy in a negative light, got him interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  He, as many others, have suffered for their art.

And so, amid this background of protests and counter-protests lies our all too human tendency to express our inner thoughts through symbols.  We erect idols, and in direct opposition to that is an equally strong desire to tear down that which offends us. It should be obvious that, for those who cling to them, their symbols die a hard and painful death as their adherents refuse to part from them.  Likewise, the motivation to destroy those symbols which offend us is strong.  Archaeologist Josh Gates comments, “Destruction of monuments is more the norm than preservation.  All monuments carry with them an ideology.”  He asks us to consider those things that are worthy of our preservation, closing with the humorous “Not everything is permanent just because it is big and heavy.”  Regardless of whether statues stand, are destroyed, or are moved, moving them does not hide history, as Dr. Valerie A. Johnson has said of the controversy in North Carolina.  “Can we truly learn from our history without idolizing painful symbols?” Paul Miller, another participant in the discussion, has written, “Judging the past by the standards of the present is a pointless exercise.  What people did long ago is worth studying not so we can decide whether they should have done better, but so we can improve ourselves today.”

This should come as no surprise, as the record dates back to the days of the Old Testament and before.  Didn’t God tell Moses, in so many words, “Don’t mess with those graven images.”  Similarly, the warlike culture of that era was obsessed with wiping out not only images, but entire peoples.  We have that in the words Deuteronomy 32:36 (King James Bible) which reads: “I said, I would scatter them into corners, I would make the remembrance of them to cease from among men.”  And in Psalms 9:6: “O you enemy, destructions are come to an everlasting end: and you have destroyed cities; their memory is perished with them.”  This is what the iconoclast is about—to scatter or erase the memory of someone or something.  After the Robert E. Lee statue was removed, the President asked, “Who’s next?”  It’s actually a good question—what do we destroy, what do we tolerate but still keep, what do we erect and celebrate.  Do you see what have we unleashed here?  What will the repercussions be?  Is it possible to take an objective look?  I would like to say it can, but it can never be that. This is a civil war, make no doubt about it, but it is a war we must be in.  The fires of two equally passionate but opposed camps has been fueled by recent events.  It is a slippery slope indeed, with no clear solution. The only thing of which we may be sure is that there will be more confrontations, more blood to be shed.  Does destroying the icon erase the memory associated with it, and, if not, what is the best way to do it.

As I write, state flags are being removed or re-designed.  Depending on which side you are on, this can bring joy or outrage.  How do most Americans react when the see the burning of our national flag?  For most it evokes an evisceral response.  This is felt by all of those whose icons in which they believe are damaged or eliminated.  It is echoed, too, by the feeling of relief and victory felt by those who, thinking they have destroyed an ideology or a political force, destroy the icon associated with it. Did the iconoclasts really succeed in their mission?  Or, did they arouse an opposite reaction from those they opposed? 

And so we must ask the questions on what to remove and/or destroy, what to keep but tolerate because of negative associations, and what to truly celebrate and affirm?  Here is a test: reflect on how you feel when you think of: (1) the destruction of the Berlin wall; (2) Saddam’s statue falling at the capture of Baghdad; (3) The removal of Josef Stalin’s statue as Communism, too, fell; (3) the destruction of the Buddhist statues at Bamyan; (5) the wholesale destruction of Assyrian artifacts by Isis fighters as Baghdad again became a battleground.  Your responses, surely, will vary from approval to disapproval.  The problem with our icons is that not all of us want to keep all of them.  Most of us are agreed that the statues of Confederate figures should be removed, but what of Grant, who owned a slave but saved the Union from the Confederate insurrection?  What of Washington and Jefferson, who owned slaves too?  And what about Woodrow Wilson?  Princeton University has removed his name from its school of public policy and Wilson College, and has clearly explained their reasons for doing so, claiming Wilson’s racism was “significant and consequential even by the standards of his own time.” To balance the issue, he was, after all, leader of the U.S. in World War I, founder of the League of Nations, later to be reborn as the U.N.  However, it cannot be forgotten that his clearly racist views were evidenced in his support of segregation and his fandom of the KKK propaganda film “Birth of a Nation”?  The answers are not always easy. 

There is also power in a negative example.  It is vitally important that the remains of Auschwitz and other monuments to horror and inhumanity remind us of that of which we are capable.  In 1945 General Eisenhower forced German citizens to walk through the death camps to see for themselves what they had allowed to happen (and of which the modern purveyors of “alternate truth” say didn’t happen).  So Auschwitz stands, lest we forget.

To sum it up, we’ve got a real problem with both our icons and our iconoclasm, not so much that they exist or should not exist, but in our dependence on them.  I cannot offer much of a way out , but a single ray of hope lies is something that Jesus said which had nothing to do with statues, but still applies:  “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”  It is impossible to remove everything that offends our moral sensibilities, but we can shine the light of truth on them.  The power of truth, real truth, not “alternative truth” will enable us to see things clearly for what they really are, whether they continue to stand or go on to destruction.  We must somehow remember that the symbol, or the statue, or whatever, is not the thing itself.  To worship it, or hate it, or fear it, is to give it power over us which it should not have.  Then and only then will we be free from the idols that are in our human nature to create—and destroy.

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