Mon­u­ments are not un­touch­able

The Korea Times - - OPINION - Kyung Moon Hwang khwang3@gmail.com. is a pro­fes­sor at the Depart­ment of His­tory, Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. He is the au­thor of “A His­tory of Korea — An Episodic Nar­ra­tive” (Sec­ond edi­tion, Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 2016). Con­tact

Made of stone or metal, and of­ten larger than life, mon­u­ments are meant to be per­ma­nent. The most cel­e­brated ones are pub­lic me­mo­ri­als, built by gov­ern­ments and placed in com­mu­nal spaces such as parks or in front of court­houses, pres­i­den­tial man­sions, or other of­fi­cial build­ings. In­deed the most mas­sive, elab­o­rate, or dec­o­ra­tive gov­ern­ment build­ings act as mon­u­ments them­selves.

This should not mean, how­ever, that mon­u­ments are held as eter­nally sa­cred sym­bols. They re­flect the par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances of their cre­ation, and their mean­ings can change over time.

In the U.S., this theme has come to the fore­front fol­low­ing the re­cent vi­o­lence sparked by white su­prem­a­cists, fas­cists and neo-Nazis who ral­lied against the re­moval of a par­tic­u­lar statue. The statue is one of dozens around the coun­try com­mem­o­rat­ing Robert E. Lee, the mil­i­tary com­man­der of the Con­fed­er­ate States of Amer­ica, the name for those ter­ri­to­ries that se­ceded from the United States to start the Amer­i­can Civil War in 1861.

Although a shock­ing num­ber of Amer­i­cans still refuse to ac­knowl­edge it, the civil war was un­de­ni­ably fought over slav­ery. Those who in­sist that the war was ac­tu­ally fought over “states’ rights” and the south­ern way of life seem to miss the point that what the Con­fed­er­acy de­fended was the states’ rights to keep slav­ery, which formed the ba­sis of the South’s way of life.

There­fore, today’s in­dig­nant pro­tec­tors of such stat­ues are uphold­ing none other than the her­itage of white supremacy, racial seg­re­ga­tion and forced la­bor, which can­not be sep­a­rated from any­thing else that dis­tin­guished the south­ern life­style. The Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers them­selves said so, ex­plic­itly, when they re­belled back in the 1860s.

Today’s de­fend­ers of Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols also seem un­able to rec­og­nize that as time passes, so­ci­eties and world­views change with new in­for­ma­tion and un­der­stand­ing. Just as we no longer can ac­cept slav­ery and racial dis­crim­i­na­tion, it is dif­fi­cult to ac­cept pub­lic me­mo­ri­als to ideas and peo­ple be­hind the vi­o­lence of slave la­bor, eth­nic cleans­ing, and sys­tem­atic rape. (If we are stuck, we can al­ways ap­ply the Hitler test: Could any­one jus­tify keep­ing an old statue of the Nazi leader for the sake of his­tor­i­cal preser­va­tion?)

So look for fur­ther bat­tles to come, as con­cerned Amer­i­cans chal­lenge more mon­u­ments and stat­ues, not only of those south­ern lead­ers who pro­moted slav­ery and dis­crim­i­na­tion, but even of older, iconic fig­ures like Christopher Colum­bus, the Span­ish sea­farer whose voy­age in 1492 changed the world. Over the past few cen­turies, so cen­tral did Colum­bus be­come to the mythol­ogy of the Amer­i­cas that his name be­came at­tached to just about ev­ery­thing: com­pa­nies and in­sti­tu­tions, schools and uni­ver­si­ties, a broad­cast­ing net­work (CBS) and of course in­nu­mer­able places. In­deed the U.S. cap­i­tal is ul­ti­mately named af­ter him, as is an en­tire coun­try in South Amer­ica.

But his­to­ri­ans have dis­cov­ered some­thing in doc­u­ments such as eye­wit­ness ac­counts, as well as his own di­aries and re­ports: Colum­bus was not only a dar­ing, if some­what delu­sional, explorer, but also a mur­der­ous ma­niac, blithely killing or en­slav­ing na­tive Amer­i­cans in pur­suit of riches and in the name of his re­li­gion and monarch. And of course his ac­tions be­gan the waves of geno­cide that killed count­less mil­lions of indigenous peo­ple from the 16th to 19th cen­turies, mostly through dis­ease but also through tar­geted vi­o­lence. To­gether with the transat­lantic slave trade, an­other prac­tice that Colum­bus ini­ti­ated, this ex­ter­mi­na­tion of the Western Hemi­sphere’s in­hab­i­tants made pos­si­ble the Euro­pean dom­i­na­tion of the Amer­i­cas.

One can ac­cept this as sim­ply the deeply dis­turb­ing re­al­ity of the past from which we can learn, and at least it’s an im­prove­ment over the myths that were com­mon un­til re­cently. But should we also sim­ply ac­cept the con­tin­u­ing dis­play of stat­ues, in pub­lic spaces, of peo­ple like Colum­bus? Af­ter all, these mon­u­ments honor not only a trou­bling his­tor­i­cal fig­ure but also past eras when such a man was ig­no­rantly glo­ri­fied.

Like many other na­tion­al­i­ties in the mod­ern world, South Kore­ans have be­come fa­mil­iar with the sen­si­tiv­i­ties of such a prob­lem. But they have mostly rec­og­nized that mon­u­ments, like laws and gov­ern­ments, are living things, orig­i­nat­ing in the past but con­tin­u­ally re­freshed with mean­ing as times and val­ues change and knowl­edge is gained.

Back in 1995, for ex­am­ple, some ob­servers, in­clud­ing his­to­ri­ans, op­posed Pres­i­dent Kim Young Sam’s de­ci­sion to take down the enor­mous build­ing be­hind Seoul’s Gwangh­wa­mun Gate that had been erected, 70 years ear­lier, as the head­quar­ters of the Ja­panese colo­nial gov­ern­ment. Those who ob­jected to Kim’s de­ci­sion ar­gued that the build­ing was dis­tinc­tive, his­tor­i­cally valu­able, and re­flected an un­de­ni­ably im­por­tant pe­riod in Korea’s past, how­ever un­set­tling.

But this build­ing was also con­structed to serve as a mon­u­ment to Ja­panese rule and all that came with it. Hence, de­spite its util­ity as a spa­cious struc­ture that South Korean gov­ern­ments had used for 50 years af­ter lib­er­a­tion in 1945, its con­tin­ued ex­is­tence in such a prom­i­nent pub­lic space could no longer be endured in a new, demo­cratic South Korea. In short, times had changed.

Re­mov­ing out­dated and in­ap­pro­pri­ate pub­lic me­mo­ri­als, in other words, is just as his­tor­i­cally valid as keep­ing them in place. If they can­not be trans­ferred to mu­se­ums, then de­struc­tion seems un­avoid­able. This point might prove use­ful when the cur­rent North Korean regime falls, and all those huge mon­u­ments to the Kims and to “Juche” will likely be torn down. We don’t know when this will hap­pen, but it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine that Kore­ans lib­er­ated from to­tal­i­tar­ian rule will ac­cept calls to save these mon­u­ments in the name of his­tor­i­cal preser­va­tion.

TIMES FO­RUM Kyung Moon Hwang

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