Gadfly a step closer toward taking a position on the Columbus monument issue

Latest in a series of posts on the Columbus monument

Gadfly enjoys role playing. And enjoys encouraging you to do so.

He thinks we learn a lot. Standing in the other person’s shoes.

So Gadfly cannot imagine the Mayor doing nothing in response to the request from 120+ residents to remove the Columbus monument from city space, the Rose Garden.

Rather, more specifically, he can’t imagine the Mayor justifying doing nothing.

He can’t imagine himself — role playing as Mayor — sitting across the table from a deputation from those residents (some, no doubt, people of color), can’t imagine stepping up to a microphone, can’t imagine looking into a tv camera and justifying doing nothing.

Can you? Try it. Get a mirror, and take your best shot.

Though Gadfly must admit that, looking back on the reasons he gave in yesterday’s post, the one bullet he’s wavering on is the one about the location. The monument is truly unobtrusive, small in scale, and little regarded. Perhaps a case for leaving it alone could be made on that basis. Perhaps.

In any event, let’s take that first option for mayoral action off the table:

  • deny the request, allow the monument to stand.
  • issue a formal statement agreeing with the negative view of Columbus, disavowing his actions relative the Native Americans, but letting the monument stand as is.
  • add additional “educational” information about Columbus and his legacy at the monument site.
  • add a monument celebrating Indigenous people to the monument site as balance of perspective on 1492.
  • replace the monument with a new one representing the complex nature of Columbus’s legacy.
  • replace the monument with a monument to an Italian of less ambiguous heroic stature.
  • move the monument to private property.
  • remove the monument.

What to do? What next? What are the other options?

Let’s go to the bottom of the list and consider the polar option of removing the monument.

This, of course, is literally what the petitioners request:

“This letter written in solidarity with protests across the country calls for removal of the Christopher Columbus monument located in the Bethlehem Rose Garden. The monument was installed in 1992 by the now-defunct Bethlehem chapter of Unico, an Italian-American service organization. It was commissioned, as stated on the inscription, ‘to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America’.”

(This is a good spot to bring in — as follower John has been nudging Gadfly — the fact that Leif Erikson is credited as the first European to touch down on North America, a full 500 years before Columbus, There you go, John!)

While recognizing Italian American reverence for Columbus, the petitioner letter essentially gives three reasons for removal: the monument conveys misinformation about the discovery of America, Columbus is not a hero, and the monument is incompatible with a city that celebrates diversity.

Should the Mayor, without adieu, accede to the petitioner argument and remove the monument from city property? If you were Mayor, would you agree with the petitioners and remove the monument?

Still have that mirror? Imagine denying those three reasons.

Gadfly couldn’t, wouldn’t.

While agreeing substantially with the petitioners, however, Gadfly would look for an option short of that we might call the “nuclear option” of removal.

Gadfly is not a fan of “cancel culture” (see Bud Hackett’s comment on yesterday’s post). News images of crowds tearing down statues of Confederate figures in the South distresses him greatly. Too much like book burnings. Gives him the shivers.

Gadfly is an historian.

History is history. The good and bad. The beautiful and the ugly. What you agree with and what you don’t.

Gadfly is an educator.

History is an endless collection of teachable moments.

That America needed a hero in the 1870s, that Italian Americans were discriminated against and needed a hero at the turn of the 20th century, that Italians in Easton needed self-affirmation and pooled their hard-earned money to erect a monument in the 1930s, that Italians in Bethlehem did the same in the 1990s are indelible facts of history and need to be understood.

And if there is something wrong, something to be criticized, something to be rued, knowledge is the antidote. Except in circumstances extraordinarily extreme.

Idealistic Gadfly would hope that with proper knowledge a monument to Columbus that does not tell the full story, that portrays only a half-truth would not have been built in the first place.

But it is important that we recognize (not forget, not deny the very existence of) the fact that at a certain time in our cultural development the curators of the public history of our beginnings as a nation tended to render indigenous peoples invisible, tended to render the injustices “we” committed against them as invisible.

Of course, Gadfly would hope you would agree that many of those actions would now be deemed injustices.

So history should not be erased. History is not a palimpsest,

Gadfly can sit on the bench next to the Columbus monument in the Rose Garden, recognize its intention, and, most importantly, recognize its shortcomings, and reflect on how as a culture we have progressed in our understanding of the past that is crucial to our understanding of the present.

He can bring his knowledge to bear on the monument.

Here’s what comes to Gadfly’s mind when he thinks of removing the monument.

Gadfly has read the bad books, the banned books.

He has read Mein Kampf. He has read Mao Tse-Tung’s Little Red Book. He has read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. He has read the Marquis de Sade.

Gadfly has read the bad books, the banned books.

And would have it no other way.

For next to these books on his library shelves were other books to provide balance and perspective. And he read them too.

He understands the world better for having everything available.

For this reason Gadfly is not a fan of “cancel culture,” would not favor a bare removal of that fairly secluded Columbus monument in the Rose Garden.

Now that’s a pretty elite view. Many people will not have Gadfly’s “library” advantage.

And it’s a “white” view.

So, still the question is what to do.

Let’s continue to think about the other options. Gadfly the slow man.

3 thoughts on “Gadfly a step closer toward taking a position on the Columbus monument issue

  1. There is some validity in comparing the removal of statues of racists & confederate leaders to book burnings, but not much IMO. Those statues & monuments lionize the subjects; they erase the evil parts of what they did and people hold them up publicly as great leaders and heroes. Let them sit in a row in a gallery or museum with others, just like the books, banned or not, sit on a shelf with other books — not held out in the public square as examples of what’s great.

  2. “History is an endless collection of teachable moments.

    That America needed a hero in the 1870s, that Italian Americans were discriminated against and needed a hero at the turn of the 20th century, that Italians in Easton needed self-affirmation and pooled their hard-earned money to erect a monument in the 1930s, that Italians in Bethlehem did the same in the 1990s are indelible facts of history and need to be understood.”

    Gadfly may reveal a truth that was not obvious even (or possibly especially, to those behind the Columbus statues. The teachable moments are what is of most importance.

    Given the benign reason behind the Columbus statue the Mayor should tread lightly on Italian -American sensibilities and probably seek assistance from them for a solution.

    Given my relocation to points south of the Mason-Dixon line since 1972, I have been able to see many instances of Southern monuments and physical accommodations to Emancipation, Jim Crow and Civil Rights legislation. The reasoning behind these monuments and accommodations was not benign. The words associated with the monuments often make it clear beyond doubt that the intent was anything but benign. Removal hides the history and reduces the opportunities for teachable moments. Those monuments should be retained and explained as an embarrassment to those who constructed them.

    This is not the Columbus situation. I could see removing mention of Columbus and making note of unspecified Italian-American contributions of America. Who would recognize the statue of Columbus as Columbus, only those who would have an axe to grind. If there is a ship shown on the monument, people will probably assume he brought Italian Immigrants to America in the 1800’s. I doubt many will relate to the anachronism of wardrobe and ship design. Riot control thru bad history.

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