Ta-Nehisi Coates, my favorite public intellectual, has a good post at TheAtlantic about Penn State. In the wake of the grotesque and appalling child abuse scandal, they’ve elected to take down the statue of Joe Paterno that stood outside the football stadium. Coates thinks they should leave it up, and put explanatory text around it.
College professors are acutely aware of how quickly memory vanishes. This September’s incoming college student, for example, was seven years old when 9/11 happened. What does he or she know or remember of that horrible day? I can tell you from experience: practically nothing, and most of it wrong.
Here in DC we have a “McPherson Square.” There’s a metro stop by that name, serving a lovely little urban park, with an imposing statue of the eponymous McPherson perched majestically on a horse. No cheating now–does anyone out there know who Mr. McPherson was and what he did?
“Some Civil War dude” is about the best answer I’d expect to get. It’s in fact pretty much the answer I’d give myself: some civil war guy.
Is there a way to memorialize that accounts for the complexity of the person, the flaws as well as the strengths, and resists our tendency to indifference? One answer is to go big with abstraction–the Washington Monument doesn’t depict the man, or tell you anything about him, it just makes the idea of George Washington large and inescapable. Another approach is plaquery–more and more text, as in the Franklin Roosevelt memorial on the DC mall.
One of my favorite memorials of all time is the “boot memorial,” a memorial to Benedict Arnold, or rather, to the part of him that was good. Arnold was a brilliant soldirr and a true hero at the battle of Saratoga–courageous and effective. Then he turned traitor, and betrayed his country. The back reads “In memory of
the ‘most brilliant soldier’ of the Continental Army, who was desperately wounded on this spot…winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution…”
It acknowledges both Arnold’s heroism and his treason. And it does it in a way that invites attention and incites thought. You want to know why there’s a statue of a foot. And the text, by making Arnold a mystery, invites you into the mystery of his treason.
If I cared about football or Joe Paterno, which I mostly don’t, I’d remake that statue, maybe to simply a pair of Joe Paterno’s glasses, sitting on a table. His thick, horn rimmed glasses were iconic during his career; they symbolized his resistance to fashion and his scholarly pretensions. Sitting alone on his desk they’d symbolize those things as well as his failure to see what mattered the most: a failure to see and a failure to use the instruments at his disposal.
If we adopted this approach, what would the Jefferson memorial, for example, look like? A slave shackle, with no key? Maybe just a quill pen.
UPDATE: a lot of people have told me that I’m wrong, and that people won’t have forgotten Joe Paterno in twenty years. I should put it this way–in 20 years, nobody over 30 will remember Joe Paterno, and people over 30 will have fading memories. My favorite example was the most popular female singer of the 1920s and 30s, made 4 feature films and dozens of shorts, and starred in five Broadway shows. She married a gangster, got a celebrated divorce, then re-entered the news when the gangster ex-husband tried to murder her accompanist/boyfriend. A feature film of her life, Love Me or Leave Me, starred Doris Day and Jimmy Cagney in 1955. Anyone out there ever heard of Ruth Etting?