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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Failing to Understand 'Ozymandias'

Back in the heated days of August 2017, I caught a lot of flak from people I consider both smart and well informed (not, by any means, a matched set in most people these days), for a post I wrote which I expressed my opposition to the headlong rush to tear down statues and monuments to the Confederacy that had stood for far longer than those who viewed them had been alive.


My opposition came not from any sympathy for the Confederate cause, or for those who tried in decades subsequent to the war to paint that 'lost cause' as something heroic or just.  Rather, my opposition - outrage, really - came from the same sentiment that stops an archaeologist's from excavating an entire mound, and prompts historians to use reserved language containing ample room for current doubt and future scholarship when building theories. 


The simple overriding reason for archaeologists and historians to tread with caution in their work is that future generations may possess better tools, more subtle excavation techniques or more accurate understanding of the significance of the bits and shards that might be brought to light.  They may also possess sources as yet unread,  more nuanced ways of examining motives and a broader perspective of events that only time can provide.


Future scholars will surely weep at some, but certainly not all, of the genuine historical artifacts that were banished to the scrapheap along with lawn jockeys, blackamoor and other dubious other more recent 'relics' of the Civil War and its aftermath.

I can't possibly place myself in the shoes of African Americans and understand what they experience when looking at a statue of Robert E. Lee (or any other Confederate leader), as they go about their daily lives.  Perhaps the civil war and the institution of slavery still echo too loudly in their ears, and the scars of Jim Crow are still too fresh to be considered objectively.

But if there is one thing we should learn from history, it is that it is rarely wise to judge the past entirely by today's standards. 

For instance, I like to think that if I had been a southern landowner in the early 19th century, I would have been enlightened in my dealings with my servants and possessions (categories that had considerable overlap). But that's like hoping that I would have been equally enlightened about my diet, personal hygiene and relations with the opposite sex. 

Such mental exercises are as pointless as they are doomed.  Nobody is a visionary in the prophetic sense of the word.  The best we can hope for is that we conduct ourselves according to the highest standards of our own age and that future generations won't judge us too harshly.

Percy Bysshe Shelley understood all too well the folly and arrogance of those who erect monuments, and tried to describe the way those monuments should appear diminished, or even foolish to the modern eye.  In his famous poem 'Ozymandias' he describes a toppled statue of a long-forgotten ruler lying in pieces in the desert with no evidence of the great people or civilization he had once ruled. 

In the poem it is the sand that has defeated Ozymandias.  But the sand is simply a metaphor for the relentless passage of time, and the tremendous advantage of perspective that time provides. 

The existence of modern Southern towns and cities are (or should be), as mocking a rebuke to bronze monuments to antebellum values as the encroaching desert is to the mythical ruler in Shelley's sonnet.

As a Jew, I have trouble understanding why the descendants of American slaves don't view anachronistic Confederate iconography the way I view the Arch of Titus in Rome; as a reassuring milestone against which to objectively measure how much the world has changed and how far we've all come.  My wife can testify that the highlight of our last trip to Italy was my being able to gleefully say, 'f-ck you' in person to a relic of Titus (and his father, Vespasian), who had celebrated the enslavement of my ancestors in what they hoped was an ever-lasting manner.

I won't insult anyone's intelligence by voicing empty platitudes like 'Can't we all just get along'.  But being able to understand the irony in the line, "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!", when all that is left to see are some tarnished statues of long dead leaders/ideas, should be possible.

Posted by David Bogner on December 26, 2017 | Permalink


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"As a Jew 2000 years removed from the event, I have trouble understanding why the descendants of American slaves don't view anachronistic Confederate iconography the way I view the Arch of Titus in Rome;"


If you look at early rabbinic attitudes toward the Arch of Titus, you will find a far greater level of discomfort expressed by people over whom the shadow of Rome was still cast. We are so far removed now from the very possibility of the return of the Roman empire that we can view the arch of Titus as you have, although I will point out that there are halachic authorities that still forbid a Jew to pass under it.

That being said, there remains in the American south a strong nostalgia for the days of Jim Crow and of slavery; and these statues serve them as rallying points. In some ways, I would argue, the desire to destroy them is more akin to the commandment given by God to the Israelites to get rid of the Canaanite idols in the land. As long as they existed, a temptation would remain toward that old way of life which was now forbidden. So too, these modern statues enable the hope that a White-ruled America can be restored.

Perhaps when the white supremacist movements that venerate Robert E. Lee are as dried up and blown away as is the kingdom of Ozymandias, we can enjoy them for their archaeological value, but as long as they can inspire those who long to restore the antebellum south, or even the Jim Crow period that followed it, the iconoclasm is legitimate and necessary.

Posted by: Rich | Jan 3, 2018 3:49:53 AM

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