Statues and the Executive Order

Peacefully and violently, many have questioned some of our public statues and monuments. Trump responded by issuing an executive order.

He prefaced the order by saying, “Their selection of targets reveals a deep ignorance of our history, and is indicative of a desire to indiscriminately destroy anything that honors our past and to erase from the public mind any suggestion that our past may be worth honoring, cherishing, remembering, or understanding.”

Trump went on to command: “It is the policy of the United States to prosecute to the fullest extent permitted under Federal law, and as appropriate, any person or any entity that destroys, damages, vandalizes or desecrates a monument, memorial, or statue within the United States or otherwise vandalizes government property. . . The Attorney General shall prioritize within the Department of Justice the investigation and prosecution” of such matters. The order concludes: “This order is not intended to, and does not, affect the prosecutorial discretion of the Department of Justice with respect to individual cases.” Prioritize, but you still have all your discretion. Prosecute, but only “as appropriate.”

What, then, does the executive order do? One thing it fails to do is to give guidance on what duties within the DOJ should be given shorter shrift. If Department of Justice attorneys shift priorities to statues, then other matters in the DOJ bailiwick will have to have a lower priority. What now should get lesser attention? Immigration? White collar crimes? Antitrust matters? Drug crimes?

But what I most noticed is that the president said that others have a “deep ignorance of our history.” He said something similar a few years ago in response to a movement to remove memorials to Confederate soldiers. President Trump then said that he was “sad” at the removal of “our beautiful statues” and that “you can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” I wonder, however, if Trump applies these statements to himself. Has he ever sought to learn about our history after looking at those beautiful statues?

The president has a home in Manhattan’s Trump Tower. It is a short distance from a great, amazing, huge collection of public statues and monuments—Central Park. I wonder how often he has gazed at them and was inspired to learn more history.

The southeast corner of Central Park, the closest entrance to the Park from Trump’s penthouse, is only a few minutes’ walk (or more likely, a few minutes’ golf cart ride) from the Tower. There he would have encountered a statue of William Tecumseh Sherman on horseback. If looking at the monument inspired him to read about that General, he might have learned that Sherman’s capture of Atlanta is credited with guaranteeing Abraham Lincoln’s re-election and thereby the defeat of the Confederacy. Lincoln pledged to preserve the Union; his opponent was expected to make peace with the Confederacy. Does Trump think about what would have happened had Sherman failed at Atlanta? He may not think about what it would have meant for slavery and Blacks or the cotton trade and the New York financiers who backed it or how it would have affected our country’s expansion into the territories, but surely you might think that he would wonder how Mar-a-Lago and his Charlottesville winery would have been affected if they were now in the Confederate States of America.

If he sought to learn more about Sherman, he would learn how important the defeat of the Confederacy was to this American patriot. He could learn that Sherman, like many others of his era, had changing views about Blacks; that thousands of freed slaves joined his March to the Sea; that he settled thousands of the recently-freed on land expropriated from Southern whites, in what were some of the first actions of Reconstruction. Trump might be inspired to learn more about Reconstruction; its end in 1877 that wiped away many of these gains for the former slaves that had been initiated by Sherman; and the institution of Jim Crow that did much to shape our present nation.

Trump might learn that Sherman declined the Republican Presidential nomination of 1884 by saying, “I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.” Would he find this amazing? If you don’t want to do the work of a President, you should figure that out and say so before running for the office.

A block away from Sherman’s likeness are statutes of Simòn Bolivar, the Venezuelan who is known for liberating much of South America from Spain, and José de San Martin, the Argentine who helped liberate both Argentina and Peru from Spain. He might learn from these figures that Latin Americans do not look kindly on foreign powers trying to dictate to them. But, of course, if Trump had learned this, he probably would not have made some of his statements about Venezuela and Mexico.

A short hike, or even shorter ride, from these men on horseback is Balto’s statue. Balto was the Siberian husky that led a final team of sled dogs delivering diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska, in 1925, a story that was covered breathlessly by newspapers worldwide. Surely there are lessons to be learned here about humanitarianism and the mainstream press. And perhaps the president might also realize that he ought to have a puppy.

Maybe Trump has seen these statues near his penthouse, and though I find it doubtful, even learned something from them. I am more confident, however, that Trump has not learned from a statue at the other end of the park from the one of Sherman. It is near 110th Street, which borders Harlem. There he could see a statue of Frederick Douglass. Enough said.

Central Park has, not surprisingly, more statues and memorials, including ones of Beethoven, Christopher Columbus, Robert Burns, and many others. But perhaps the most important one to visit if you are in the park these days is on the east side of the park near 74th Street—Alice in Wonderland. Surely there is much to contemplate at her feet.