12 January 2008

Monuments and Politics

Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caídos, the Valley of the Fallen.
Photograph © Alvaro Lobo Felgueroso for
The New York Times.

In The New York Times today is a nice article by Michael Kimmelman on the controversy surrounding memorials to the late, unlamented Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco. The article is accompanied by this slide show. As Kimmelman makes clear, Franco's Fascist Falange Party and its bloody legacy in many ways represented a Catholic reaction to the modern, more secular, more liberal trends they saw in the Spanish Republic. Part of the problem is that, for some Spaniards at least, the dead General is not exactly unlamented. Another part of the problem is that apparently there has been very little explicit, public reckoning with the past in Spain. Against that background, recent legislation has mandated that all memorials to Franco be removed and allows families to disinter and re-bury relatives who had died in the Civil War. At many sites (like Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caídos where Fascists and Republicans are buried together) this latter prospect obviously poses considerable difficulty.

The current political situation in Spain is but one example of such wrestling over history and memories, collective and individual. Effort to erase the past are troubling. In the first place they, often inadvertently, have the effect of covering over massive criminal acts. And they also encourage future cycles of re-writing. (As Kimmelman notes: "
Survivors build monuments to remember the dead, and tear down the statues of the tyrants who killed them, but mostly in vain. Statues and memorials inscribe history, which each generation rewrites to suit itself.")

On these matters I would recommend two really terrific books, one by a lawyer, the second by an anthropologist - Sanford Levinson's Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies (Duke UP, 1998) and Katherine Verdery’s The Political Lives of Dead Bodies (Columbia UP, 1999). Each book is grounded in specific cases - Levinson focuses on Confederate Monuments in the American south and Verdery on Post-Communist countries after the fall - and both are remarkably sensitive to the politics involved.

I have to say that I agree with Kimmelman's conclusion:
But legislating [the removal of] monuments doesn’t rectify injustices of the past, it just fumbles with the symbols of history, reminding us why we devise them in the first place. Ultimately monuments gain meaning when we imbue them with it, otherwise they join the statues of cruel monarchs and bloody generals that have become the civilized backdrop to our parks and plazas.
Monuments are like symbols and the cultures they demarcate more generally. They have meaning only so long as we invest them with it and that process is necessarily contested and conflictual. The difficulty is how, in particular places at particular times, different groups address such conflicts of meaning. My own view is that that is part of the value of democracy.*
* James Johnson. 2000. “Why Respect Culture?” American Journal of Political Science 44(3): 405-18.

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Blogger Aefe said...

From Spain.
...Despite having a president "socialist" I think that in the case of historical memory (the law on these monuments) is wrong. It is illogical, for example, that a crippled erase their memories about the day he lost his arm ... One way of wasting money by our government.

(I'm sorry for my english; itsn't the best)

04 January, 2009 07:43  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for the comment. You renglish is much better than my Spanish! I think we may agree on the point that legislating removal of monuments is impractical. I am not sure we agree on why that is the case. But perhaps I'm mistaken.

05 January, 2009 21:08  

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