The 4-year old poked me in the back with a toy gun and then held the revolver to my temple. My physical reaction was visceral, intense and surprising. I bristled with rage. I wanted to kill that kid for violation, attempted intimidation and intended harm.
I took the gun from the child and told him in no uncertain terms that he was not to treat me or anyone else that way. I don't suppose he'll listen.
The boy's motivation doesn't matter. Nor does it matter that he was "only playing" , or that he was simply copying what he has seen on TV, or seen other kids do. What matters is how the experience made me feel.
I know guns are deadly weapons. I know villains often threaten to shoot victims in the back, or at the temple, to intimidate them into doing the bad man's will. To me, a gun– or a representation of a gun– is a threat. I know to other people in my America they are a liberation.
There is a difference between my reaction to a gun, versus, say that of a Marine or a 2nd amendment champion, or an Olympic-standard marksman. They can have their guns. They can use them responsibly. But not everyone is as disciplined or morally upright as the good guys are. And I still don't want any kind of gun at my back or in my face. That should never happen to me.
Thanks to a well-reasoned and civil debate I heard this week on NPR, I have come to understand it is the same with statues. If a large lump of metal in a public place makes any part of the population feel threatened or harmed it should be taken away and put somewhere where its perceived power can be responsibly managed or diffused. Anyway the story of the person commemorated can be better told in a book, or a film and stored forever electronically. Statues are old school in an age of selfies and Snapchat and Shutterfly.
I didn't always feel that way, mainly because the UK is coming down with colonial clutter that, in most cases, people are blind to, ignorant about, and therefore unharmed by. What we don't know can't hurt us. (And there is a hypocrisy in using the endowment of (the certainly hateful) Cecil Rhodes to fund the fine scholars' program, while tearing down his effigy. To be sure, those funds were accepted before there was a brand reputation expert in a marketing department urging caution when it comes to picking patrons, but modern-day moralists can't have it both ways. If the statue goes, the money goes because both are tainted. If Rhodes' name is good enough for the scholars' program then it's hard to argue his face is not good enough for the front of an Oxford College building he also paid for. But I don't want to get distracted from the scrap metal argument in general here….)
I got thinking about Belfast. I wouldn't like it if the sectarian murals– loyalist or republican– that decorate gable ends if different parts of my still- segregated hometown suddenly popped up in Ann Street or Cornmarket where I'd have to pass them every day. I'd be offended by all of them. Everyone would be offended by at least one of them. They are not in our central public spaces. And they never should be. It is the same with General Lee and co in the United States. Move the statues to the historic battlefields. Tell the stories in tours and manuals and surround sound films but keep them from our central squares and public streets because they make many of our people feel sick and angry, belittled and scared.
At the Stormont Parliament buildings in Belfast (now deserted because local politicians can't agree long enough to form an assembly) there is a larger than life size statue of Edward Carson, once leader of the Unionist party and the mover and shaker behind the creation of Northern Ireland when Ireland gained its independence from Britain nearly a century ago. The statue was erected in Carson's lifetime. In a city where almost everything is bitterly contested, I can find no evidence that nationalists have ever tried to get this statue removed. Perhaps Carson's pointing finger stiffens the spines of Sinn Fein and the SDLP every day they go to work? Famously, former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams supported the launch of a Carson Cup awarded to champions in the game of hurling. Hurling is like field hockey on cocaine and in Northern Ireland, is taught only in Catholic schools. Carson learned to play when a student at Trinity College Dublin in the years before partition which is why the winners cup bears this name today. The Carson Cup is the equivalent of the Jefferson Davis cup for Go Go dancing, the Robert E Lee cup for R&B, or the Stonewall Jackson cup for creative work with corn rows. Go figure.
The only other political sculpture in Belfast is that of trade unionist and socialist Jim Larkin which has been attached to a gable end in the newly-fashionable cathedral quarter for about ten years. It is possible the well-heeled of South Belfast could object to his anti- capitalist presence but I think a protest march is unlikely–unless they send their cleaning ladies and "the wee man who does the garden"'to do their dirty work for them.
Here in Armenia, statues of Lenin, Stalin and Marx have been assiduously removed, though effigies of Tolstoy, Pushkin and Chekhov remain. The dates of removal are documented. I am sure that across the centuries statues have been erected and removed as battles have been won and lost, and borders have shifted. I can find no mentions of statues for Turks or Azeris on what is now Armenian soil. Presumably, if they ever existed, they disappeared when those populations fled. Despite the absence of political statues here, there is not a man, woman or child in the place who couldn't talk you through every war and slight since trouble with the Persians in the 4th century AD. Proof that history endures even when men (nearly always men) in metal get melted down
My research on the vexed subject of statues brought me to the sad story of the Statue of Humanity, erected in 2009 in a Turkish village close to the Armenian border. The statue, visible on both sides of the border, depicted two halves of a man, each holding the other's hand. It was commissioned in support of a Turkish-Armenian reconciliation project and lasted just two years. Citing aesthetic reasons and calling the statue a "monstrosity" President Erdogan ordered the statue demolished in 2011. It seems our Presidents are art critics now, for Trump claims to find the confederate statues "beautiful"– part of his argument that they should stay. Times change, tastes change and there are at least two sides to every (hi)story. I am forced to conclude that no erection should be considered permanent and if yours lasts too long then do what the advert says–seek help and bring the thing down before permanent damage ensues.