J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, December 07, 2015

The Power of Iconoclasm, and How to Keep It from Fading

Last month I attended Wendy Bellion’s lecture on “Representing Iconoclasm: Paint, Print, Performance” at the American Antiquarian Society. And I find that’s clarified my thinking about the current campaign to change the seal of the Harvard Law School and the name of the Isaac Royall Professorship there.

On 9 July 1776, New Yorkers listened to a formal reading of the Declaration of Independence, marched from the city common down to the Bowling Green, and pulled down a gilded lead statue of King George III. Most of that statue was melted down into musket balls, though a few pieces survive.

A few months later, the British army charged onto Manhattan, and the Crown held the city for the rest of the war. In the new republic, therefore, New York City didn’t have a lot of good stories to tell about its history during the Revolutionary War. The toppling of the king’s statue became one of the most important.

Bellion showed how that event was recreated in paintings, engravings, pageants, and parades from the early 1800s to the Bicentennial. In other words, the statue of King George was repeatedly reproduced so that it could be destroyed again.

That’s the power and nature of iconoclasm. Once an icon has been removed, broken, or defaced, it starts to lose power—but so does the act of removing it. With no visible reminder and only a fading memory of that icon, the choice to erase it becomes less visible and memorable as well. To recall the act of iconoclasm in the most affecting way, a society has to recreate the very icon it tore down.

What might that phenomenon tell us about the current controversies about slaveowners or their defenders being featured in places of honor on college campuses? The campaign at Harvard Law School is called Royall Must Fall, the very name evoking the images of a royal statue or emblem coming down.

The people campaigning to change those images or names acknowledge they’re symbolic, and that the change would be symbolic as well. But such change would send the right message about the institution’s values, a message that it is seeking to be more fair and inclusive than in the past.

However, just like pulling down New York’s statue of King George, changing a building name or removing a statue would send that message only once. That particular symbol would lose its power and fade from memory. The act of removal and repudiation would thus also fade, muting its significance and its message for new students.

As New Yorkers ritually recreated and then pulled down the king’s statue, they refreshed the memory of the city’s 1776 choice of republicanism over monarchy. In the same way, Bostonians refresh the memory of the hated East India Company tea of 1773 by bringing in new tea each year—this year from the East India Company, even—only to toss it again into the harbor.

So could university communities create a stronger message of inclusion not by removing problematic symbols permanently but by creating recurrent ways to reexamine and reject the behavior behind them?

TOMORROW: Institutions wrestling with that challenge.


Mike Fahey said...

An excellent, thought-provoking post.

rfuller said...

It does make one wonder.

For example, in the former East Germany, its citizens gleefully hauled down symbols of Marx, Engels and others when the Berlin Wall came down, since they saw them as symbols of a stultifying Stalinist regime.

However, after the bitter experience, at least for adults, of the wrenching economic and social effects of integration into the Federal Republic with its richer, often disdainful West German cousins, with its different institutions and philosophies, many East Germans became nostalgic for the symbols and names of their former land, even though they'd gladly left them on the ash-heap of history a few years before.

It hadn't been a happy era before the Wall came down, but at least they saw themselves as looked after and it was a shared experience. (Misery loves company?....)

Memory's a funny thing, esp. when emotions get involved. People forget the bad, and overemphasize the positive. As you say, they want to reinvent the very icon they had previously torn down.