Cathedral Round-Up #28: They’re not coming for George Washington, that’s just a silly right-wing conspiracy–

Titus Kaphar’s Shadows of Liberty, 2016, at Yale University Art Gallery

Is that… George Washington? With rusty nails pounded into his face?

Holding up “cascading fragments of his slave records.”

Oh. I see.

Carry on, then.

I was going to write about Harvard forbidding its female students from forming female-only safe spaces (College will Debut Plans to Enforce Sanctions Next Semester) in an attempt to shut down all single-gender frats and Finals Clubs, but then Princeton upped the ante with Can Art Amend Princeton’s History of Slavery?

No. Of course not.

Princeton University [has] a new public-art project that confronts the school’s participation in the nation’s early sins. On Monday, the university unveiled Impressions of Liberty, by the African American artist Titus Kaphar. The sculpture is the conceptual core of a campus-wide initiative that begins this fall and aims to reconcile the university’s ties to slavery. The Princeton and Slavery Project’s website has released hundreds of articles and primary documents about slavery and racism at Princeton…

Attaching strips of canvas or other material to the faces of people he disapproves of is apparently one of Kaphar’s shticks.

I’m old enough to remember when George Washington was admired for freeing all of his slaves in an era when most people took slavery for granted. Today he is castigated for not having sprung from the womb with a fully modern set of moral opinions.

Impressions of Liberty, by Titus Kaphar

Impressions of Liberty is Kaphar’s portrait of Samuel Finley–fifth president and one of the original trustees of Princeton (1761-1766)–interwoven with photographs of black actors in historical dress etched in glass.

For generations, slave-owning Christians—including Princeton’s founders—used religious ideas to justify a horrific national practice, [Kaphar] noted; Finley is holding a bible in Impressions of Liberty.

Note the framing: yes, Christians used religion to justify owning slaves. So did Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, pagans, and atheists. There’s nothing unique about Christians and slavery aside from the fact that Finley was Christian. No mention is made of pagan Africans who captured and sold each other into slavery, nor of Muslims who raided Africa and Europe in search of slaves. There were Jewish slave merchants and Confederates, as well, for slavery was a near-universal practice justified by people all over the world prior to its abolition by whites in the 1800s. The article mentions none of that; only Christians are singled out for criticism.

The article doesn’t say how much Princeton paid for the sculpture it commissioned to castigate the memory of one of its founders. The work currently stands outside MacLean House, but will soon be moved indoors, to Princeton’s permanent art collection. MacLean House–completed in 1756–is a national landmark that was home to Princeton’s first presidents, including Samuel Finley. It also housed George Washington during the Battle of Princeton.

According to the article:

On the one hand, according to records, Princeton was a bastion of liberty, educating numerous Revolutionary War leaders and in 1783 hosting the Continental Congress… At the same time, Sandweiss found that the institution’s first nine presidents all owned slaves at some point, as did the school’s early trustees. She also discovered that the school enrolled a significant number of anti-abolitionist, Southern students during its early years; an alumni delivered a pro-slavery address at the school’s 1850 commencement ceremony. …

Princeton’s racist history enabled it to provide social and political benefits for alumni—an advantage that students will continue to enjoy well into the future.

While I happen to think that universities have it much too good these days and deserve to be taken down a notch, I find this claim extremely dubious. Harvard and Yale are located in staunchly abolitionist New England and had very few ties to slavery, (Mr. Yale apparently knew a guy who had slaves, and Harvard Law School received some money from a guy who had slaves,) yet these schools are arguably even wealthier and more powerful than closer-to-the-South and more-tied-to-slavery Princeton. Stanford was founded after slavery was outlawed, and yet its students enjoy social and political benefits on par with Princeton’s.

We could argue that the entire area of the Confederacy reaped the economic benefits of slavery, yet today this region is much poorer than the Free States of the North. There isn’t just no correlation between slavery, wealth, and power–there’s actually a negative correlation. Slavery, if it has any effect at all, makes a region poorer and weaker.

Monumental Inversion: George Washington, (Titus Kaphar,) Princeton Art Museum

… Princeton University is spreading the mission across various pieces of art through a show this fall entitled “Making History Visible: Of American Myths And National Heroes.” At the exhibit’s entrance, viewers begin with Kaphar’s piece Monumental Inversion: George Washington—a sculpture of the leader astride his horse, made out of wood, blown glass, and steel. The sculpture depicts the former president’s dueling nature: He’s glorified within a great American equestrian monument but he’s also sitting astride a charred cavity, surrounded by glass on the ground. In juxtaposing Kaphar’s artwork and a George Washington plaster bust, “Making History Visible” forces visitors, hopefully, to see and feel the contradiction in colonial leaders who sought freedom from tyranny but did not extend that ideal to slaves.

I repeat: George Washington freed all of his slaves.

We might question the point of all this. Kaphar is free to make his art, of course. His paintings display quite excellent technical skill, I admit. But why do we, as a society, feel the need to commission and display attacks on our founders? Princeton’s students could just as happily go to class each day without looking at images of Finley’s slaves; unlike Washington, Finley isn’t famous and most students were probably blissfully unaware of his slaveholding until someone decided to stick a sculpture dedicated to it on the lawn.

How do Princeton’s black students feel after walking past a sculpture depicting slaves? Uplifted? Happy? Ready to go to class and concentrate on their lectures? I doubt it. Art may be “powerful” or “open dialogues,” but no one seems to feel better after viewing such pieces.

No, I don’t see how this selective dwelling on the past improves anything.

A world in which images of your founders and heroes are defaced, their corpses judged and rusty nails are driven into their portraits: it’s like a cruel dystopia, Lewis’s That Hideous Strength or 1984. According to Wikipedia:

During and after the October Revolution, widespread destruction of religious and secular imagery took place, as well as the destruction of imagery related to the Imperial family. The Revolution was accompanied by destruction of monuments of past tsars, as well as the destruction of imperial eagles at various locations throughout Russia. According to Christopher Wharton, “In front of a Moscow cathedral, crowds cheered as the enormous statue of Tsar Alexander III was bound with ropes and gradually beaten to the ground. After a considerable amount of time, the statue was decapitated and its remaining parts were broken into rubble”.[40]

The Soviet Union actively destroyed religious sites, including Russian Orthodox churches and Jewish cemeteries, in order to discourage religious practice and curb the activities of religious groups.

You know, they tell us, “No one is attacking George Washington; that’s just a crazy right-wing conspiracy theory,” and then they go and do it.

Incidentally, Georgetown, according to the article, “announced last year that it would grant admissions preference to descendants of slaves whose sale it profited from in the early 1800s.” How do you qualify for that? Do you have to prove that you’re descended from the specific slaves involved, or can you be descended from any American slaves? Because I had ancestors who were enslaved, too, and I’d like to get in on this racket.

In the end, the article answers its titular question:

When Impressions of Liberty is removed from Maclean House in December and enters Princeton’s permanent museum collection, its greatest achievement may lie in the realization that no apology or recompense can ever suffice. …

“No civil-rights project can ever fully redeem anything.”

Family, Nation, and History

What does it mean to belong?

Despite my inauspicious start, it turns out that I do have history of my own. For privacy reasons, I can’t give too many details, but so far, after reading family histories assembled by my grandparents, I’ve found immigrants in the early 1700s, the 1600s, and sometime between 60 and 12,000 years ago–the exact dates of that particular migration episode is still being debated–but none in the 1800s or 1900s. (This may, of course, be merely an issue of incomplete genealogy.) I can count over a dozen ethnic groups in my family tree (though I should note that I consider the “American Nations” ethnic groups, which you may not.)

If anyone has a right to call themselves an “American,” then I suspect I do.

My husband’s family I laughingly refer to as immigrants. Okay, half of them are good, old-stock Americans. The other half, though, seem to have immigrated at some point during the 1800s. Or maybe even the early 1900s.

I have no connections to the old country; indeed, I don’t really have an old country–there is no one place that a majority of my ancestors came from. I have never had any sense of being anything other than what I am, and for much of my life, not even that. For many years, actually, I operated under quite incorrect assumptions about my origins.

On a practical level, of course, it doesn’t really matter–I would still be me if it turned out I arrived here as an infant from Kazakhstan and my whole “history” was a colossal mix-up with someone else’s. But this is my history, and as such, it is special to me, just like that ragged old bear in the closet my grandmother made. It might be worthless to you, but it’s mine.

What does it mean to have a history?

When I read about the various Bering Strait theories, I think, “Some of my ancestors were there, hunting mammoths.”

When I look at the British, French, and Spanish colonies and the American Revolution, I get to think, “Some of my ancestors were there.” Indeed, some of them were influential folks in those days. When I think about the values of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, I can say, “These were my ancestors’ ideals.”

When I look at the Civil War, well, there’s a lot of family history. My grandmother still tells the stories her great-grandmother told her about watching the Yankees burn down the family farm.

Some ancestors were pioneers. Some were farmers and some professors and some scientists who helped develop technologies that sent satellites into outer space.

And yet… Nationalism isn’t really my thing. Bald eagles, Stars and Stripes, the Pledge of Allegiance… they’re all a big nope. I don’t feel much of anything for them. I have no interest in the “Southern Cause,” and I don’t even have a particular affection for Americans–most of my close friends are immigrants. And as previously stated, I am not a white nationalist–IQ nationalist is a much better description. I like smart people.

I look out for American interests because I happen to live here. If I lived in Japan, I’d look out for Japan’s interests, simply because anything bad that happened in Japan or to the Japanese would also be happening to me–even though I’d be an immigrant with no particular history there. It is natural (particularly among leftists) to assume, therefore, that immigrants to the US may do the same.

(Edited to clarify: Commonly assumed things are often wrong. Many on the left assume that unprecedented numbers of immigrants from non-Western cultures will adopt American culture in a way that does not substantially change it. The whole point of this post is to discuss the nebulous effects of cultural change and ethnic identity. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of graphs for “How proud I feel while looking at a picture of George Washington,” so this is difficult to express.)

In fact, I know plenty of immigrants who have far more nationalism for their adopted country than I do.

(Edited to clarify: I happened to write this after visiting the home of an immigrant family that had framed versions of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Signing of the Declaration of Independence on their walls. I recognize that these people are really glad to be in this country, which they consider a vastly superior place to the one they came from.)

Is it of any importance that people have some sort of cultural connection to the place where they live?

I’ve tracked down a bunch of graphs/pictures related to immigration over time:

Map+ethnic+homelands+U.S.+new

Picture 20

(Oops, looks like a bit of text snuck in when I cropped the picture.)

Picture 21

ETA: Note that % of immigrants in the population is really at unprecedentedly high numbers, and the countries they come from have changed radically, too:

regions

Total quantity of immigrants by region of origin.

Picture 22

Picture 19

Picture 14

ETA: I thought this was obvious, but immigrants from whatever country they happen to come from tend to bring with them the norms and values of their own culture. Sometimes those norms easily mix with American ones. Sometimes they don’t.

pie-births-country-full

Picture 23

immigration-graph-irg

ETA: Another graph showing the ethnic makeup of American immigrants.

Immigration+U.S.+Germ+Engl+Irish+1840s+50s+60s+graph

ETA: So what happens when immigration goes up? Well, for starters, it looks like a lot more crime happens:

 

600px-Homicide_rates1900-2001 11217607.0002.206-00000002

And wages seem to stagnate:

fig2_prodhhincome

(The increase in household median income is due to women entering the workforce, thus increasing the number of workers per household.)

chart-01

I know there are other things going on in these time periods that could also affect income inequality, but that graph looks remarkably similar to the immigration graphs. Also:

U.S._Compensation_as_Percent_of_GDP_-_v1 Real-Wages-Long-Term   us-income-inequality-1910-2010

A lot of these came from Migration Policy Institute, but I’ve tried to use a variety of sources to avoid any particular bias or inaccuracies.

Now here we began with poetic waxing about one’s ancestors, and are whining about Irish criminality in the 1800s and how hard it is to get a job. BTW, Irish criminality was a real problem.

The correlations are suggestive, but unproven, so let’s get back to nostalgia:

From, "Most decade-specific words in Billboard popular song titles, 1890-2014"
From, “Most decade-specific words in Billboard popular song titles, 1890-2014

In the period from 1890-1920, the most common elements in the song titles seem to be family relations, friends, and nostalgia: Pal, Mammy, Home, Land, Old, Uncle, etc. This is in stark contrast to 1990-2015, when some sort of apocalyptic accident destroyed our ability to spell and we reverted to a savage state of nature: Hell, Fuck, Die, U, Ya, Thang.

Even in my own lifetime, historical nostalgia and appreciation for America’s founders seems to have drastically waned. As a child, Westerns were still occasional things and the whole mythology surrounding the settlement of the West was still floating around, though obviously nothing compared to its height in the 50s, when people were really into Davy Crockett:

800px-Davy_Crockett_by_William_Henry_Huddle,_1889

 

(Look like anyone you know? hqdefault, 1438571327352)

 

The “American Girls” line of books and toys was a big deal when I was a kid, featuring historically-themed dolls and books focusing on the American Revolution, Pioneers, Civil War, Industrialization, and WWII.

Today, the line has been re-branded as “Be Forever,” with far more focus on modern girls and cultural groups. Even the historical books have been re-designed, with “American Girl” reduced to fine print and “Be Forever” scrawled across the covers. The Revolutionary War, Pioneer, and WWII dolls have all been “retired” from the line. Yes, American history without the Revolution. The Civil War doll is still there, though.

Are slavery and the Vietnam protests the only parts of our history that we remember anymore?

Old:  51LVeMm95jL._SX390_BO1,204,203,200_  New: Picture 6

History is dead.

(Sadly, since Mattel bought the company, they’ve become delusional about the amount of pink and purple girls historically wore.)

 

What would the US look like if all the Johnny-Come-Lateys from the migration waves of the 1800s had never arrived?

I have no idea. (This is an invitation for you to discuss the question.)

In the casually pagan style of our Christian forebears, the US Capital Building rotunda features a painting titled The Apotheosis of Washington, painted by Greek-Italian artist Constantino Brumidi in 1865:

Apotheosis_of_George_Washington2

Apotheosis_of_George_Washington

This is not the only painting by this title:

The Apotheosis of Washington by John James Barralet
The Apotheosis of Washington, by John James Barralet

hb_52.585.66

Apotheosis of George Washington, by H. Weishaupt

How about a few more on the general theme?

Greenough_Geo_Washington

Statue of Washington in the style of Zeus

420px-TheApotheosisLincolnAndWashington1860s

Apotheosis of Washington and Lincoln, 1860s.

rzawashington

washington_rushmore-P

 

Things change. Life moves on. Nothing new.

 

Is a nation’s history worth preserving? How do our identities and personal histories influence our values, cultures, and connections? What does any of this mean to you?

ETA for the clueless: This is an invitation for you to present your own opinions/answers to the questions.