Yes, the monuments should fall

This article was contributed by Dr Joel McKim, from Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.Lee Park, Charlottesville, VA

Writing in the 1930s, the Austrian writer Robert Musil famously noted that despite their attempted grandeur, there is nothing as invisible as a monument: “They are impregnated with something that repels attention, causing the glance to roll right off, like water droplets off an oilcloth, without even pausing for a moment.” It’s difficult to reconcile Musil’s observation with what we’ve witnessed from afar over the past week – a nation seemingly ripping itself apart, a statue of Robert E. Lee situated at the centre of the conflict.  Michael Taussig has, more recently, suggested an important adjustment to Musil’s theory arguing that it’s not until a monument is destroyed (or is slated for removal) that it succeeds in drawing our attention. The monument, Taussig reminds us, is often the first symbolic target in times of struggle.  “With defacement,” he writes, “the statue moves from an excess of invisibility to an excess of visibility.”

The confederate statues in America and the dilemma over what do with them became extremely visible this past week. It’s a discussion that has actually been taking place for some time now, with the removal in April and May of a number of monuments in New Orleans (including statues of Lee and Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy) being a recent flashpoint. And there are of course many global and historical precedents to this debate, including the removal of racist and imperial icons in South Africa over the past several years and the precarious fate of Soviet-era statuary (see for example the excellent Disgraced Monuments, by our own Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis). Decisions over what to do with symbols of past shame or troubling history also extend to the realm of preservation. Germany and Austria have recently been debating whether several architectural sites connected to the history of National Socialism, including the Nuremberg rally ground and the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, should be preserved, destroyed, or simply left to decay.

Apart from the abhorrent, but hopefully small faction who sees these symbols as worthy of veneration, another argument for keeping confederate monuments in place surfaces frequently from an apparently more benign viewpoint. We’ve all heard some variation of this position expressed over the past several days: “These monuments are an important reminder of our difficult and troubling history.” Or, “These statues help us to educate ourselves about what we have overcome.” Or, “If we destroy the past we will be doomed to repeat it.” While perhaps well meaning, I believe this line of argument is misguided in a number of ways. I think it’s fundamentally mistaken in its understanding of both the social dynamic and cultural history of monuments. Let me explain why.

Firstly, if monuments do have a significant educational purpose (and even this is questionable), it is certainly naïve to think this is the only mode by which they function. Rather than serving as references to the figure or event of the history they depict, public monuments communicate far more about the collective sentiments of our current period and the period in which they were erected. They express, in other words, rather than simply educate. The majority of confederate monuments, as New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu reminds us, were constructed not at the time of the civil war, but long afterwards during moments of resurgence in pro-confederate sentiment and white backlash against black civil rights, such as the Southern Redemption period. They were much less a marker of a tragic, but completed chapter in the nation’s history, than an expression of a renewed commitment to the cultural values of the losing side. Nicholas Mirzoeff points out that the monument to Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville was completed in 1924 and reflects a period of intense KKK organizing in the area. That these monuments can still function today as rallying points for ethnic nationalists and white supremacists, rather than as neutral transmitters of a distant history, should be self-evident after this week’s events. Could whatever nominal educational value these monuments possess, ever justify the continued emboldening role they play for these groups, or the genuine pain and distress they cause to so many who are forced to encounter them in public space? Ask a member of the black community if they are in need of a statue of Robert E. Lee to teach them about the history and continued impact of slavery and discrimination in America.

The second reason I think anxieties of the “destruction of history” type are misguided is that they don’t adequately recognize the always provisional and malleable nature of monuments and memorials. Far from being permanent or stable markers of history, monuments are perpetually being altered, moved, re-interpreted and reconsidered. They are contentious and contingent objects. The memorial landscape is continually in a process of adaptation. As Kirk Savage claims in his insightful history of the National Mall in Washington, “The history of commemoration is . . . a history of change and transformation.” Even the Lincoln Memorial, the most monumental of American memory sites, is an example of adaptation according to Savage. Its adoption as a symbol for the black civil rights movement occurred despite, rather than because of its intended design – the planners deliberately downplayed Lincoln’s role in the abolition of slavery. Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko’s protest-oriented projections onto existing statues are another important example of how the struggle to determine a monument’s meaning may continue long after its construction. Some of the most powerful monuments and memorial proposals of the past few decades have incorporated an element of self-destruction or suspicion into their own form. From the Gerz’s monument against fascism that disappears into the earth, to Maya Lin’s deliberately non-monumental Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, to Horst Hoheisel’s proposal to blow up the Brandenburg Gates as a memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe. In short, public monuments change; their lifespan is not and probably shouldn’t be infinite. We don’t owe them that. The debate and conflict surrounding the removal of confederate monuments is obviously a clear indication that America is also currently undergoing a process of significant change. While the events of the past week have been worrying and sickening, I am heartened by the number of courageous people committed to ensuring that this change is a move forward, rather than a regression.

Dr Joel McKim is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies and the Director of the Vasari Research Centre for Art and Technology. His book Architecture, Media and Memory: Facing Complexity in a Post-9/11 New York is forthcoming in 2018 from Bloomsbury.

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Justice Scalia wasn’t just immoral—he was philosophically confused

This post was contributed by Rob Singh, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck. Prof Singh’s new book, ‘After Obama: Renewing American Leadership, Restoring Global Order’ will be published by Cambridge University Press in May.

This aticle was originally published in Prospect on 16 February.

With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia on 13th February, the United States Supreme Court became a central issue in the raucous 2016 presidential campaign. While President Obama has stated his intent to nominate the next justice, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has argued that Scalia should not be replaced until after the presidential election — and nominees must be confirmed by the currently Republican-held Senate. These competing claims show how the Court now reflects and reinforces the broader partisan polarisation in Washington.

Antonin Scalia Official SCOTUS Portrait crop

Justice Antonin Scalia (By Steve Petteway, photographer, Supreme Court of the United States[1] (See [2]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

On decisions from gun control to campaign finance, the court over the last decade has pursued an outspokenly conservative agenda. But other key rulings—such as upholding the Affordable Care Act and the right to same sex marriage—have also grievously disappointed traditionalists. With the remaining eight justices now split between four progressives and four conservatives, Scalia’s replacement could potentially reshape constitutional law for years to come.

A man of acerbic wit and often scathing venom, Scalia developed an approach to constitutional interpretation—originalism—that many found coherent and compelling (a whole book, Scalia Dissents, was even dedicated to his disagreements with prevailing opinion). In a democracy, how can a Court legitimately strike down the laws passed by the Congress and signed by the president? Originalism offered a simple solution: rather than consider what the writers of laws, or of particular constitutional clauses, intended the law to mean, judges should instead interpret these in terms of how the text was commonly understood at the time it was adopted. That adherence to the values of others seemed to limit the dangers of judges writing their own views into law. It had the happily convenient benefit, to Scalia, of also yielding reliably conservative policy outcomes. But three problems plagued the path Scalia paved, which he never convincingly resolved.

First, the practical outcomes of Scalia’s philosophy are widely regarded as repugnant to contemporary moral values. Take Maryland v Craig (1990), where the Court upheld a state law allowing a victim of child sex abuse to testify over CCTV rather than in court, in the presence of her abuser. Scalia dissented, arguing that the Sixth Amendment provides that in “all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right… to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”

The only things that had changed since 1791, he argued, were society’s “so-called sensitivity to psychic trauma” and the judgment of where the proper balance lay between assuring conviction of child abusers and acquittal of those falsely accused of abuse. At the same time, in supporting states’ rights to enact statutes rooted in “moral disapproval,” Scalia opposed striking down laws criminalising gay sex in 2003. Relying on “tradition” and popular sentiment to thwart progress, he selectively transformed the Bill of Rights from a safeguard against majoritarianism into another expression of it.

But beyond specific rulings was a second, broader problem. Central to Scalia’s judicial philosophy was an inherent contradiction: would the original framers of the Constitution whom he so venerated have prescribed an originalist approach? Compelling evidence suggests otherwise. Not only is the language of the document notoriously ambiguous and vague, deliberately open to competing and evolving interpretations, but the Framers expressly rejected freezing the fledgling republic in the conditions of 1787. Iconic figures such as Thomas Jefferson even expected new generations to rewrite the Constitution anew.

Thirdly, in decisions such as that made in court case The District of Columbia v. Dick Heller (2008) (which was presided over by the Supreme Court of the United States, and thus Scalia) the Court hardly exemplified a conservative role; for the first time in American history an individualist reading of the Second Amendment was announced. It was ruled that an individual is entitled to carry a firearm for private purposes, such as self-defence, and that the Amendment doesn’t just apply to the rights of groups such as militias. The result of this ruling was a litigation bonanza centred on exactly what gun regulations offend a citizen’s right to own firearms. But if the US survived more than two centuries without the 2nd Amendment ever conferring such a right, when did this change, and why?

Originalists used to criticise the Court’s progressive rulings of the 1960s and 1970s, when the liberal Justices exercised “raw judicial power” by “inventing” new constitutional rights that weren’t explicitly in the Constitution. Now, the same charge can be levelled at the conservatives, whose recent embrace of judicial activism often appears less philosophical rationale than political rationalisation.

Read the original article in Prospect

Read the original article in Prospect

To be fair, Scalia did frequently abide by his own strictures to act as a judge rather than a legislator, not least on First Amendment cases such as flag desecration, where his reading of free expression trumped his affront at unpatriotic acts such as burning the Stars and Stripes. But it is difficult to disassociate his embrace of originalism from his finding in its cold but confused logic a way to oppose every progressive advance from reproductive rights to affirmative action.

George W Bush declined the opportunity to elevate Scalia to the Chief Justiceship in 2005, but Republican presidential candidates have already solemnly avowed to appoint “another Scalia” to the Court, should they be sworn into office in 2017. The chances of that are increasingly slim. With the Court’s future direction now a key issue in the presidential election, several vulnerable Republican Senators facing uphill battles for re-election in swing states such as Wisconsin and Illinois, and the Grand Old Party likely to seem nakedly partisan in obstructing a new Obama judicial nominee from even coming to a vote, Scalia seems likely to remain a magnet for controversy in death as well as life.

It would be mildly ironic if Scalia’s passing, and controversial legacy, hamper the prospect of a more conservative direction in constitutional law by helping to energise the Democratic Party base and costing the GOP the White House and/or the Senate.  And even more ironic that the remainder of this year’s contentious argument over the Court will itself test the proposition of whether a Constitution designed in and for the 18th century is still fit for purpose in the 21st, or more resembles a noble piece of paper housed in the National Archives.

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The Presidential Apprentice? Taking Trump Seriously

Rob Singh is Professor of Politics at Birkbeck. His new book, ‘After Obama: Renewing American Leadership, Restoring Global Order’ will be published by Cambridge University Press in May. Prof Singh recently appeared on an episode of BBC Radio 4’s The Long View which focused on ‘Donald Trump and the Politics of Celebrity’

Donald Trump Sr. at Citizens United Freedom Summit in Greenville South Carolina May 2015 by Michael Vadon 13Buffoon. Joke. Jerk. Those are just some of the descriptions of the current front-runner for the Republican Party nomination for president of the United States. From his fellow Republicans, that is. Beyond the party, Donald J. Trump has been lambasted as a bigot, misogynist, and racist. Yet none of this has seemingly hampered the popular appeal of his quixotic quest for the White House.

Should we take the Trump phenomenon seriously? The answer is, emphatically, yes. Laugh at or loathe him, Trump has been the Heineken candidate, reaching parts of the electorate no other candidate can reach. And whilst it remains to be seen whether he can translate his support in the polls into votes, Trump already dominates 2016 in singular fashion. There exists no precedent in the modern era for a political novice setting the agenda so consistently that the media focuses in Pavlovian fashion on whatever subjects Trump raises. From stopping illegal immigration through a ‘beautiful’ great wall with Mexico to a moratorium on all Muslims entering the US, no-one has commanded attention like the New Yorker. Moreover, not only have other Republicans felt compelled to follow his lead but even President Obama’s final State of the Union was essentially an extended rejoinder to the Donald.

So, what underlies the success? Anger, authenticity, media savvy, populism, and timing.

An unapologetically redemptive force

First, most Americans think their country is on the wrong track. Among white working class Americans – the core Trump constituency – stagnant wages, real income decline, and loss of a once-dominant status in a nation transforming economically and culturally underlies disillusion. For Americans regarding ‘their’ country as in need of taking back and among those fearing the US is in terminal decline – polarised and gridlocked at home, discounted and challenged for primacy abroad – Trump represents an unapologetically redemptive force: a visceral, primal scream from the heart of white American nationalism.

Second, Americans broadly view their government as ineffective and political system as corrupt. Running for Washington by running against it, on a platform of incoherent but potently opaque policy positions, no-one – for those wanting to change Washington – embodies the outsider like Trump. Moreover, uniquely, his personal fortune insulates him from charges that he can be ‘bought’ by vested interests. When Trump talks about knowing how to work the system as a businessman, he is credible. Add to that an outspoken willingness to speak directly, bluntly and without fear of causing offence and millions of Americans view the Donald as a truth teller. Like businessmen in politics before him, Trump promises that what he did for himself he can do for America, and that ordinary Americans will once more partake of the increasingly elusive American Dream.

Social media mogul

Third, Trump has exploited his formidable media knowledge with astonishing shrewdness. Outrageous statements, outlandish claims and telling personal insults – seemingly spontaneous but carefully pre-planned and road-tested – compel ratings. Social media abets the creation of an alternative reality and echo chamber from which the distrusted mainstream media are excluded. Disintermediation – cutting out the middle man – compounds Trump’s celebrity status to forge what his 5 million Twitter supporters perceive as a personal link to their politically incorrect champion.

Fourth, Trump – for whom id, not ideology, is all – upends conservative orthodoxy. A New York native who was for most of his life pro-choice on abortion, pro-gun control and a donor to Democrats, Trump is no staid Mitt Romney. In rejecting free trade deals and ‘stoopid’ Middle East wars, pledging to make allies from Saudi Arabia to South Korea pay for US protection, committing to punitive taxes on Wall Street and preserving entitlement programmes for the average Joe, Trump’s anti-elitism is scrambling a party establishment fearful of an anti-government populism it unleashed but cannot control.

Finally, if Obama won the presidency in 2008 as the ‘un-Bush’, what more vivid an antithesis to the current lame duck could be imagined than Trump? After seven years of the most polarising presidency since Richard Nixon, Trump promises to restore the art of the deal – something the US Constitution mandates for successful governing, and AWOL since 2009 – at home and abroad alike.

Can Trump triumph?

Can Trump prevail in the Republican demolition derby? The odds are still against him. After all, most Republicans do not support him and he has been first in national polls in large part because the ‘establishment’ vote has been so fragmented among Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie. But if Trump can win or come second to Ted Cruz in the Iowa caucus, and then top the New Hampshire and South Carolina polls, the prospects of him securing the nomination are 50-50 at worst. By the time of the Republican Party convention in Cleveland, Ohio in July, if not well in advance, no one may be laughing other than the Donald.

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