WASHINGTON – Latest to the vandals goes Teddy Roosevelt, whose bronze likeness astride a horse in front of New York’s American Museum of Natural History recently received a splash of red paint upon its base.
“Now the statue is bleeding,” proudly pronounced a group of protesters in claiming credit for the makeover. “We did not make it bleed. It is bloody at its very foundation.”
One wonders whether these poseurs know anything at all about the man they’ve targeted. The 26th president gave us national parks, industrial regulation and environmental conservationism, among other things. He was also the author of over 40 books, some of which chronicle his expeditions and safaris that provided some of the basis for the natural history housed in the museum where he and his trusty steed keep vigil.
Also, he died almost 100 years ago (1919). When are these self-important moderns going to get over themselves?
The New York vandalism, which isn’t directly connected to the recent flurry of protests against Confederate statues, is merely the most recent episode in a protest that gained traction in 2016 by the same groups that also want to change Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. What apparently triggered the freelance artists were two other figures – an indigenous American and an African – flanking Roosevelt’s horse.
The jury is still out about what to do about the statue. Nothing would be a rational option, if a panel created by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio can handle some heat. Roosevelt may not be a civil rights icon like Rev. Martin Luther King, but he was hardly the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, either. Indeed, in 1905, Roosevelt gave a speech at the New York Republican Party Club that paid tribute to Abraham Lincoln and addressed racial inequality, which Roosevelt said he aimed to change. That this radical social transformation didn’t occur within his time or tenure doesn’t affirm in itself that he was racist.
In the speech, he did abysmally refer to whites as a “forward race.” But the focus of his address was to echo Lincoln in calling strongly for the raising of minorities’ status, which Roosevelt correctly said would benefit the entire country.
And what about the two non-whites in the statue? Let’s take a look.
First, both men are walking in a proud, dignified manner, suggesting a parade in which the Rough Rider is accompanied by individuals who were part of his life experience. Second, we have to ask, what was the context of the time? Without the historical backdrop, criticism – of politics, art or literature – is meaningless.
In 1901, when this Harvard-educated, wealthy, progressive, worldly Republican New Yorker became president, was he enslaving Indians and blacks? No. Was he hunting extensively in the American West and later in Africa? Yes. Quite a lot. Given this record, is it not possible that the other two figures represent his guides or scouts on his American West hunts and African safaris?
The statue, created as a historical representation of the man and erected to honor his contributions to our knowledge of natural history, may be offensive to a few, but by what imperative are their feelings to be considered superior to the broader citizenry’s right to not see public property harmed, defaced or splattered with paint – or some facsimile thereof?
Vandalism, contrary to the group’s claim that they’re performing “public art,” is the artless tantrum of a childish, self-absorbed mind. Defeating a block of stone or bronze hardly requires courage or, obviously, intellect.
Why not come up with something, I don’t know, classier?
Make an argument. Present facts. Bring passion but keep a cool head. One could argue, for example, that the protests against Confederate statues are substantively different from the objections to Roosevelt’s monument. Given that most Civil War statues in the South were erected during the civil rights movement, inarguably, they memorialize not Southern courage but Jim Crow, a cowardly, despicable period of state-sponsored terrorism against blacks who had the audacity to insist upon equality under the law.
There. Put that on your plaque, if you care so much about history.
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who hated the idea of memorials to the war, would likely be happy for his statues to settle in a statuary hall. As for Roosevelt, one only wishes the swashbuckling warrior-president could dismount for a few minutes and teach his vandals some manners. I’m guessing, but I suspect his two companions would lend him a hand.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.