The Case for Subversive Monuments in Washington, D.C.

There is a lot in American history to celebrate and memorialize. But the darker moments need to be remembered, too.
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In eighth grade, when my class traveled to Washington, D.C., we saw monuments that celebrated the Founding Fathers, a larger-than-life homage to Abraham Lincoln, and memorials for men who died in bygone wars. All this was proper, as are statues of Martin Luther King Jr. and FDR and the planned Eisenhower memorial. Many figures in American history had achievements worth honoring. But perhaps in addition to building landmarks to the best parts of our past, the physical infrastructure of America's capital should note the worst of it. If D.C. statues and monuments didn't just exalt, but also criticized, would we face reality more squarely? 

In my travels, I can't recall a city where this is done, save one: Birmingham, Alabama. 

Conor Friedersdorf

Isn't that powerful? 

Architecture in world capitals has mostly gone all in on the Great Man theory of history. Though Washington does have a Holocaust Museum to document a horror perpetrated by foreigners, it lacks a memorial to the slaves who were among the greatest victims of this country and its government for several generations.

To see if a more subversive approach would prove worthwhile, let's try a thought experiment, for if this would work anywhere, it's in a country founded with a letter denouncing a king as an oppressive tyrant. Is there a set of monuments that would give the average visitor to Washington a fuller, more accurate sense of U.S. history, warts and all? Would criticism interspersed with praise better reflect the messiness of our contentious democracy and the realities of fallible human leadership? Would the self-criticism implicit in this project speak well of us as a nation? Or at least better prepare us to govern ourselves under the fallible humans of our time?

I submit that the answer to all those questions is yes.

As a start, existing monuments could be augmented to keep visitors engaged with historical figures rather than deified myths. The virtues and achievements of George Washington are spectacular. The fact that he he died owning 318 slaves should not be forgotten. Let's attach 318 lengths of chain at regular intervals to the foot of the Washington monument. Their links could correspond in number to the years a slave was held. A plaque would explain the chains and note that Washington was "the only slaveholding Founder to put provisions for manumission in his will." Visitors would be reminded that even far-seeing leaders can be blind to or participate in historic injustices. Wouldn't we do well to remember that?

The existing Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial includes men in a bread line to celebrate his efforts during the Great Depression. It might also include some representation of interned Japanese Americans being forced from their houses into camps. FDR did much good. He did shameful things too. To gaze on only the good is to deceive oneself. A historic injustice toward an ethnic minority in wartime is part of FDR's legacy. It ought to be prominently displayed with the rest of it.

The Vietnam War Memorial has always moved me.

Some distance away from the wall, I'd like to see a statue of Lyndon Baines Johnson with a pointed finger urging young men toward their deaths. That is, after all, what happened. And the J. Edgar Hoover Building could feature a statue of its namesake trying to foist a suicide note and a gun into the hands of Martin Luther King. I don't mean to dwell on the negative. But it's been ignored so long there's a lot to cover. We've done a much better job publicly celebrating what's good about our history. I'm glad those bits of public architecture exist, but we need not dwell on them here. This isn't about self-flagellation. Indeed, you and I did not do these things. The point is that a full understanding of our history is valuable in a self-governing nation.

As for Woodrow Wilson, I'd find a plaza in the capital to remember his civil-liberties abrogations. Imagine a circular fountain with 10 plaques around the periphery, each corresponding to a separate provision in the Bill of Rights. At the center of the fountain: a statue of Wilson himself on a rotating circular pedestal. Every 15 minutes, his body would rotate and spurts of water would emerge from his pursued lips as he "spat" on only those amendments he violated. Their text would erode over time. And my Washington-based colleagues, who work in the Watergate, might volunteer to help with upkeep on a whimsical, wax Richard Nixon figure in a burglar mask atop a ladder trying to wriggle into a third-floor window.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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