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.

Wikimedia/The Atlantic

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.

Of course, every suggestion of this sort is bound to be contentious—just as every celebratory monument and somber war memorial is contentious—and it would probably be best to have a standing rule against negative monuments that portray the living or even the recently dead. Let's say nothing should be commissioned until 15 years after someone is gone. Even so, proposals for future monuments could have a salutary effect on public policy. In present-day D.C., the legacy-minded official can look around his or her city and be reasonably sure that no deed, however infamous, will one day make him or her the object of disdainful, ashamed tourists.

Perhaps John Yoo would've thought twice about the dubious legal cover he gave to Bush administration torture, or his judgment that there are circumstances in which the president could legally crush the testicles of a child to elicit information from his father, if he'd envisioned a future where tourists on the mall would see a statue of a bound, naked child, a masked man cranking a vise around his testicles, and a marble Yoo shrugging his shoulders as if to say, "I'm not gonna stop you." That may sound implausibly grisly for a monument. I'd approve it as part of a series of set pieces on the history of torture, a moral abomination that justifies graphicness as surely as land mines, chemical weapons, and genocide. All are shocking when seen clearly. It might begin with the Spanish Inquisition and end with a small theater, the seats filled with statues of the most prominent Americans who favored waterboarding. They'd all be posed giving thumbs-up signs while they watched the big screen as it replayed video of a captive being repeatedly waterboarded. Could anyone claim that such a literal exhibit misrepresented their views?

Those who would elide America's past and present flaws in perpetuity are not just weakening the nation by denying it the necessary information to assess reality and avoid repeating mistakes. They are also betraying a dearth of confidence in the U.S. and the defensibility of celebrating what it has actually been. A frank assessment produces so many reasons for celebration. And evading the many reasons for laments isn't just untenable, it's unnecessary. Every country's past is a horror show. Countries that honestly grapple with and learn from past misdeeds are truly exceptional. A truth we could better remember is that, across the decades, good leaders and bad have done terrible things, often to helpless victims. They've held deeply wrongheaded positions and abused their power, sometimes with the best of intentions. At present, the monuments of Washington, D.C., make this easy to forget. So long as we're still governing ourselves, better that we're reminded daily.

Yes, I know.

My examples left the realm of the plausible, at least as long as we're thinking of monuments that would require congressional approval. Although I'd defend all of them as useful thought experiments, I actually think there's one way this could be more. Official monuments appropriately require the consent of the polity's representatives. But everyone enjoys rights to free speech and assembly. Perhaps some temporary, unofficial "monuments"—created in physical space and photographed for posterity—could be a form of real-time protest or historical commentary.

For those who can't make it to Washington with sufficient amounts of papier maché, there's always artist's renderings. Critiques will be diverse, often diverging from my own hobbyhorses. If you build or draw something, I'd still love to see it. I reserve the right to reproduce all emailed images with a chisel and a piece of marble.