When I was a student at the University of Colorado, I regularly walked by the Dalton Trumbo memorial fountain which was named after the communist Stalin-sympathizing novelist and screenwriter.
Once upon a time, the fountain had been simply known as “the fountain,” but around 25 years ago, it was unnecessarily renamed after a controversial person.
The reason for the renaming the fountain was the same as it is with any memorial or monument designed to honor a person or idea—to create an emotional connection and familiarity with the person or idea connected to the place; to communicate a certain view of history.
The renaming of the fountain followed an earlier renaming controversy. One of the University’s dorms, Nichols Hall, was named after a participant in the infamous Sand Creek Massacre. Even in its own time, the massacre had been denounced, earning condemnation from Indian fighters like Kit Carson. Not surprisingly, the dorm that bore Nichols’s name was eventually renamed “Cheyenne Arapahoe” in honor of the Indian tribes whose members Nichols had helped attack.
As with the Trumbo fountain, the dorm’s name was changed in order to send subtle messages—messages about what is valued, what is good, and what is bad. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. The problem only arises when we begin to use taxpayer-funded facilities and institutions to carry out these attempts at education.
Thus, in a sense, when approaching the problem of government monuments and memorials, we encounter the same problem we have with public schools. Whose values are going to be pushed, preserved, and exalted? And, who’s going to be forced to pay for it?
This problem is further complicated by the fact that these views change over time.
Over time, the “good guys” can change as majority views shift, as new groups take over the machinery of government institutions, and as ideologies change.
In 1961, when Nichols Hall was named, few people apparently cared much about the Sand Creek Massacre. 25 years later, however, views had changed considerably among both students and administrators.
For a very obvious illustration of how these changes takes place, we need look no further than the schools.
In the early days of public schooling—an institution founded by Christian nationalists to push their message—students were forced to read the King James Bible. Catholics were forced to pay taxes so schools could instruct students on how awful and dangerous Catholicism was. Immigrant families from Southern and Eastern Europe were forced to pay for schools that instructed their children on the inferiority of their non-Anglo ethnic groups.
A century later, things have changed considerably. Today, Anglo-Saxons are taught to hate themselves, and while Catholics are still despised (but for different reasons), they now are joined in their pariah status by most other Christian groups as well. Italians and Eastern Europeans who were once treated in public schools as subhuman are now reviled as members of the white oppressor class.
Similar changes have taken place in art and in public monuments and memorials, but the principle remains the same whether we’re talking about public schools or public monuments. We are using public funds and facilities to “educate” the public about what’s good and what’s not.
This has long been known by both the people who first erected today’s aging monuments, and by the people who now want to tear them down. The leftists who support scrapping certain monuments actively seek to change public monuments and memorials to back up their own worldview because they recognize that it can make a difference in the public imagination. They’re fine with forcing the taxpayers to support their own worldview, of course, and actively seek to use public lands, public spaces, public roads, and public buildings to subsidize their efforts. They already succeeded in doing this with public schools decades ago.
In a way, the combined effect of public memorials, monuments, streets, and buildings function to turn public spaces into a type of large open-air social studies class, reinforcing some views, while ignoring others.
Libertarians have long noted the problem of public education: it’s impossible to teach history in a value-neutral way, and thus public schools are likely to teach values that support the state and its agendas. Even some conservatives have finally caught on.
To combat this problem, those who object to these elements within public schooling support homeschooling, private schooling, and private-sector alternatives that diminish the role of public institutions.
In both cases, the answer is the same: minimize the role of government institutions in shaping public ideology, public attitudes, and the public’s view of history.
Rather than using publicly funded thoroughfares, parks, and buildings as a means of reinforcing public “education” and “shared history” as we do now, these government facilities should be stripped down to their most basic functions. Providing office space for administrative offices, providing streets for transport, and providing parks for recreation. (The last thing we need is a history lesson from the semi-illiterates on a typical city council.)
Some might argue that all these properties and facilities should be privatized themselves. That’s fair enough, but as long as we’re forced to live with these facilities, we need not also use them to “honor” politicians or whatever persons the current ruling class happens to find worthy of praise.
The nostalgia lobby will react with horror to this proposition. “Why, you can’t do that!” they’ll complain. “We’ll be robbed of our heritage and history.” Even assuming these people could precisely define exactly who “we” are, they still need to explain why public property is necessary to preserve this alleged heritage.
After all, by this way of thinking, the preservation of one’s culture and heritage relies on a subsidy from the taxpayers, and a nod of assent from government agencies. Once upon a time, however, people who actually valued their heritage did not sit around begging the government to protect it for them. Many were willing to actually take action and spend their own money on preserving the heritage that many now rather unconvincingly claim is so important to them.
A good example of the key role of private property in cases such as this can be seen in the work of the Catholic Church in the US, which has never enjoyed majority support from the population or from government institutions. If Catholics were to get their symbols and memorials in front of the public, they were going to have to build them on private property, and that’s exactly what they did.
In Denver, for example, the Catholics of the early 20th century knew correctly that no public park or government building was going to erect any Catholic-themed art or memorials on their property. So, the Catholics improvised and proceeded to erect an enormous cathedral on a hilltop one block from the state capitol. The new cathedral was highly visible and provided easy access to religious ceremonies for the few Catholic politicians and officials who worked at the capitol. It provided meeting space, and contained stained-glass art created by German masters. Moreover, the new building served as a huge symbolic middle finger to the anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan which was growing in importance in Denver at the time.
Did Church officials sit around whining about how there was no crucifix on the front lawn of the State Capitol? Did they demand that the taxpayers finance the maintenance of a central town plaza featuring a statue of Saint Peter? Some probably did. Those who made a difference, though, took action and acquired real estate in prominent places throughout the city. They put universities on that land, and cemeteries, and convents, and friaries, and schools, and even some memorials and statues. Today, next to the cathedral, on a busy street corner, is a large statue of a Catholic pope: John Paul II. It’s on private property. It’s seen by thousands of folks every day.