Generally when you hear the word “icon” you think of something positive as “He’s an icon of his industry.” But, if you’re in graphics, you might be more neutral about the word and think of it just as a symbol similar to universal symbols for men’s and women’s rooms. And, if you’re a student of the Old Testament, your thoughts about icons might be definitively more negative — remember Moses and the Golden Calf?
The question of icons is sticky, with some being logos, some being helpful “way finding” signs, and others leading to idolatry, or the worship of idols. The difference is important, not only in icons, themselves, but in those items such as crosses, torches, and even monuments that, because we’re human, we infuse with meanings and devotional overtones that the items, in of themselves, either may not have, or could have other connotations in other arenas. Not all symbols are equal.
The Nazi salute is recognized worldwide as a symbol of anti-semitism and white supremacy. It’s not open to interpretation. Similarly, the white KKK hood with holes for eyes is an equally evil and clear symbol of domestic, racial terrorism — plain and simple.
A monument can be more nuanced. If it’s in a public square it can have a very different meaning than if the same monument is in a cemetery or museum. If the monument is a piece of art such as Rodin Sculpture, it is very different from a monument to a fallen fighter. It’s worth remembering that when the Declaration of Independence was first read in the city of New York on July 9, 1776, the crowd reacted by teaming with soldiers and tearing down the gilded equestrian statue of George III. The symbol of the king no longer warranted a hallowed place in Manhattan. Bits of the golden horse’s tail can still be seen in the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. So too, by the way, is the tent of George Washington. The lead statue no longer exists, but the cloth tent does.
Poor George III was not the only leader to have the fate of his statue go asunder. Consider the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Bagdhad in April 2003. The statue was considered an “iconic” representation of the end of Saddam’s reign of terror. Ironically, the back story is more layered than one might think per this 2011 article from The Atlantic. Similarly, the statue of Lenin was toppled in Kiev, Ukraine in 2013, and a statue of Cecil Rhodes was removed in South Africa in 2015. Ironically, discussions are now also underway for removal of yet another Lenin statue in Seattle, Washington of all places.
Lenin, Rhodes, Hussein and George III are all historical figures, but over time have been found to be on the darker side of history. As a result, one by one, their monuments, aka statues, were taken out of the light of the day with some being destroyed and toppled, while others were just removed to be more out of sight and out of mind.
When discussing monuments, it might be helpful to remember the definition of an icon as a “religious symbol of devotion.” If monuments were merely historical artifacts such as confederate uniform buttons, they would likely be gathering dust in a museum, not out in the public squares. And, when devotees use and imbue statues with fundamentalist meanings (calling them monuments among other things) , they are no longer neutral.
When it comes to American statues, there’s truly only one that consistently inspires us at Little Hinges. It doesn’t depict a real human as we are so fallible. It also doesn’t depict a man of any race or persuasion. It’s the Statue of Liberty standing tall and proud in New York harbor. There, there is no “moral ambiguity.” SHE holds a torch high that inspires rather than a torch that instills fear. And, SHE unfailingly welcomes all regardless of background or history. SHE is the true symbol of all we still hope to be. Isn’t it also ironic that we never refer to her as a monument. Humbly, she always remains a statue.
Little Hinge Actions to Consider:
- Certainly join with others to make sane voices heard. This Sunday (8/20/17), MoveOn.org is sponsoring a nationwide call at 8PM ET on steps to consider going forward.
- Take a pilgrimage to the Statue of Liberty.
- Find positive symbolism that keeps you inspired. I still wear my safety pin bracelet daily to remind me to stay open to immigrants and those feeling less secure in today’s world. Alex and Ani also has a Liberty Copper jewelry series inspired by the copper taken during the most recent renovation of the Statue of Liberty.