...because we're bold

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Joe Paterno, George Washington, and Christopher Columbus

It seems that Pennsylvania is once again in the center of an artistic controversy, this time over the statue of late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Just in case anyone is not aware, Joe Paterno was implicated in covering up the sexual assaults committed by his assistant, Jerry Sandusky. As a result of this situation, the college is now considering removing his statue. While this is a tremendously charged issue, as any situation involving child abuse is wont to be, this is less an issue of what Paterno did, or in this situation, did not do, and more of a case of how his legacy will be remembered. The case will then be if he is remembered for his good accomplishments, or if he will merely be known as the man who could have done more.

The author James W. Lowen once set out the case that a monument is actually a commemoration of two time periods, that of the time it was constructed, in addition to the actual commemoration taking place. This is easily seen in the example of Paterno, as the statue was constructed at the height of his accomplishments, and as such, it was seen as the glorification of him, as well as the college. Now, with his legacy and reputation in doubt, this statue may be seen as something altogether different.

An excellent example of this might be in the case of George Washington. He is naturally considered the "Father of the Country," a title which is actually not that inaccurate. However, he also owned slaves. Moreover, unlike his contemporary Thomas Jefferson, who rankled with the issues posed by stating "all men are created equal" while holding men into the bondage of slavery, it appears Washington had no such scruples.

It might be argued that Washington is a special case however, in the sense that it might be in the Americans self-interest to essentially repress these facts. After all, if Washington is considered the foremost of the Founding Fathers, and he is flawed, then how strong is the foundation on which we rest?

Therefore, we might look to another example to describe the situation going on, with ramifications into today, that of the heroic figure of Christopher Columbus. No known portraits of Columbus exist from his lifetime, yet a proliferation of statues and monuments exist. While Columbus is considered the foremost navigator of today, it might be more accurate to describe him as having one of the world's foremost publicists. In actuality, his accomplishments, while notable, were not the high mark of the age of navigation. However, he is the most well known of the explorers. Meanwhile, in addition to his navigational accomplishments, he is largely responsible for the destruction of the Arawak nation, and the conquest of the Americas. We honor a man who accomplished something great, yet was also incredibly destructive. In the end, we honor the accomplishment, but not the man.

A final example lies in a somewhat lesser known historical figure, from the American Civil War. Nathaniel Bedford Forrest. Markers and monuments to him dot the Southern landscape, as he was one of the best cavalry commanders of the Civil War (this is less conjecture than it seems, as he was noted as such by officers on both sides of the conflict.) He was made notorious by his actions both during the war (including commanding the forces that committed a massacre at Fort Pillow) and immediately following it (commanding the Ku Klux Klan.) Several years later, he reversed his views on race, in favor of reconciliation. In the American South, he is now considered still a hero, but a relatively minor one at that. Some institutions still honor him, but it is tempered by a knowledge of his actions.

I think this is the route that will be, and should be followed in regards to Joe Paterno. His deeds cannot be erased, but we have already noted him for his accomplishments. As such, we should keep his monument in place, but with the knowledge of what he did. It would then serve as a greater monument than ever before, to serve as a monument both to what Joe Paterno actually accomplished, and as a reminder of the dangers of not speaking out.

Andrew W. Huntley II
Artistic Director, Theatre Sans Serif


  1. Uh...let me get this straight. You are actually comparing founding a free democracy with free speech and freedom of religion in the face of a monarchy armed to the teeth AND sailing to possible certain death in uncharted waters with no certainty of success with WINNING FOOTBALL GAMES?!?!?! Wow, has our bar for courage and daring really sunk low...JoePa was not a hero, he was not a god. He was a man that was good at his job, like lots of people. And his job made him rich and famous, unlike lots of people. We are not honoring him for character, courage or sacrifice, we are honoring him because we place an obscene importance on spectator sports in this country. Pah-lease. I'm a Penn State alum and I say you can't take the statue down fast enough for me. Oh, and it's also not at all parallel to compare Washington owning slaves with Paterno not reporting child rape. As heinous as the practice was, slavery was the norm in Washington's day. I think we can all agree that Paterno should have known, by the norms of his own culture that he was (if you'll pardon the pun) dropping the ball.

  2. I do see your point on Washington, and I realize that I came down harshly on him. Personally, I don't think you can come down harshly enough on Columbus. He did change the world, largely through conquest and ethnic cleansing. My entire point was that monuments are erected constantly, and that they serve a place as a reflection on the attitudes of those who place it, as much if not more so than the initial event or person they celebrate. I think keeping the statue, as long as people are aware of both sides of the controversy, would allow it to serve as a teaching tool for how attitudes change.