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Tomgram: Lawrence Weschler, A New Mount Rushmore for a World on the Brink?

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, history -- specifically the history of slavery and colonialism -- has become a central part of this protest moment. From the desire to rename American military bases named after Confederate generals (and often slave owners) to the tearing down or removal of statues to debates at museums about how to remember our past, the history of slavery in particular, that central feature of the American story, and the white racism so essential to it, has become a national and global issue. At the same time, President Trump has been praising those very base names ("these Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage") and recently threatened to jail for up to 10 years anyone trying to mar or fell such a statue or memorial. And yet the reality TV star who won the 2016 election looks increasingly like he's a fixture of an outmoded past.

What a change! As historian Nathan Huggins wrote so long ago in the introduction to his classic 1977 book Black Odyssey: The African-American Ordeal in Slavery, "White historians shared the view of the general white public -- the view of the Founders -- that black people did not exist in the world that mattered. Even in the writing about slavery, where blacks might logically be considered the principal subject, the habit was to write about it as an abstract social or economic institution, to see it as provocative of sectionalism and as a contributing cause of the Civil War. The slave's testimony was never sought and never recorded by historians." Until recently, in other words, black lives didn't matter.

Perhaps, then, it's an appropriate moment for TomDispatch regular Lawrence Weschler to offer some thoughts on the future commemoration of men like the president who, in these last years, have been so deeply involved in making this country the economic, legal, and pandemic morass it now is. In particular, how indeed are we going to memorialize in an appropriate fashion white figures whose acts are guaranteed to leave our children and grandchildren "breathless" in ways that will prove truly catastrophic? Tom

A True American Monument to Trumpian Times
Chief Justice John Roberts Auditions for a Spot on Mount Rushmore 2.0
By Lawrence Weschler

The news that President Trump is planning to stage a "massive fireworks display" before a sizeable crowd on Independence Day eve at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial (notwithstanding the prospect of both wildfires in the tinder-dry surroundings and the further spread of Covid-19) has left me mulling over once again the possible creation of another such epic-scale monument. Maybe it could even be incised into a nearby ridge in the same Black Hills area of South Dakota as the original, if the Lakota Sioux could be convinced to allow it, which they certainly didn't the first time around.

After all, back in the late 1920s, less than three decades and not 70 miles from the site of the ultimate treachery of the Wounded Knee massacre, that original undertaking to carve the faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt into the side of Mount Rushmore barreled heedlessly along, oblivious to Native American concerns. In the process, it desecrated one of the Sioux's holiest sites (the stark cliff face the Lakota ironically called the Six Grandfathers) in order to celebrate the leaders of the very nation that had stolen their land and then so savagely repressed them.

Incidentally, did you know -- I hadn't -- that the sculptor of the original Rushmore monument, Gutzon Borglum, was an avid member of the Ku Klux Klan? In fact, his first stab at such a gargantuan effort, earlier in the 1920s, had been his proposed Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial, featuring the mounted figures of generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as well as the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, leading their rebel armies.

That vast bas-relief was to grace the very site, half an hour outside Atlanta, where, on a cold Thanksgiving night in 1915, just a few months after the premiere of D.W. Griffith's movie Birth of a Nation (and shortly after that, the notorious mob-lynching of the falsely convicted Jewish factory superintendent Leo Frank in nearby Marietta), a select group of sheet-hooded men, led by William J. Simmons, founded the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan. Their ceremony culminated with the burning of a 16-foot cross atop the dome of the mountain, an act commemorated there every Labor Day for the next 50 years with similarly festive cross burnings.

As it happened, Borglum only made it as far as sculpting Lee's head before the initial version of the project bogged down in financial difficulties and intra-Klan sectarian strife in 1925. A couple of years later, he moved on to the Mount Rushmore project. Several decades later, however, work on a variation of Borglum's Stone Mountain would be revived by others, long after Mount Rushmore's completion. Indeed, with work once again well underway toward what would become the largest bas-relief anywhere in the world, a vast state park at the bottom of the mountain was inaugurated on April 14, 1965, the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's assassination, and the place would quickly become Georgia's most visited tourist attraction. But that's another story, worthy perhaps of an entirely different reckoning.

As for my own fantasized Rushmore 2.0, perhaps the Lakota would be more amenable to this version than they were the first time around, since the project would be aimed at addressing our common future, maybe half a century from now, and represent a graven missive from our own time to our progeny's, an attempt to account for the botched and blighted world we'll likely have bequeathed them by then.

Whose Heads (and Whose Hands) in the Pillory Stockade?

Rather than gazing off with visionary zeal toward some divinely sanctioned manifest destiny, as in the original, the foursome on my Mount Rushmore 2.0 would be lined up in a pillory stockade, each with his downcast face bracketed by similarly yoked hands. (The encasing yoke-planks would be meticulously carved into that granite cliff as well.) These would be the four men (and yes, of course, they would all be white men) from our era who, perhaps more than any others, could be deemed responsible for the dire endgame into which the world by that time might well have plunged: Four men who had the resources and intelligence to have known better but instead chose to swap out the long-term fate of their grandchildren (and the rest of the human progeny) in relentless pursuit of short-term profit and power.

The way I envision it, the first slot on that mountain would be reserved for media baron Rupert Murdoch who, by way of his News Corp empire, so single-handedly poisoned the well of public discourse with denial and obfuscation, not only in the United States, but in Britain as well as in his native Australia (where he controls 60% of all daily newspaper sales). For that matter, his damage extends globally, thanks to Fox News, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Sun, the News of the World, and their ilk (and recently, he even chose to solidify his malign record by installing his ideologically matched son Lachlan atop the firm's line of succession in conspicuous stead of his more circumspect and reportedly reform-minded son James).

The next slot over should surely go to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. After all, across a single crucial decade -- and how long can scientists and others keep insisting that we only have 10 or 12 years left to avert planetary ecological calamity before those years run out? -- he managed to upend virtually every effort of the Obama administration, no matter how deeply inadequate, to deal with the burning of fossil fuels. Then he abetted every anti-ecological, anti-climate-change initiative of the Trump administration, with immediate short-term benefits to his billionaire (often fossil-fueled) donors. Meanwhile, he succeeded in packing the courts with similarly blinkered reactionaries as a way of forestalling future efforts to reverse any of this.

And no, Donald J. Trump wouldn't even come close to qualifying for the third spot on that cliffside commemorative relief. The candidates, after all, would have to demonstrate enough intellectual bandwidth to grasp, however faintly, the stakes involved, and Trump demonstrably lacks any grasp whatsoever of the future he's leaving our children and their children. In any case, his hands are way too small. They'd keep slipping out of the stockade's granite boreholes and, as for his hair, how could any sculptor, no matter how gifted, be expected to reproduce such a mare's nest? Moreover, merely excluding him from such dubious company should be enough to provoke a veritable tweet storm of umbrage, which could, at least, provide the rest of us with a tad of dark entertainment across these dismal times, even if the project itself never advanced to the chiseling stage.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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