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Let Columbus stand

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette logo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 9/27/2020 THE EDITORIAL BOARD / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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The Pittsburgh Art Commission has unanimously voted to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus from Schenley Park. But the final decision is up to the mayor.

Actually, it will probably be up to the courts. For the city promised, in 1958, when the statue was installed, to maintain it in perpetuity. Perhaps the Art Commission could argue that it could be maintained in a storage unit, or even a museum. But that would not be very honest or honorable.

This is a moment for Mayor Bill Peduto to take the long and wide view, to create a teachable moment and to be a statesman — one with guts.

Some will call this vote and votes like it a tip of the hat to wokeness and political correctness. But it’s a lot more than that. It’s a vote against history and historical understanding which, of its true nature, must embrace complexity and the possibility of many truths.

This is the long view: History is full of bad guys and good guys, but also people who were both bad and good. Lyndon Johnson did some very good things in his life in politics, and some bad ones too. Ditto, John F. Kennedy.

Moreover, and more important, history is full of gray areas — conflicting truths, disputed truths and myths that rise and fall as we look and think harder. History is not static.

This is the wide view: Sometimes those myths have their own power. Kennedy is, again, an example. For many people in this country and around the world, the understanding of what Jack Kennedy did, right and wrong, is less important than this mythic aspect — what his life and death and rhetoric stand for as an idea.

There is something deeply ahistorical about the statue smashers in our midst. They do not embrace history in all of its complexity and messiness. They want it cleansed and purged to fit the ideologies and fads of the moment, which is actually anti-historical and, at its far edges, totalitarian.

This hostility to the character of history is also unimaginative and dumb.

Suppose, 50 years hence, the consensus of the moment is that Martin Luther King Jr. was a womanizer and a misogynist? Will we then take down all the statues to him? Will we decide that all the good he ever did should be washed away?

There is something, also, profoundly unempathetic about destroying parts of our past that have mythic power for some people. Christopher Columbus is a symbol of pride for Italian Americans. He stands for something other than his life and the specifics of it — many of which are rightly repugnant to us today. Shouldn’t those not of Italian descent respect what Columbus means to Italian Americans?

The left is sympathetic to forgotten people and oppressed people on a selective basis. The white and poor Appalachian feels as forgotten as the Black man in America today and the Irish and Italians were once the oppressed immigrants of the nation. All are entitled to their pain, myths and heroes. And all of those heroes have feet of clay just as all of the myths have holes in them.

Would it not be better to build a memorial to Native Americans in Schenley Park than to take down the Columbus statue?

We know the answer to that question in our hearts and clear minds. The mayor knows the answer. He can choose history, complexity and sympathy, or he can bow to the bullies, the puritans and the witch burners.

Which will it be, your honor?

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