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OPINION | GUY LANCASTER: Fallen idols

Replacing one object of worship with another by GUY LANCASTER SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | July 4, 2021 at 1:57 a.m.
University of Arkansas students and members of the campus community participate in a march on March 13 during an anti-racism rally to express support for the campus to disassociate from J. William Fulbright and Charles Brough, who have been criticized for stances taken against civil rights and in support of white landowners after racial violence against Black citizens. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

Writing in the early second century CE, Roman chronicler Tacitus provided the following report of the Siege of Jerusalem by Pompey the Great in 63 BCE: "The first Roman to subdue the Jews and set foot in their temple by right of conquest was Gaius Pompey; thereafter it was a matter of common knowledge that there were no representations of the gods within, but that the place was empty and the secret shrine contained nothing."

No doubt Pompey entered said temple for the purpose of overturning whatever idols he might find therein. This was a fairly common act of propaganda in the ancient world to demonstrate the superiority of one set of gods over another.

And so we can imagine Pompey, with a crooked smile on his face, when he invaded the inner sanctum of the temple there in Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies where even the local priests were allowed entrance only one day a year. He fully intended to embarrass and humiliate these conquered Jews, only to pull back the final curtain to find that the god worshipped by the children of Abraham had no physical form that could be crushed underfoot.

How his smile must have faded into confusion, and then perhaps even just a twinge of terror. The place was empty, and the secret shrine contained nothing that could be destroyed.

A god that is not embodied in a graven image cannot be toppled or overthrown.

Idols have, throughout history, been toppled for many reasons. Conquerors destroyed the sacred images of those whom they subjugated. Later, as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, adherents to the new religion often destroyed the temples and images of pagan gods, a tradition those Christians carried over into the New World more than a millennium later.

Granted, these Christians often replaced those idols with their own statues of apostles and saints, leading later, more iconoclastic factions to repeat the process somewhat more thoroughly.

When the American colonists declared their independence from the British Empire, down went local statues of King George III. And in recent history, newly freed Estonians and Lithuanians pulled down monuments to Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin the moment the Iron Curtain came down, just as Iraqis did to graven images of Saddam Hussein following the U.S. invasion of that country.

Every idol, be it of god or man, will eventually be toppled, even if only by the power of time and entropy itself. Percy Shelley's 1818 sonnet "Ozymandias" speaks to this as it relates in brief the tale of "a traveller from an antique land" who finds in the desert a broken statue on whose pedestal appear the words: My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

But that is all that remains of the so-called "king of kings" and his empire: Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Which all raises the question: Why do we build so many statues in the first place?

An old joke tells the story of a Chinese man who, upon retirement, decided to do a tour of each of the 50 states in the U.S. Upon his return home, his family and friends asked him which American state was his favorite, and he surprised them by naming South Carolina. Why, they wanted to know, was he so taken with that particular place?

"Well," he said, "I found it to be the one state most like China. You see, in South Carolina, they also eat a lot of rice and worship their own ancestors."

Sometimes we have to see ourselves from another's perspective to understand what we are really doing. American rhetoric as regards our practice of commemorating the past, especially its more contentious bits, often centers upon the idea of "honoring" certain individuals for certain of their qualities, real or imagined. That is the reason, we like to say, that we have installed so many statues across our landscape.

But unlike the South Carolinians whose state he was visiting, the Chinese man in our joke was not fooled. He knew ancestor worship when he saw it, even if the heathen peoples of Charleston did not bring offerings of steamed rice and incense to the idol images of Robert E. Lee.

Some theologians believe that the various authors of the Hebrew scriptures offered rather unflattering portraits of their forefathers precisely to prevent them from being worshipped as gods. It is why we have the story of brave Abram, newly called by God, cowering at the thought that the pharaoh of Egypt might kill him and take his wife, so much so that he passes Sarai off as his sister and lets pharaoh sleep with her.

It is why we have the story of David's adultery with Bathsheba and Solomon's harem of foreign women. Men and women rendered in their full human complexity are much more challenging to transmute into flawless divine beings.

Indeed, that human complexity becomes a challenge even outside matters of divine transfiguration, as we have witnessed here in Arkansas recently with discussion surrounding the legacy of J. William Fulbright, one-time president of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and a longtime U.S. senator.

Before the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last year and the worldwide re-evaluation of those historical figures we have commemorated in the public square, Fulbright had long been regarded as something of a liberal icon.

An opponent of the Vietnam War, Fulbright long sought to promote harmonious international relations by creating, earlier in his career, what is now called the Fulbright Exchange Program, the goal of which he stated thusly: "If large numbers of people can learn to know and understand people from nations other than their own, they might develop a capacity for empathy, a distaste for killing other men, and an inclination for peace."

Fulbright also stood up against Sen. Joseph McCarthy and other manifestations of paranoid right-wing ideologies that presented themselves as anti-communist. For example, in a memorandum he sent to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in June 1961, Fulbright condemned the National Education Program, an institute established at Harding College in Searcy for the purpose of marrying fundamentalist Christianity to free-enterprise economic doctrine.

Despite the Fayetteville-born and Oxford-educated Fulbright having long embodied the ideal liberal Arkansan, he was nonetheless a signatory of the Southern Manifesto, a 1956 document in which 101 U.S. representatives and senators from the South openly declared their opposition to the desegregation of public places, especially schools.

Most histories have emphasized the role Fulbright reportedly played in toning down the Southern Manifesto, while many have excused some of the more "moderate" signatories their participation, given that they would likely have been challenged by more rabid segregationists had they not put their names to that document.

However, in our era of re-evaluation, especially as regards matters of race, that Southern Manifesto has become a stain that is harder and harder to wash out, especially when combined with Fulbright's other acts of opposition to civil rights. And if we feel increasingly uncomfortable with the legacy of Fulbright, what do we do with the statue of him on campus?

The existence of that statue has resulted in some interesting side-taking of late. Many of those who lean toward the political left are fine with removing this idol of a liberal icon, while conservative Republicans have put themselves in a position of defending a Democratic senator who opposed the Christian nationalism and unrestrained capitalism that have become the two main components of their party ideology. (Not to mention how the self-described "Party of Lincoln" has taken a similarly bipartisan approach regarding those monuments depicting devout Democrats who perpetrated treason in defense of slavery.)

The whole matter has become a muddled mess because Fulbright was fundamentally human. His life was riven with the contradictions that underlie our mortal existence.

Before this debate came to center upon our political leaders, it had already emerged in the realm of literature and art, with folks asking whether one could truly enjoy the works of Hemingway and Picasso, for example, knowing that their relationships with women were less than ideal, to say the least.

I tended to fall on the side of judging the art by the man, until one day, when I was recommending to an acquaintance a particular book by British writer Rebecca West, only to have him say: "I don't know that I'd feel right reading her, given how badly she treated her son."

"But," I started, and I could hear emerging from my throat the excuse I had heard from other people about other authors--but she writes so well it doesn't matter what she did! Yes, she treated her son absolutely horribly. And yes, her "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" is perhaps the one book I would take if destined to be stranded on a deserted island for the rest of my life. There is simply no squaring those two facts.

The same goes for anyone whom we might be tempted to idolize. After all, an investigation even into the man perhaps most credibly described as an American saint, Martin Luther King Jr., reveals a life that had a good dose of King David about it.

But more importantly than the complexities of human nature, a focus upon an individual, even the most heroic individual, removes the broader context in which their good deeds took place and distorts our sense of history.

No general won a war without the brave deeds of men whose lives expired anonymously in the mud and remain unheralded. Likewise, every child who participated in the desegregation of a school, who faced down the indifference of teachers and the hostility of classmates, had an entire community behind her, comforting her and tutoring her and bearing part of the weight for her.

No historian will ever recover from the depths of time the names of all of those who shaped, for the better, this world we have inherited. As novelist Mary Anne Evans observed, "the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

No one man or woman can embody all the ideals that we want to incarnate in our institutions and pass along to our descendants. In fact, our descendants will inevitably have values different from ours, values shaped by what they inherit and what they experience. Likewise, no single idol can ever faithfully represent the complexity of our history.

So rather than trying to excuse this or that infraction, and rather than sifting through the past to find some figure on whose legacy all might agree, let us cultivate the awe of that empty room that confronted Pompey the Great. Let us empty our public spaces of idols and thus make room, finally, for all of us Americans.

Tacitus writes that the secret shrine Pompey entered contained nothing, and his pagan eyes probably saw exactly that. But those who worshipped at that temple knew differently. For them, the emptiness contained everything.

The future of a statue of J. William Fulbright, which stands near the west entrance of Old Main on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville, is being debated because of the former university president and U.S. senator’s opposition to civil rights.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
The future of a statue of J. William Fulbright, which stands near the west entrance of Old Main on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville, is being debated because of the former university president and U.S. senator’s opposition to civil rights. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
U.S. Sens. J. William Fulbright (right) and John McClellan participate in groundbreaking ceremonies for Dardanelle Lock and Dam on June 12, 1959, in Dardanelle, accompanied by U.S. Rep. Brooks Hays (second from left) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Major General Emerson Itschner.
(AP file photo/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
U.S. Sens. J. William Fulbright (right) and John McClellan participate in groundbreaking ceremonies for Dardanelle Lock and Dam on June 12, 1959, in Dardanelle, accompanied by U.S. Rep. Brooks Hays (second from left) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Major General Emerson Itschner. (AP file photo/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
President Harry S. Truman signs the Fulbright Act, authorizing funds from the sale of surplus war materials to be used to finance exchange programs of students and teachers between the U.S. and other countries, in August 1946 as J. William Fulbright and assistant secretary of state William Benton look on.
(Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Truman Presidential Library)
President Harry S. Truman signs the Fulbright Act, authorizing funds from the sale of surplus war materials to be used to finance exchange programs of students and teachers between the U.S. and other countries, in August 1946 as J. William Fulbright and assistant secretary of state William Benton look on. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette/Truman Presidential Library)
Harry Ashmore (left), editor of the Arkansas Gazette, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials in 1957 on the school integration conflict in Little Rock, and J. William Fulbright share a laugh in November 1972.
(File photo by Steve Keesee)
Harry Ashmore (left), editor of the Arkansas Gazette, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials in 1957 on the school integration conflict in Little Rock, and J. William Fulbright share a laugh in November 1972. (File photo by Steve Keesee)

Print Headline: Fallen idols

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