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Robert Azzi: I have no tolerance for ignorance and bigotry

  • An Iraqi man (bottom right) watches Cpl. Edward Chin of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines Regiment, cover the face of a statue of Saddam Hussein with an American flag before toppling the statue in downtown in Baghdad, Iraq, on April 9, 2003. Jerome Delay

For the Monitor
Published: 6/28/2020 6:40:11 AM

George W. Bush’s Battle of Baghdad, we are told, ended with toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square on April 9, 2003.

Contrary to the memory of many, Saddam’s toppling was not the result of a public uprising by Iraqi citizens thankful for being liberated, but of a public relations stunt executed by the United States military. No jubilant crowd had gathered but rather, as David Robie, of Auckland University of Technology described: “The square was largely empty except for three strategically positioned U.S. Abrams tanks and an armored personnel carrier plus a small paltry crowd of 100 or so.”

British columnist Robert Fisk – to my mind one of the most knowledgeable journalists covering the Middle East – described the event as “the most staged photo opportunity since Iwo Jima.”

We’ve been witnessing a lot of photographs of toppled statues lately, some staged some not; some justified, some not.

“Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things,” President Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said of the looting that he permitted – including of the National Museum – to occur after America invaded Iraq. “They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here.”

“And while no one condones looting, on the other hand one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people,” he continued, “who’ve had members of their family killed by that regime for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime.”

“Stuff happens,” Rumsfeld concluded.

This time, “Stuff” is happening in America – and it’s about time!

It’s about time for Americans to resist participation in the sustaining of false tropes about the Confederacy and slavery and the systemic racism that has been built upon its white supremacist foundation since the Civil War.

The Confederacy was established upon the premise of white supremacy and slavery. “Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition,” Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens said in his 1861 “Cornerstone speech.”

“These statues are not just stone and metal,” Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu said. “They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”

It’s time for all of them to come down, all 1,712 (according to the Southern Poverty Law Center) statues, plaques, schools, roads, federal military bases, buildings, parks, and other public monuments – most built decades after the Civil War to impress their existence during the Jim Crow era – that presume to honor traitors and slave traders.

Lonnie G. Bunch III, the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution – and first director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture – told the New York Times that he was “loath to erase history” and suggested that statues being removed should perhaps be gathered together somewhere (perhaps a museum?) and contextualized.

I agree. This history of oppression and exploitation should not be erased but it must be taken out of public spaces – away from public maintenance and glorification and its inhuman story be told.

One such model may be found in India where, fewer than 20 years after independence, the government turned Coronation Park – the park that once hosted a ruler’s noble court – into a public space where it gathered together the larger-than-life, overcompensating likenesses of British India’s rulers and overlords.

Other oppressive and totalitarian regimes have been dealt with differently.

In Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union, crowds tore down statues of Lenin, Stalin and other Soviet icons of oppression and totalitarianism.

In Antwerp, Belgium, protestors recently defaced and caused to be removed a 150-year-old statue of King Leopold II, who was responsible for the death of perhaps over 10 million people in Congo.

In England, a bronze statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader, was toppled into Bristol Harbor.

“You can’t satisfy some people,” Samuel Mitcham Jr., a historian for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told the Washington Post, arguing that the South left the Union for strictly economic reasons. “These monuments belong to our history. The only way we can come together is with tolerance, but Black Lives Matter isn’t very tolerant.”

Hmmm.

I have no tolerance for traitors and their apologists. I have no tolerance for people who believe that Black lives matter less than white lives.

The Equal Justice Initiative, founded in 1989 by Bryan Stevenson, has established, in Montgomery, Alabama, the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, on a site where enslaved people were once warehoused, a museum dedicated to acknowledging the legacy of slavery, lynching, and racial segregation in America – including identifying over 4,000 sites where people have been lynched.

I have no tolerance for ignorance and bigotry.

In 2009, as President Barack Obama moved into the White House, he had a bust of Winston Churchill – on loan to Present George W. Bush from the British Government – removed from the Oval Office and replaced with a bust of Martin Luther King Jr.

Americans tend to consider Churchill in deservedly heroic terms, especially in the context of his greatness, courage, in alliance with the United States, he exhibited in World War II.

We know that Churchill well.

But there is another Churchill unknown to many Americans. Outside our Americo-centric world many know Churchill as an imperialist and white supremacist; a fierce proponent of Great Britain’s colonial interests who in 1919, for example, wrote in support of putting down a Kurdish revolt in northern Iraq: ” I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes.”

Churchill called Gandhi, whom he despised “a half-naked fakir” who “ought to be laid, bound hand and foot, at the gates of Delhi and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new viceroy seated on its back.”

That’s the Churchill the non-imperialist world knows.

Churchill wore many hats in advancing British interests, from journalist to prime minister. He is remembered well in Kenya, for example, for support of the brutal suppression of the Mau-Mau revolt, an event certainly not unknown to President Obama, whose grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was imprisoned and tortured during the uprisings.

I, too, would choose MLK over Churchill.

(Robert Azzi, a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter, can be reached at theother.azzi@gmail.com. His columns are archived at theotherazzi.wordpress.com.)




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