The most jarring thing about watching last month’s Arcata City Council meeting on whether or not to move the statue of President William McKinley from the Plaza was person after person talking about the Spanish-American War, or about the annexation of Hawaii, or about the generally imperialist legacy of our 25th president. You couldn’t help but think they were missing the point somehow. Before the most recent outbreak of hostilities, when was the last time a peek at the statue last set you to musing on history?
But then you remember: Oh, yeah! That big, goofy man-shaped hunk of bronze is theoretically supposed to represent something. So: Full marks to the statue’s opponents for actually looking at the thing and taking it at face value. It might seem like kind of a nerdy thing to do, and someone more versed in it than I could probably question the depth of their scholarship, but they win the argument. They have thought about President McKinley more — much more — than anyone else around here has, and they take the statue seriously as a representation of the man.
And yet supporters of the McKinley statue lament that their opponents are out to “erase our history.” What history are they talking about? Statue opponents aren’t out to censure someone who actually played a notable part in the particular history of this place. This isn’t a statue of L.K. Wood, or Ki-we-lat-tah, or Bret Harte, or Ulysses S. Grant. McKinley’s role in the story of Humboldt County is pretty insignificant. McKinley’s role in the story of the United States is pretty insignificant. (And to the degree that it is significant, it is most significant for … what? That’s what I thought.)
What the statue supporters are upset by, if they’re being honest with themselves, is that statue opponents might erase the history of the statue. They lament the coming end of their own relationship with a whimsical artifact that for some reason has stood in the Plaza for a century, glowering down on generations of Arcata children as they play on the grass. If fate had placed a statue of Chester Arthur or Martin Van Buren there, the statue’s supporters would feel exactly the same feelings for it. The statue, to them and to most of us who have lived here long enough, signifies nothing but itself. That’s because it isn’t a historical monument at all anymore, if ever it was. It’s a tchotchke.
The McKinley statue is a cheap tchotchke, and we shouldn’t feel bad about tossing it in the trash.
There’s a snow globe of Mount Rushmore on your windowsill. It’s been sitting there for years. Where did it come from? You’ve never been to Mount Rushmore, but you’ve had this thing forever. You’re reluctant to chuck it out in case it might mean something to someone, so the thing survives another day, and another. The mystery of it amuses you.
One day you remember to ask your mom about it. The two of you have a long think, and finally she comes up with the answer: Your great-aunt must have bought it for you when she went there with her tour group! You’ve heard a story or two about your great-aunt, but you don’t actually remember her. Whatever.
Time goes by. You get married. Your husband moves in. You have three magnificent children of your own. One day your husband says: Hey, Mount Rushmore is an abomination. Can we please get rid of this piece of junk?
You have two choices, here. You could thrust out your chest and hold forth on the deeds and virtues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt. You could do some Wikipedia research on the history of the snow globe industry and the peculiar place of such objects in the history of American popular culture. You could invoke the spirit of your sainted great-aunt and the sacred place you suddenly realize she has always held in the story of your family. You can hope all this fends off your husband, who is doing the same research in reverse, throwing his findings back at you. You could do all that.
Or you could just say: Yeah, OK. Next time I go to the thrift store I’ll see if they want it. Or else we can tuck it away in the junk box up in the attic. You can choose this second course because you’re an adult now, and because you care about your husband more than you care about the object of his displeasure. If he wanted to throw out your family photo albums, that would be one thing. But the snow globe? C’mon…
We find ourselves in a moment when all America is ready to do some spring cleaning. You can feel it, right? It’s been quite a while since we last rearranged the furniture and gave the carpet a proper shaking out, or stripped the kitchen linoleum of its waxy yellow buildup. It shouldn’t be surprising, at this time, that people have cast fresh eyes on the Plaza and asked: What is this thing? What is it saying? Why is it there? Is it necessary?
Countrymen, it is not.
Old George Zehndner was heartbroken when his political idol was killed. Do we need to memorialize his grief forever? Clearly we don’t. The McKinley statue has been nothing but a figure of fun and an object of mockery for decades. You might be fond of the outsized geegaw bequeathed to us by a forgotten town father, and if so you might have the most honest of the arguments for keeping it where it is until the end of time: I just like to point at him and laugh! He has to stand there and take it!
But if you choose, instead, to stand up and assay a puffed-up case for McKinley as not such a bad guy, or for the statue as an object of significant historical importance that must be preserved for the edification of our descendants, then you have fully earned the vaudeville hook that is now inching toward you from stage right. It just isn’t that. It’s a tchotchke. We shouldn’t feel bad about tossing it in the trash.