Smashing Statues

I have a draft blog post from a few years ago where I tried to grapple with my thoughts about monumental statues. The thrust of the post explored how statues are neither mere art nor monuments imbued with an immutable meaning. Rather, they are objects of memory and part of a dynamic process by which history, culture, and commemoration are woven. Their meaning emerges from decisions about what ought to be commemorated and how, so what gets evoked will not only change over time, but will also vary from person to person. They are always contested.

The post worked toward a discussion of the Emancipation Memorial created by Thomas Ball in Washington DC in 1876 and with a copy (formerly) in Boston.

I hate this monument.

Emancipation is a wonderful thing to commemorate, of course, but this is also a monument that shows Abraham Lincoln with his one hand holding his proclamation, which rests on symbols of federal authority like the fasces, his other held beneficently over the back of a barely-clothed black man. Abe towers above, looking on placidly.

Emancipation Memorial, Lincoln Park Washington DC (Wikimedia Commons)

I never finished that post, obviously. I was writing a collection of loosely-connected thoughts and I ran out of steam.

Erin Thompson’s Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments (Norton 2022) makes the argument I was trying to articulate in that post, only, you know, better.

Smashing Statues consists of two parts—four chapters on monuments going up, and four chapters on them coming down—all of which build from a simple premise:

American monuments were built to show us our place within national hierarchies of power. Regardless of our race, they tell us to sacrifice ourselves to the interests of those more powerful than us.

Thompson organizes each chapter around the story of one monument or type of monument as a way of exploring the disconnect between how they went up and the authority and reverence with which they are sometimes received.

For instance, Chapter 3 (“Shafts”) unpacks the history of Civil War monuments showing, among other things, how the most common monument was one that shows a common soldier at parade rest. That is, a monument that celebrates not the soldiers who died or the sacrifices of the living, but the obedience of the soldiers who fought for the cause.

My favorite chapter in the book, and one I’m considering assigning in class in the fall, is “A Shrine for the South,” which details the creation of Stone Mountain in Georgia in the 1920s. This site was intended to be the shrine described in the title, with a ghostly army of Confederate heroes riding along the mountain face. She starts the chapter with the story of how the sculptor Gutzon Borglum took an ax to the model head of Robert E. Lee, declaring that the project was a scam by the KKK to siphon off funds—before revealing that he was Klansman upset that he was being cut out of the profits.

To my mind, this chapter put on display all of the fissures involved in these monuments. Borglum joined the Klan, but he lived in Connecticut and was so enamored of Lincoln that he named his son after the dead president. The project relied on the Lost Cause mythology, but it also grew continuously because this was the surest way to secure additional funding. And, of course, Thompson concludes with a discussion of the project Borglum moved to from Stone Mountain: Mount Rushmore.

Smashing Statues is a quick read. Thompson is an art history professor with a special interest in the destruction of cultural heritage, and this book is based on her numerous articles on the topic of monuments since the summer of 2020. But it is no worse for the sense that it is a series of interconnected essays. The core message comes through like a clarion call, and not a moment too soon.

Traditional monuments put heroes on pedestals to tell us our troubles are over. They are our nation’s selfies—perfectly posed and cropped to show only our best angles. They cover up complications and give a too-rosy view of the past and the future. We need debates, not pieties. we need to question our past in order to remake our future. If monuments try to keep us where we are by holding up examples of impossibly perfect people, well, maybe we don’t need them at all.

Addendum: in the few minutes past when this post went up, a digital friend brought to my attention how these same tactics have been weaponized in Latin America. Smashing Statues is fundamentally oriented toward the the politics of commemoration in the United States where most these statues uphold the traditional political order. But in the sense that statues are not value-neutral, the instinct to tear down can be weaponized against monuments looking to establish a pluralistic vision of the future in much the same way that “heritage” can be used as a rallying cry to preserve those that enshrine the existing political order. Attacks that symbolically lynch the commemorated subject not only assert a political order, but also serve to intimidate the communities that would dare erect the monuments in the first place. This is because, as Thompson argues throughout Smashing Statues, monuments serve as an arena that reflects political debates in society writ large.


I am hoping to write more in this space now that my semester is drawing to a close. This will likely include some book posts like this one where I give a few thoughts, if not a full review. Since the last one of these went up, I have also finished Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene, Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne, and Kathryn Schulz’s Lost & Found, and I am now reading Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea.

A family and social history of bread in the United States

A couple weeks ago, one of my students invited me to give a presentation on sourdough bread to a club she’s involved in, which I did last night I decided to script part of my talk so that I didn’t just blabber in a million different directions.

Below the jump is the transcript of most of that scripted portion, which I called “A family and social history of bread in the United States.” I lightly edited the script to remove the presentation cues and moved forward a paragraph on yeast culture from later in the talk. Enjoy.

Continue reading A family and social history of bread in the United States

An homage to the professors I aspire to be

Earlier today I had the opportunity to attend a retirement celebration for the two professors who are probably most responsible for setting me on the path I have been on for the last fifteen years. Despite my generally reserved demeanor, I am pathologically incapable of keeping my mouth shut and so raised my hand to offer what was, in my humble opinion, a stream of gibberish. I had jotted down some notes, but they came out in a jumble. This is what I meant to say.

Dear Ann and Cheryl,

The two of you exemplify the professors I aspire to be.

I am sure that I learned something in your classes, but when I sit here now the content is secondary. I remember instead Cheryl’s laugh, bantering with Chris Farrell (back before he was Dr. Farrell) while snacking on bread and cheese, and, of course, Argos.

It is not that the content didn’t matter, but for both of you that was just one part of a college education. I would never have admitted it at the time, but I was overwhelmed by the transition from my rural Vermont high school to Brandeis—a nervous first-year who felt entirely unprepared for what was to come.

I found my mooring in Classics even as someone who came in thinking just about history and only belated made my way to the languages.

To this day, I don’t know what the two of your saw in me, but I am eternally grateful for whatever it was. You both patiently nurtured my growth through any number of slightly odd history-oriented papers on topics ranging from Roman Republican coinage to a calculation for the Roman grain trade to the Greek ἰδιώτης stemming from a question I had about Plato’s Apology—to say nothing about my massively unwieldy monstrosity of an undergraduate thesis. Midway through graduate school I developed a hobby of reading books on writing, but I still say that all of my foundational skills I learned from Cheryl, whose model I still use as something of a template for my own courses and assignments. When some of my classes require a specific citation style, I repeat something I remember Ann saying when she assigned something similar: it isn’t that this is the best style, but that is the style for this assignment and part of the exercise is learning to follow a citation style sheet.

But the classroom is just the tip of the iceberg. You are both the type of generous teacher and mentor that I aspire to be. Moments stand out like when Cheryl, unprompted, gave me a copy of a book that I still have on my shelf, or when she patiently listened to me work through the argument of an academic article by a leading scholar of Ancient Greece that I vehemently disagreed with only to offer a quip, asking whether it was that scholar at the height of their powers or that scholar at the point of their career when they get published because of their name. It was pithier in the moment.

Then there was the time that I dropped in to talk about something and we got lost in conversation, at which point she looked up, exclaimed “oh crap,” and ran out the door because she had a class of first years who had been patiently waiting for more than fifteen minutes.

(I later told a student in the class to blame me.)

COVID notwithstanding, this is the sort of open-door office policy I aspire to—and I usually keep cookies there for anyone who visits me. I teach because I love what I study, but one of the lessons I try to impart to my students is that I am teaching whole people, not disembodied brains.

In this same vein, I am eternally grateful to Ann for a note she sent me the year after I graduated. I had applied to graduate school the year before and not gotten in anywhere, so I was managing a restaurant and contemplating another round of applications. The Classics Department was in danger at that moment and, yet, Ann wanted to bring me in on a developing personal issue so that she could complete my letters of recommendation before it left her indisposed. The next academic year I started graduated school at the University of Missouri.

How I went from that overwhelmed first-year struggling to write anything at all to someone with multiple publications, a book on the way, and the responsibility for training new generations of young people is beyond me, but I know that the guidance and support I received from the two of you was an essential part of that journey.

It has been a long time since Brandeis and nearly as long since I have even been to campus, but I often come back when I think about how I want to carry myself in- and outside the classroom. Brandeis—and the world—are a better place for all that you have done.

In the sincerest and simplest way I can say it: thank you.

March Reading List

Back in January I laid out an ambitious reading goal for 2022: one article per working day, and resolved to write a wrap-up monthly recap post for accountability. March proved a challenge for a whole host of reasons so the total is much lower than I would have liked. April is looking worse, if anything, but I’m hopeful that I can get back on track over the next week.

Without further ado here is the list, divided once more into my favorite articles (honorable mentions) and the rest of the list.

Honorable Mentions

  • Sofie Remijsen, “Only Greeks at the Olympics? Reconsidering the rule against non-Greeks at ‘Panhellenic’ Games,” C&M 67 (2019): 1–61.

The rest of the list

  • Marcaline J. Boyd, “Sleeping with the Tyrant: Thebe the Tyrannicide and the Death of Alexander of Pherae in Plutarch’s Pelopidas,” Histos 15 (2021): 131–49.
  • Peter A. O’Connell, “How Often Did the Athenian Dikasteria Meet? A Reconsideration,” GRBS 60, no. 3 (2020): 324–41.
  • Piotr Głogowski, “Cyrus the Younger and his Persians: the dynamics of power,” GRBS 60, no. 2 (2020): 165–91.
  • Elizabeth Carney, “Royal Macedonian Widows: Merry and Not,” GRBS 59 (2019): 368–96.
  • Sarah Morris and John Papadopoulos, “Of Granaries and Games: Egyptian Stowaways in an Athenian Chest,” Hesperia Supplements 33 (2004): 225–42.
  • Loren J. Samons II, “Herodotus on the Kimonids: Peisistratid Allies in Sixth-Century Athens,” Historia 66, no. 1 (2017): 21–44.
  • Anastasios Nikolaidis, “Revisiting the Pylos Episode and Thucydides’ ‘Bias’ Against Cleon,” C&M 69 (2021): 121–50.
  • Cinzia Bearzot, “Political Murder in Classical Greece,” Ancient Society 47 (2007): 37–61.
  • Timothy Sorg, “Agyrrhios Beyond Attica: Tax-Farming and Imperial Recovering in the Second Athenian League,” Historia 64, no. 1 (2015): 49–76.
  • Joshua D. Sosin, “Ransom at Athens ([Dem.] 53.11),” Historia 66, no. 2 (2017): 130–46.
  • Etka Liebowitz, “Female Monarchal Succession in Hellenistic and Jewish Society in Antiquity: Parallels and Contrasts,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 49, no. 1 (2018), 30–48.

Previous Months

January, February

The Cruelest Phase

I keep coming back to the same thought over the past few weeks: more than two years into a global pandemic that has likely killed more than a million people in the United States and three million worldwide, we are just now entering the cruelest phase of the this health crisis.

Now, a disclaimer. I am a historian, and an ancient historian at that. I don’t study public policy or statistics or medicine, and my observations here are supremely anecdotal. That said…

As hard as the first year of the pandemic was for many people—and it was hard—I remember at least a superficial sense of collective unity. People played politics with PPE, many places resisted installing mask mandates, and too many people lost their jobs, but amid the chaos of uncertainty there was an acknowledgement in the collective wisdom about what needed to be done and which people were already straining against the impossible.

The second year meant settling into something akin to a new normal and an optimistic sigh of relief at the flood of vaccines making their way into people’s arms. After all, the US responds to crises best when they can be solved by the blunt instrument of mass production.

But here at the start of year three, I am worried. The vaccination levels have long-since flattened and the rates of boosters lagged precipitously behind despite the appearance of two highly-contagious variants. At the same time, movements against masks and vaccines gained traction under the rhetoric of freedom. Organizations used the lulls between waves and availability of vaccines to drop remaining mitigation measures. Congress stripped Covid funding altogether from the latest funding bill. People have gradually let their guard down as they have watched their peers do so with seemingly no ill-effects.

Back in December 2020 I wrote:

COVID didn’t so much create problems as lay bare the fundamental structures of a society where public infrastructure (let alone any pretense of a social safety net) has been dismantled and sold for parts.

A year and a half later, things are worse. The changes put in place proved temporary accommodations rather than substantive reforms and the people who have been holding entire fields like, say, healthcare and education together are running on fumes. In the case of education, a field notorious for overwork and low pay, the CRT panic has made the job more challenging even beyond Covid and one recent survey found that 55% of respondents are now looking at leaving the field sooner than they had planned, up from 37% in the same survey at the start of the school year. The result is critical shortages in healthcare workers and teachers which puts more burden on those who remain and thus creating the potential for cascading failures.

A new variant (Omicron BA.2; I see we broke pattern and are delaying the arrival omega) is the dominant strain of Covid in the United States and your trend-line-of-choice is heading in the wrong direction, be it positive tests, waste water testing, or Yankee Candle reviews. Despite mendacious bloviating that the pandemic is over, it was a matter of when, not if, the next wave hit. This time, though, there isn’t even the pretense of mitigation measures, let alone federal funding for testing and treatment. And just wait until health insurers determine that Covid is a pre-existing condition.

The point here is not that everything is absolutely terrible, at least about this. I am vaccinated, boosted, and live in a region with relatively low case rates. However, I also worry that we are at a point where these same factors that will facilitate the spread of the next wave are going to leave the people who contract the virus even more alone when it comes to dealing with the consequences. I hope I’m wrong.