|WHEN SYMBOLS CLASH
Should America re-evaluate its civic symbols?
December 10, 1997
in this forum:
Should we avoid using people as civic symbols? Should we treat school names differently? How do other countries deal with controversial symbols? Should we consider some figures in American history sacred? Should a community be allowed to choose its own symbols? Additional comments and questions. Have you seen this debate outside America? How do other countries deal with controversial civic symbols?
Clarence Page responds:Sure. They fight wars with each other. (P-s-s-s-st, care to buy a bust of Marx or Lenin? Cheap?)
Professor Sean Wilentz responds:There are always questions about naming places, in any culture. Just look at a map of Paris. You will see the effects of successive political regimes in the names of Metro stops (Stanlingrad!) as well as in individual rues, places, carees, etc. And because politics abroad has, in the past, been much more prone to revolutions and other big breaks, there is something of a tradition of periodically renaming controversial spots.
But then, I'm impressed with how other countries are much more likely to note GENUINE landmarks. Think of the little blue plaques that are all around London, marking where various important writers, musicians, and political figures once lived or worked. There's much less of that sort of historical consciousness in America (and consequently, more emphasis in America on merely symbolic naming). Americans in general are always more preoccupied with the present than they are with the past or the future -- even when they are thinking about history, which we interpret in a relentlessly present-minded way.