Occupy Instead of Tearing Down

And what will they do when monuments they care about come down?

If you were a psychiatrist treating a trauma patient, would you chemically induce amnesia in that patient? Of course not! It would be unethical to wipe clean a person’s entire memory in the name of expunging a troubling aspect of it.

For the past several years I have researched and lectured on the phenomenon of removing objectionable monuments. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Richmond removed Robert E. Lee from his pedestal on Monument Avenue. The nearby city of Fredericksburg has prised from the ground a slave auction block. It may surprise you to learn that I am (semi-) opposed to such actions.

Before I delve into why, let me assure you that I have never said a kind word about the Confederacy in my life. History books should treat Robert E. Lee the same way they treat another infamous traitor: Benedict Arnold. I also think guys who drive around with Confederate flags on their trucks are lowlife jerks. There are some cases in which monuments with troublesome pasts should be relocated. There is, for example, no excuse for having a statue of a known Klansman sitting outside a courthouse where African Americans register to vote. Whenever possible, though, I think it is wiser to “occupy” objectionable symbols rather than closet them.

Let’s revisit the amnesia analogy. Good historians encourage a dialogue with the past, as in considering two or more perspectives. Monologues are dangerous. Consider that a majority of Americans get no formal history education past high school. Even many college graduates have taken but a single required course. Remove symbols of the past and it will be even more difficult to redress what led to their production in the first place. They need to be occupied and displayed within a historical context for the possibility of learning to occur. I’ve never seen the Fredericksburg auction block, but I have seen the sites of slave markets in Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA. They are powerful and deeply disturbing.

Some, usually younger folks, have asked me why such sites should be preserved. My answer is that we should never forget the injustices and horrors of the past. After all, “lest we forget” is the rationale for erecting war monuments. It is the reason why hundreds of Holocaust museums and memorials are found across Europe. (There are at least 83 in the United States and scores more elsewhere.) There are those who ask why anyone would wish to preserve a concentration camp–until they visit Auschwitz. Then they know why. To understand, we need to look ugliness square in the face, not look away or lock it way.

Why? Because amnesia is too easy. Once we forget the past, lessons go out the window. A good friend of mine is involved in efforts to erect a Kent State memorial. Maybe you know that some college kids were killed. Great. When? Why? What were their names? What happened next? Bonus points if you can name any of the wounded. (My friend was one of them.) To antifa protestors, do you think there might be some lessons in Kent State for today?

You should all answer that last question–especially if you fancy yourself a liberal. There are those in Ohio who find the idea of a Kent State memorial “objectionable.” The great conceit of wanting to tearing down anything is that such decisions are by nature ideological. Why do liberals assume that their ideals will prevail? You can appeal to “justice” or “morality” and I will agree with you, but it’s still an ideological position and we suffer from serious amnesia when we become sure that being “right” is all that matters.

There was a time in the very recent past when Richmond residents objected to a statue of Abraham Lincoln along its riverfront. It was defaced numerous times and was frequently the focal point for pro-Confederacy and anti-civil rights rallies. Does anyone recall the brouhaha over the decision to erect a statue of black tennis pro Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue? Remember Paul LePage, the former governor of Maine? He ordered the removal of a mural depicting Frances Perkins on the grounds that she was anti-capitalist. Actually, she was the first woman to serve in a president’s Cabinet; she was Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor.

If that doesn’t scare you, consider the effort of far-right groups bent upon tearing down a statue of Barack Obama in New Orleans that replaced one of Jefferson Davis. They couldn’t tear it down because it didn’t exist in the first place! More recently such groups expressed their outrage at a life-sized bronze of the former president in the White House. That doesn’t exist either. But you can count on the fact that as soon as there is a statue of the 44th president somewhere, thousands will object. Then we must ask, who gets to say what is torn down and what stays?

I could cite dozens more examples, but it comes back to the same place: Monologues are dangerous. Even if we are yelling at each other, we are at least talking. And we can add voices to the debate. We have a model of how this can begin to work. Have you been to a Civil War battlefield lately? In the early 21st century, Congress threatened to deny funding for such sites unless slavery was integrated into their presentation narratives. Battlefields hastily tucked walls of excess muskets into storage and began to grapple with race, the slave trade, abolitionism, and plantation life. Discussions are afoot to add additional voices, including those of reenactors, slavery apologists, and women. There is much work remaining to be done, but battlefield museums are starting to look more like reconciliation than amnesia.

Hold the wrecking ball. To change, we must remember. Occupy. Occupy. Occupy.

Rob Weir 


June 2020 Artist of the Month: John Doyle

John Doyle
The Path of Stones
Compass Records

There is scarcely an Irish music project in the past 30 years in which fretted instrument wizard and vocalist John Doyle hasn’t played an integral part. You’ll find him alongside Liz Carroll, Karan Casey, Eileen Ivers, Kate Rusby, Mick Maloney, and Heidi Talbot; and in bands such as The Chanting House, Solas, Usher’s Island, The Crossing, and the Joan Baez Band. Okay, the last isn’t Celtic but you get the idea.

The Path of Stones is by my count his fourth solo recording, though he’s been so prolific it wouldn’t surprise me to learn I missed one. He opens The Path of Stones with a traditional song, “The Rambler from Clare” in which he showcases his mandolin skills as well as his guitar (and even adds a touch of fiddle to supplement that of Duncan Wickle). His treatment is in keeping with the song’s title and subject in that it musically saunters at a lively clip and the vocals practically skip off his tongue. Doyle sings with a light tenor reminiscent of Christy Moore when he wasn’t rocking out. It’s the sort that has soothing qualities and folds easily into a melody rather than seeking to overpower it, as too many virtuoso artists are prone to do.

The remaining eight tracks–four sets of tunes and four songs–are Doyle originals. His guitar work is an offshoot of the dropped D (DADGAD) fingerstyle playing pioneered by Davy Graham in the early 1960s. On the album Doyle overlays 5- and 6-string guitars and a mandolin to the tune “Elevenes,” but check out the style on the attached live clip in which he sticks to a 6-string guitar. Watch his hands–if you can! The tune title, by the way, is a double wordplay. The time signature is 11/8 and elevens is a British Isles colloquialism for an 11am tea break. Doyle showcases mandola, bouzouki, and guitar on the “Naoise Nolan’s” jig, and builds up to a faster pace on a set or reels that opens with the quite “Coolaney Reel.” “The Winding Stair” turns up the gas; Michael McGoldrick’s flute and Cathy Jordan’s bodhran add to the swell of “Rossagh’s Rambles,” the final tune. He closes off the album with an air, jig, and slip jig in the “Knock a Chroí” set that features fiddler John McCusker, with Doyle playing 5-, 6-, and 12-string guitars plus keyboards.

In between we get some fine new songs written as if they had elderly parents, as it were. This is particularly true of “Lady Wynde,” a paean to an unobtainable beauty. Cathy Jordan (Dervish) adds harmonies that add to the song’s wistful ambience. The title track is a six-minute love song, though it’s mostly of the unrequited sort. (It’s inspired by a Yeats poem, so expect romance tinged with mystery.) You can hear Doyle sing a live version of “Her Long Hair Flowing Down,” an immigrant’s regret song. (Doyle explains the background in his intro to his song.) By the time he’s done, you’ll probably be surprised this is an original, not some reworked selection drawn from the public domain.

I’ve been listening to John Doyle for decades and it’s been an absolute to watch him grow in skill, confidence, and stature. The Path of Stones adds more building blocks to Doyle’s impressive career.

Rob Weir


Planning Your Post-Coronavirus Trip

A dead-of-winter rite is ordering a bunch of seed packets and visualizing spring planting. With COVID-19 still ravaging the world, summer travel brochures are the new Burpee catalogues. Another mind game to occupy your mind during quarantine is contemplating an overseas adventure. Here are some places that are beyond the usual.

I once lived across from the playing field!
Tours of New Zealand often bypass its capital city of Wellington because its airport is too small and too windy for today’s big jets. Grab a domestic flight and go there. I’m biased after living there for a time, but it’s a hidden gem. Pack good walking shoes as it’s hilly enough to make San Francisco seem like Iowa. Wellington’s cable car system is actually used by commuters. Take it to the very top and linger in the botanical gardens. Check out the “Beehive,” which is unique among national capitals. Wellington is also the home of Te Papa Museum, often has leaping dolphins in its harbor, and sports neighborhoods catering to all tastes. Cuba Street isn’t as countercultural as it was in the Sixties, but echoes remain. It’s also a cool café town, has a vibrant arts community, and is home to both Victoria University and filmmaker Peter Jackson’s Weta Studios.  

So very Dutch
Thinking of Amsterdam? Go, but don’t forget The Hague, another capital city that doesn’t get a lot of love. The Hague is well worth a day or two. Like most Dutch cities, it is spotless and there are lovely strolls through and around gardens, palaces, ponds, old churches, monuments, and parks. There’s even a beach, though I don’t recommend North Sea sunbathing. Its big draws are its museums, including the wonderful Mauritshaus, where you can feast on Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, and Dutch Golden Age painters, but also modernists and surrealists. It also has terrific public art and cultural events. If you wonder why it’s called The Hague, it’s because it’s a collection of towns that fused as a city.

Hidden delight
Portugal is still overlooked among European travelers. If you go—and you should—don’t restrict your trip to Lisbon. Obidos is just an hour away, but this small town (just over 11,000) is a journey back to the Middle Ages. It’s a white-washed beauty mostly contained by thick medieval walls, many of which you can climb. (Be careful. There are few guardrails and often the pathways are narrow.) Scrumptious pastries, a delicious cherry liqueur special to the region, beautiful tiles, and lots of history make Obidos a delightful visit. There are also tourist shops with a higher quality of items than the ordinary.

Crusader fortress
Can you go wrong on any of the Greek islands? Well, maybe Mykonos, which is crawling with pasty British tourists. My favorite, though, is Rhodes, whose Colossus (now vanished) was one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. You can get in touch with your inner Crusader on Rhodes. Other than Carcassonne in France—another to put on your bucket list—you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of a medieval walled city. Some have said the appearance of this World Heritage site is not “authentic,” but its fortress is as close as you can get without a time machine. Plus, there is ancient, Ottoman, and Jewish history to discover. 

Be prepared to eat
France? By all means go to Paris, but don’t neglect Lyons. It’s where the Rhone and Saone rivers merge, and where terraces of hillside churches and bluffs provide gorgeous panoramas of the waterways at your feet and the Alps in the distance. You will find art, design, ethnic, history, and science museums galore, impressive cathedrals, unusual markets, Roman ruins, and the home where the Lumiere brothers birthed the film industry. Best of all, Lyons is a haven for foodies. Some of its best restaurants are in Vieux Lyons, a Renaissance-vintage section at the foot of Fourviere Hill. Lyons earns its status as a UNESCO World Heritage city.

Tranquility along the Mersey
Unless you’re on a Beatles tour, Liverpool isn’t high on anyone’s must-see list. But Port Sunlight is a reason to venture nearby. This village of fewer than 1,500 souls is where Lever Brothers­–now Unilever–set up a corporate utopian experiment in 1887, named for their popular soap product. Corporate benevolence faded in the 1980s, but Port Sunlight remains a sylvan bubble within an otherwise gritty postindustrial corridor. When you get off the train at Bebington, litter and seediness are all around. Then you walk through a tunnel to the Port Sunlight side and everything is green and tidy as a pin. Lever Brothers built all manner of amenities for workers: parks, wetlands, sturdy brick row homes, free schools, a swimming pool, and even a temperance hotel. The goal was to educate, Christianize, and elevate workers. The crowning jewel is the Lady Lever Art Gallery, which features Pre-Raphaelite paintings of such quality that you’d need to ferry across the Mersey to Liverpool to see anything that rivals it.

Xi Valley
I was underwhelmed by China, a nation hell-bent on obliterating its past in the name of generic modernity. One exception, though, is the Xi Valley. Cruise down the river that cuts through sugarloaf mountains, small villages, and riverside fields tended according to time-honored methods. In no time, you will understand every Chinese watercolor you’ve ever seen. You can also sample snake wine if you can get past the pickled poisonous serpent in the bottle. I didn’t. I couldn’t.

Take that Sydney!
Valencia always staggers visitors to Spain. It’s the place to eat to eat paella, is filled with its own blend of Gothic architecture, has nearly two dozen museums, and is home to vestiges of Roman, Muslim, and medieval cultures. It even has a sunny Mediterranean beach and holds what seems to be some sort of festival every week. But what really grabs the eye is its City of Arts and Sciences. Until 1957, the Turia River periodically flooded the city, leaving swaths of death and destruction. That year, the city diverted the flow of the river around rather than through the city. Twelve kilometers of old riverbed is now a sunken park whose greenery is strategically offset by some of the world’s most innovative architecture. You can see jaw-dropping examples from such masters as Felix Candela and Santiago Calatrava. The latter’s opera house puts the one in Sydney to shame. It’s what you get if you crossed a hooded cobra with a bicycle helmet.

The hills are alive...
Switzerland has many charms, but to get your full Heidi on, head for the village of Gruyeres, as in the cheese. Pig out on raclettes, paving stones of cheese that come with a tableside contraption that melts it for easy schmears on your delivery device of choice. There is a castle, an arts center, loads of eateries, and stunning scenery, including mountainside pasturelands. Plan your visit well and part of the journey involves a narrow-gauge open car train that wends through Alpine villages, where school children and shoppers hop on and off.

Shetlands most colorful residents
If that’s not rural enough for you, try Scotland’s Shetland Islands where you can get up close and personal with puffins at Sumburgh Head near the airport. Rent a car because the Shetlands are all about nature. It lies 110 miles north of the rest of Scotland and consists of over 100 islands, just 16 of which are inhabited. Oddly, its biggest island is called Mainland, where one finds Lerwick, its only sizable settlement whose 7,000 residents make up one-third of those who live in the Shetlands. As you might expect, not much happens on the isles—unless you go in winter for Up Helly Aa, a Viking fire festival. The Shetlands are definitely more Norse than Scottish. Be independent; it can be hard to find decent food, but the pubs and beer are warm, there is amazing music to be heard, and Iron Age culture to explore.

Rob Weir