How to Topple a Monument

And other thoughts about history

On May 31, 2020, Sarah Parcak, an archeologist at the University of Alabama-Birmingham took the popular temperature and, like any good historian, recognized the need for a little public engagement. “PSA For ANYONE who might be interested in how to pull down an obelisk* safely,” Parcak tweeted, “from an Egyptologist who never ever in a million years thought this advice might come in handy.” The asterisk leads to this footnote: “*might be masquerading as a racist monument I dunno.”

Members of AIM Twin Cities and other Native community residents topple the statue of Christopher Columbus located on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds, June 10, 2020. (Photo credit: Ben Hovland/Shutterstock.com)

A specialist in ancient Egypt, Parcak knows a lot about how folks raised an obelisk at a time when the only mechanism for building enormous vanity projects was to coerce a large number of humans. But, as Isaac Newton once pointed out, what goes up must come down. What followed was a Twitter thread describing, in detail, how to pull down a monument efficiently and safely. Armed with long ropes, gloves, a chain, assemble about 40 people for every ten feet of height, distribute them evenly in two groups, and have them stand about 30 feet from the plinth on either side. After attaching the ropes to the monument, you start to rock it, using the monument’s weight to amplify the power of each group pulling in alternate shifts.

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Eventually, Parcak writes, you can:

“WATCH THAT SUMBITCH TOPPLE GET THE %^&* OUT OF THE WAY IT WILL SMASH RUN AWAY FROM [THAT] DIRECTION.”

Rarely have we seen such a vigorous national conversation about history as the one that the current popular uprising has inspired as one monument after another hits the bricks or is defaced. Not surprisingly, here at Public Seminar, we had a slew of submissions this week about how we understand the past.

We start with contemporary history. Correspondent Simon Jones looks at the recent surges in left activism, but wonders why none of these movements can pull off a political victory. Miranda Yaver reports from the streets of Los Angeles, where anxiety about the public health consequences of mass gatherings walks hand in hand with the determination to make Black lives matter.

Sanford Schram and Richard Fording argue that these masses of people are in the streets for a reason. Since the 2016 election, the leadership of racial liberals has propelled more Democrats not just to support racial justice but also to participate in elections and other political actions that might achieve it. John Stoehr notes that John Bolton’s new book only reveals what we already knew: just like those Confederate generals thunking to the ground, the GOP is a traitorous accomplice to presidential treason. McKenzie Wark reports on the historic March for Black Trans Lives in Brooklyn. Durba Ghosh and Kelly King-O’Brien close out our politics section by arguing that protesters who destroy monuments are not erasing history—they are thinking historically, clearing the field of a white supremacist past so that a new lens on the past can enter.

This week’s reflection features Sergio Infante, who explores the possibilities that neurosurgery hold for reimagining what memory is — and how we reassemble and retrieve fragments of the past to write history. Next, we travel back to a familiar past for new insights on the present. Daniel Schillinger shows why Sophocles’s Philoctetes helps us understand which bodies matter and which do not. Emily Pitts Donahoe argues that we need not look far for the “Shakespearean setting that most mirrors our own:” it is Troilus and Cressida, with its rooms full of cynical power players for whom facts don’t matter and `truth isn’t truth.’”

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In our final section, we offer an excerpt from Ted Hamm’s new history of Bernie Sanders’ political movement. Bernie’s Brooklyn: How Growing Up in the New Deal City Shaped Bernie Sanders’ Politics (OR BooksJune 2020) invites the reader to think about how “the complex politics and lively culture” of that borough created a socialist senator who almost grabbed a presidential nomination—twice. Public Seminar editor Charlotte Slivka follows with an author interview. Senior editor Jen Manion closes out the issue with a review of A Secret Love, the Netflix documentary about two elderly lesbians coming out of the closet late in life. But, Manion asks: whose history is it? Theirs — or their homophobic family members who agree to see them for who they are?

As we write, the monuments continue to fall. Good riddance to bad rubbish, we say. Unlike slavery, colonial conquest, and rebellions against democracy, no human has been killed or injured by false, or falsely revered, histories crashing to the ground. We sincerely hope that none are and that they keep at their work until every memorial to violence is replaced by one dedicated to peace and culture.

Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar, Professor of History at The New School for Social Research, and author of Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical