Thursday, March 1, 2012

Meaningless Landscapes Yield Meaningless Graffiti: Are We All to Blame?

Who did this? Who caused this?
Are they the same people? /
Photo provided by Kendra Debany
It is a juvenile bit of graffiti. Someone has slathered spray paint across the chest and mustache of one of those iconic Gettysburg monuments: the 2nd company, Andrews (Massachusetts) Sharpshooters monument along "the Loop" just to the west of the Wheatfield. The news hist Facebook for me yesterday afternoon, when local historian and house history sleuth Kendra Debany posted the shocking photo on her wall. The kneeling figure now has two cartoonish blue female breasts and a blue handlebar adorning his lip. It is ridiculous. It is uncalled for.

And we should have seen it coming.

Why do I say that? What impels someone to commit such an act of wanton vandalism? The comments that bubble to the surface invariably when these things happen are, "Kids today, no respect for the past!" and, "This is sacred ground where men gave their lives for what they believed in!" But how helpful are these sentiments? Is shouting "Get off my lawn!" truly the right image we as a Civil War community need to portray to help prevent these types of crimes?

I'd submit that the vandals in this case found no personal meaning in this (or any) Civil War landscape. And it's not because they're dumb or young or products of a broken educational system. They find no meaning in this landscape because we so often fail to let them find it. We lock landscapes into our personal resource meanings. "This place must be important because and only because two valiant armies bled here for their own beliefs," we shout from rooftops and the crests of rocky, wooded hills. And as we shout, we alienate.

When someone tells you exactly why you must find a place important, in rote language lining out the meaning like a mathematical equation, how invested in that place do you truly become? Now imagine slowly unfolding the meaning of that place yourself, bit by bit, discovering piece by piece why that place belongs in your soul, how and why it plucks your heart.

I didn't hold the spray paint can when the monument was vandalized. But I'm responsible; we all are.

I feel a twinge of shame in my heart. I didn't reach these people. None of us reached these people. We failed to reach them not because they were unreachable, but because we are so often too bullheaded to see that someone might care about this place or that place for a different reason than we do.

Maybe they were a young woman, who saw the trees at the base of Little Round Top as a nice place to read their algebra quietly, but had an interpreter come up and inflict interpretation in them in a vain attempt to make them care about a landscape that already had value to them as a quiet respite. Maybe they were a father and son flying a kite in the fields of Pickett's Charge who were told by some interpreter or law enforcement officer that this type of valuing of the resource was a "disrespectful" or "wrong" use of that place. Or maybe we never got the chance to speak with them, turned off because they assumed, because of the Civil War world's bad reputation of telling the same old 1960s 'valor and shared sacrifice' story over and over, that they'd never find meaning in this place.

The monument in better days
/ CC Michael Noirot
They could have found meaning somehow, I am sure of it. But because this place meant nothing, they meaninglessly graffiti'd it.

So how should we now respond? Should we damn them? Alienate them? Extradite them to a foreign land where torture is legal? One comment on our Facebook page suggested stringing them up by their thumbs and bleeding them from their feet, before throwing them to gators (frankly, I'm hoping that was simply an enraged momentary misremembering of the 8th Amendment).

I think that's all useless. Threats and fantasies of torture build no new audience. They don't explain why we as a community find this reprehensible.

What's the best way to deal with this? Tell some universally meaningful stories about the Andrews Sharpshooters, maybe juxtaposed with the photo of the graffiti'd monument. Who were those men? What were their dreams? What were their passions? Who did they love? Eleven of them died over the course of this war. Where were they wounded? How loud were their screams of pain? What did they write home to mother as they lay dying far from home in some hospital? And how did mother crumple to the floor in agony over the prospect of never seeing her darling boy again?

Humanity, empathy and finding universal meaning in these landscapes - our best tools for helping others to care about and thereby care for these special places. But they need to come to their own meanings, whatever they may be, or every monument on the field will be simply another granite tabula rasa for a spray can and idle hands.

2 comments:

  1. Good article John. My gut reaction is that we don't teach our children respect for others-be it their property, beliefs, struggles, or hopes and dreams... Unfortunately all we can do is clean up their messes and carry on.

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  2. John I think the only thing I quibble with here is that you believe this act was because the site had no meaning. I would argue a different angle, and that is they did this because the site has meaning. They know it means something powerful to us in a greater sense. It is this meaning that makes it such an inviting target for vandals. This is thumbing their noses at the reverence that WE have for such ground.

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