Monday, February 17, 2020

Photo of the Day: A Leader With a Sense of Right and Wrong

I have encountered this bronze equestrian statue of George Washington several times while walking near New York’s Union Square Park. My most recent sighting not only led me to take this photo, but to think about why it resonates with me so much. 

The oldest statue in New York City’s parks collection, this creation by Henry Kirke Brown (1814-1886) has withstood a great deal—the elements, of course, and movement from a traffic island at the southeast corner of the square to its central location in the south plaza. But it remains a point of reference for New Yorkers—most dramatically after 9/11, where it became a de facto shrine.

When I did a Google search to find out the number of statues in this country in honor of this iconic figure, the results amounted to a collective throwing up of the hands. You might as well try to count the number of grains of sand by the ocean. Heck, there’s even a monument to the first American President in London’s Trafalgar Square.

That last bit of unlikely recognition might owe something to the same instinct that led King George III to exclaim that the former American commander-in-chief’s renunciation of the Presidency after two terms “placed him in a light the most distinguished of any man living...the greatest character of the age."

Okay, now how many statues of Benedict Arnold are there in the United States? Less than a quarter of a statue. The national park containing Saratoga battlefield in upstate New York honors  the “memory of the most brilliant soldier of the Continental army, who was desperately wounded on this spot, winning for his countrymen the decisive battle of the American Revolution, and for himself the rank of Major General.”

Because Benedict Arnold tried to betray his country three years after Saratoga by handing West Point over to the British, the whole man could not be honored, not even named, only that part of him displaying courage—his boot.

Over time, Americans have become fascinated by our rogues while taking our heroes for granted—even feeling the need to take them down a peg. And so, the man once hailed by one of the men he commanded in the American Revolution, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, as “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen” is having his contributions slighted, when not outright forgotten.

Right-wing Republicans delight in mocking progressives for their politically correct tendency to remove statues. They have a point—until, that is, some of them reveal who their real idea of a hero is.

And so, a few weeks ago, listening to one of the Sunday morning news shows, I heard an admirer of the current White House incumbent hail him as our greatest President—ever.

(By the way, I refuse in this post to include the incumbent’s name. It only feeds his maniacal desire for attention. Instead, I’ll refer to him with an epithet first used by Spy Magazine three decades ago that serves equally well today: “short-fingered vulgarian”—SFV for short.)

No matter how ludicrous, ignorant, insane—okay, downright morally offensive—that judgment might be, this woman is by no means an outlier in the current GOP. A poll this past December by The Economist/YouGov found that a majority (53%) of GOP respondents think SFV is a better president than Abraham Lincoln. If that’s how they feel about the incumbent versus Honest Abe, another Republican, I’m afraid that poor George doesn’t stand a chance.

It's worthwhile, then, going over again why Americans valued the example of Washington for so long—and why Arnold was loathed.

The difference between the traitor and the hero—as well as their motives—are summed up extremely well in Nathaniel Philbrick’s Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution

“[Benedict] Arnold had never worried about the consequences of his actions. Guilt was simply not a part of his make-up since everything he did was, to his own mind, at least, justifiable….[But] Washington's sense of right and wrong existed outside the impulsive demands of his own self-interest. Rules mattered to Washington. Even though Congress had made his life miserable for the last four years, he had found ways to do what he considered best for his army and his country without challenging the supremacy of civil authority. To do otherwise, to declare himself, like the seventeenth-century English revolutionary Oliver Cromwell, master of his army and his country, would require him to become 'lost to my own character.’”

By a stroke of luck, Arnold narrowly evaded being brought to justice for colluding with a foreign power. Boiling with resentment, set on recrimination, he felt unleashed as a newly commissioned Brigadier General in the British army, laying waste to Virginia. 

In the end, it did him no good. The British lost. Reviled alike by the countrymen whose trust he betrayed and the foreign handlers whose favors he bargained for, Arnold died, feeling more unappreciated than ever, two decades later, unforgiven for wildly conflating the public interest with his own private one.

That “sense of right and wrong” that mattered so much to his old commander—well, for a certain part of the populace that once hailed the stress on "characters" only a couple of decades ago, it seems so old-fashioned, much like the 110 “Rules of Civility,” which Washington copied out as a schoolboy and spent the rest of his life practicing. 

We are going to see soon if we continue to live in Washington’s America or the one desired by Arnold—animated by greed, dancing to the tune of outside forces who abominate democracy.

If we ever erect a statue in honor of the SFV so preferred by so many Republicans, I suggest that it be, in the manner of Arnold’s at Saratoga, not a Washington-style equestrian figure but something more appropriate—an upraised middle finger.

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