Living History

by Jessica Luther, aka scatx, who can also be found at her own blog, Speaker's Corner in the ATX, and blazing trails of righteous fury on Twitter.

[Content Note: Rape culture; rape apologia and abetting.]

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an op-ed piece today for the New York Times in which he argues that the statue of Joe Paterno outside of the Penn State football stadium should stay. His piece is in reaction to calls that the statue be taken down after the recently-released Freeh report makes it clear that the beloved JoePa sheltered a child rapist for over a decade.

Here is how Garland Grey, in a post here at Shakesville on Monday in which he argued persuasively that the statue needs to go, describes this statue:
To have the major image of Joe Paterno on campus be this folksy cast of him with a giant grin and his tie askew in the wind, a single index finger in the air as if someone had just asked him how many sexual predators he was currently keeping quiet for is a capitulation to the worst parts of the University's culture.
He went on to say:
It allows those who apologized for him, who rioted for him, who to this day will defend him on social media, those people who do not understand your odd moral code where football isn't the most important thing in the world, those who reside in a moral universe in which their University's team winning is totally worth what Sandusky did to mostly poor, most minority kids because they can hang onto a sliver of doubt or can put this monstrous choice into some sort of perspective where Paterno isn't this totally vile, cynical figure, it allows those people a place on campus to which they can make a pilgrimage, to engage in fellowship with other people who believe as they do that revering this man's legend is much more important than the children he ignored his responsibility to.
I'd like to juxtapose this with how Coates argues for keeping the statue. Coates writes:
The problem here is not that Paterno shamed Happy Valley, but that Happy Valley, through its broad blindness, has shamed itself. Last week an artist who'd once painted Paterno with a halo altered his mural by removing it. This effort has less to do with the better rendering of Paterno and more to do with escaping the shame of hasty canonization.

Arguing for the statue's removal, the legendary coach Bobby Bowden said he wouldn't want Sandusky's crimes “brought up every time I walked out on the field.” That's the point. Sandusky's crimes should never be forgotten, nor should the crimes of the broader community. It is shameful to deify men who put nationalist ritual before children. But it is more shameful to pretend that this elevation was achieved by Joe Paterno's singular hand.

Removing the Paterno statue allows Happy Valley to forget its own compliance in a national crime, to expunge its own culpability in its ruthless pursuit of glory. The statue should remain, and beneath it there should be a full explanation of Sandusky's crimes, Paterno's role and some warning to all of us who would turn a pastime into a god and elect a mortal man as its avatar.
I'd like to unpack this a bit.

First, though the title of the piece suggests it, Coates does not just think that PSU should leave the statue as a remembrance. The final paragraph shows that he thinks it is not okay as is and that there needs to be change. I am not sure that leaving a somehow-altered version of the statue is even something being discussed in Happy Valley but we agree that the statue—as is—is problematic.

Second, this entire piece is built around the belief that without the statue, a memory of the cover-up and the blatant disregard for the child victims of Sandusky will somehow be lessened. It will not remain as visceral, it will not haunt the campus as much, it will not serve as the warning that it should. I do not buy this idea. If memory and remembrance and warning is the goal, as Kristin Lindsley said to me on Twitter today, "*IF* that is the goal (explanation/education) there is a museum on campus—relocate statue plus context and criticism of what happened."

This leads to my third point. This argument that the statue should stand does not take into account what it might mean to the victims of Sandusky that the grinning JoePa remains an image on campus in any capacity. One of the great frustrations of media coverage when it comes to the Sandusky trial has been the focus on how everyone else outside of the victims themselves will cope with what has happened. How will Penn State football move on? What will the Penn State community do to heal? Not that those aren't legitimate questions. Yet when they take precedence in any capacity over the most direct victims (some of them still children) of Sandusky's crimes, we are doing it wrong.

No, I don't know what each victim would say about this statue. Survivors, even victims of the same predator, are not a monolith. Some may be okay with it staying, or want it to stay. Some may agree with Coates that it can stay with modification. Some will certainly not want Paterno's statue to remain, because its looming presence stands to trigger a visceral, incapacitating anxiety. In deference to the safety that was previously denied them, it should go. Full stop.

And here's the rub. The culture that Paterno created, that he exploited, that made him rich and powerful, that led to people creating an aw-shucks-isn't-he-the-best statue, THAT culture is the exact one that makes it so that we will never know the extent of Sandusky's abuse. We will never know all the victims. We can't. He abused and raped boys across decades. And so, we will never know how they all feel about this statue or what we should do with it. The group who should have a say cannot possibly ever have one, not in its entirety.

Coates compares the Paterno statue to another:
The need to clean history so that the record might reflect our current values, and not our sordid past, is broad. In Columbia, S.C., there stands a statue of Ben Tillman, the populist South Carolina senator who helped found Clemson University and, in his spare time, defended lynching from his august national offices. For years there have been calls to remove Tillman's statue, emanating from those who think it a shame to continue to honor him. But in a democracy, memorial statues are not simply comments on their subjects, but comments on their makers. That Americans once saw fit to honor a man who defended terrorism from the Senate floor is a powerful statement about our identity and history.

Whereas Tillman's most spectacular sins were known at the time of his lionization, Paterno's only later came to light.
Tillman died in 1918. The people whom he hurt most directly with his words and actions may still be alive (and certainly things he did reverberate now). They may have still been alive when they made first calls to take the statue down. Odds are very low, though. Because Paterno turned his back when he could have instead called the police, for all we know, Sandusky was abusing children in the weeks or days leading up to his arrest. Child victims of Sandusky may live in or near Happy Valley right now and they may live and work there for decades. Because we cannot know how many people Sandusky abused we cannot know if one (or more) work on the campus. In this case, I'm going to guess odds are high that they do. Beyond that group, it is guaranteed—GUARANTEED—that every single day on that campus multiple victims of sexual violence walk past the statue.

While the statue could potentially serve as a reminder to some of the abject failure at PSU in a way that might prevent another one, it will certainly remind at least some of the victims of the abuse that they endured while that smiling man did not do anything.

Fourth, I want to go back to Coates' phrase, "the need to clean history," which implies that the removal of the statue is primarily about erasing what has happened (he charges that this will lead to forgetting and expunging culpability). I think this, maybe more than anything in this piece, bothered me.

What Sandusky did and what Paterno covered up is not history.

There is a privilege here to be able to step back and see this statue as part of a history and not as part of the now, to try to see the value in it for posterity instead of the triggering damage it could do in the present and future to both the direct victims of Sandusky and sexual assault victims at large. We are not looking back on this series of events from the year 2112.

The removal of the statue from campus is not about how or if people fifty years from now will remember Paterno, the conspiracy, the crimes. It is about making PSU and Happy Valley a safer, less-triggering space for any and all potential Sandusky victims right at this very moment and in the decades to come.

In the end, I am not in disagreement with Coates. That statue cannot remain exactly how it is now. There is no lesson in that. Also, I think remembering is important and necessary. But those things cannot eclipse our consideration for what that image means to those hurt the most.

As @graceishuman wrote today (and echoing EVERYTHING Garland Grey wrote on Monday):
Seems to me Ta-Nehisi's argument is about forcing people who aren't survivors to deal with it which is not accomplished at all by triggering survivors. Want to force people to deal with the reality of abuse? Make them listen to survivors. Don't leave up monuments to abuse.
[Note: Coates has, in the past, handled the topic of the triggering of sexual assault victims problematically.]

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