In arguing that Penn State shouldn’t take down a statue of Joe Paterno because Happy Valley should not be allowed “to forget its own compliance in a national crime,” a guest columnist in The New York Times this week drew this comparison:
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. And yet the central sin that now haunts Happy Valley has long been in evidence — a tragic myopia….
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ mention of Tillman wasn’t the best way to illustrate his point. After all, Paterno is a man whom this generation idolized, and who has fallen into disgrace at the end of his life, and these people who lived through both the glory and the shame are now forced to reassess what they think of him — or not, as their consciences dictate.
Ben Tillman is a whole other sort of mess.
To begin with, most South Carolinians, I’ll venture, don’t know who Ben Tillman was, or that that statue represents him. Until it became my business to know SC politics inside and out — which involved understanding our history — all I knew about him was that when my grandmother was a little girl, he was her neighbor in the Washington area (her father, my great-grandfather, was an attorney for the Treasury Department). Once, he coaxed her to sit on his lap by offering her an apple from his cellar. She asked to see under his eyepatch, but he declined. Her parents, who were from South Carolina, were later appalled that she had come anywhere near that awful man (I suspect they were of the same political persuasion as the founders of The State, which was established for the purpose of fighting the Tillman machine), but she never understood why.
Generations later, when I learned what Tillman was about, I was pretty horrified that she had gotten near him myself.
But walk through the mall and show a picture of his statue to 100 people, and I’m pretty sure far fewer than 50 will be able to tell you much about him.
I have no opinion about Joe Paterno, but of course the Tillman statue should come down. Mr. Coates notion of what to do with the Paterno statue…
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.
… would never, ever happen with the Tillman one. The idea that South Carolinians would a) come to form a strong opinion collectively about Tillman, b) have that consensus opinion be one of condemnation, c) agree generally on wording that criticized, even by implication, their ancestors for having admired him enough to put it up, is pretty much beyond the category of things we should hold our breath while waiting for.
Basically, those of us who know who he was should just take it down, with a minimum of fuss, or with no more than a quiet exorcism ceremony. Of course, we’d have to get the approval of the powers that control the State House grounds.
I’ve spent all these years trying to get the flag — a symbol that most South Carolinians at least think they understand — off the grounds, but hey, I’m game. Let’s go for it.
And while I think it’s worth undertaking, I do feel obliged to warn those who help in this enterprise that we would likely encounter lawmakers who previously knew nothing about Tillman, but who, once they learned about him, would be inspired to rise to his defense…