Gongol.com Archives: August 2022

Brian Gongol

August 26, 2022

News Monumental change

The Covid-19 pandemic gave unexpected birth to the "Zoom Room". Guests no longer had to travel to fancy downtown studios to appear on television; they could simply activate the camera on a laptop or even a smartphone and go live, right from their own homes. ■ The staging of these rooms to meet the discriminating tastes of television viewers launched rivalries, competitions, and critical outlets like the infamous "Room Rater" account on Twitter. As the practice of doing a live hit from home has become both a mainstream activity and the fountainhead of cultural criticism, the photographs, totems, and sundry knick-knacks making up a person's backdrop have come to mean something to audiences. ■ The arrangement and selection of books, portraits, and busts is read to mean something about the speaker. Nothing says that those appearances have to remain static: Everyone is free to update or change about their "Zoom Room" look any time they like, either to communicate something more clearly or to remove references that may be unintentional or easy to misread. ■ And it's not just a concern for television appearances, either. Anyone who engages in video meetings must by now be aware of the hazards of leaving a backdrop to chance. What items you choose to surround you will inevitably be taken as commentary about your character. ■ The case of public monuments is, of course, even more complicated and far more prone to inertia than that of a personal video backdrop, but it's really not that far a distinction. What we choose to keep around us -- and particularly what we keep on display -- says things about who we are and who we aspire to be. ■ If a monument, memorial, or statue has outlived its usefulness, then it is perfectly reasonable to consider having it removed. The process may be harder than replacing a photograph in a Zoom room, but it's not materially different in nature. ■ The Soviet Union's occupation of the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) was brutal and unjustified. They have been shaking off the chains of that past since reasserting independence in 1991, and the incentive to do so in unapologetically public ways has certainly been amplified by Russia's transgressions against Ukraine. ■ Thus it is worthy of applause that Latvia has demolished a large monument built in 1985 to commemorate the Soviet Red Army. Nominally, it was a monument to World War II, but it was also a giant monument to involuntary occupation by the Soviets. ■ Oppressive regimes are very good at building very big monuments. The mission, more often than not, is to dwarf the scale of the individual and subsume them within the power of the state. It is entirely fitting when rejecting that sort of authoritarianism to reject the monumental artifacts as well. ■ Three cheers, then, for Latvia; having long ago rejected Soviet rule, it now repudiates one of the remaining artifacts of the experience. And in so doing, it becomes a model. When a monument fails to reflect what a community is or aspires to be, then, like an ill-chosen book in a Zoom room, it ought to go. ■ The past shouldn't be evicted for light and transient causes, but every generation has an obligation to consciously choose its guideposts -- which to spotlight, and which to scuttle.