Lessons in authoritarian monument building

Lessons in authoritarian monument building

Ottawa Citizen, July 11, 2015.

Ottawa Citizen, July 11, 2015.

The main problem is not that it’s expensive, although it is expensive. Nor that it’s needlessly ideological, although it is that too. We could pile on a few more criticisms, all of them true: it’s antagonistic; it’s politically expedient; it’s irredeemably and unforgivably ugly. These don’t quite get at the heart of it either.

The problem with the Memorial to the Victims of Communism is that, in being all these things, it undermines its stated purpose. Somehow, a monument designed to rebuke one form of authoritarianism manages to faintly echo several ways that authoritarian governments go about dumping great mounds of concrete and metal onto the earth: spending hand-over-iron-fist on propagandist landscaping, demonizing ideological opponents through said landscaping, selecting a landscaping site that opponents will be forever damned to look upon, and, most of all, not letting public opinion get in the way of a public build.

A memorial’s cost wouldn’t prevent Stalin, Xi or any of the Kims from building it. But then, Stalin loved throwing money at big useless projects. China’s Xi unveiled a $16-million gold and jade statue of Mao just two years ago. As for Kim Il-Sung, by the time his body finally lay under a Worker’s Party flag, a glass case and the roof of a $100-million renovated mausoleum, North Koreans were so poor that many lived off and died on tree bark. The country that couldn’t afford rice could afford electricity even less — still, the bronzed Kims stayed lit. (One must never leave the Sun of the Communist Future in the dark.) While famine fears loom over them this summer, North Koreans donated copper to a “loyalty fund” that turned out to be a statue fund.

Ostentatious monuments have mostly fallen out of fashion in the non-communist world, and certainly in Canada. So it’s bizarre that the government would back the deployment of this brutalist geometry, which could cost Canadians $3 million dollars and devour public real estate worth up to $30 million. This type of spending is typically the habit of governments that enjoy driving tanks through public squares, not governments that like to talk about balancing budgets.

Then there’s the name. It escapes the attention of no one capable of telling one word apart from another word that the Memorial to the Victims of Communism isn’t called the Memorial to the Victims of Totalitarianism, nor for the Victims of Violent Despotism, nor for the Victims of Very Bad Governance. Canada may be taking on the dictatorship of the proletariat, but the dictatorship end of the phrase isn’t its primary concern. Now, Europe has plenty of uncontroversial memorials named for the victims of fascism, but they’re generally found in places that actually were victimized by fascism.

By needlessly setting its ideological beliefs in several tonnes of concrete, the Canadian government provoked a reaction of equal and opposite stupidity: market demand grew for a monument to victims of capitalism. Though I wouldn’t mind seeing someone try to depict a broken invisible hand in granite, it’s alarming that anyone feels the world is poorer for lacking a 25-foot tall sculpture of a child stitching a wallet. Theirs is nearly as strange as the belief that the world will be richer for the Czech Republic, the United States and Canada each having dedicated memorials to victims of communism, even though only one is set in a post-Communist country. At least the anti-anti-communist memorialists haven’t plagiarized the name of an existing one: I can find no communist state, let alone three, that explicitly denounces capitalism in stone. Even communist Cuba calls its anti-American, anti-capitalism monument an Anti-Imperialism monument.

But neither Canada’s nor Cuba’s monument really needs words to tell target audiences to get bent: they plant themselves in the yards of opponents. Cuba’s Anti-Imperialist Platform features flagpoles that operate very effectively as a series of raised middle fingers, obscuring as they do the electronic billboard of the de facto embassy of the United States. In case the point is too subtle, a star’s single red point is aimed directly at the Americans. (Though Italy’s anti-capitalist builders are even more direct: Maurizio Cattelan’s massive marble hand once offered its middle finger squarely in front of Milan’s stock exchange building.)

The Canadian government is hardly such a sworn enemy of the Canadian judiciary. But if there’s any question that the government antagonizes the judiciary, that question might be posed to our own chief justice, whose reputation our own prime minister has extraordinarily attacked. Or perhaps posed to other judges, ones who issue rulings that the government merrily ignores while the it knowingly creates legislation that more judges must eventually rule as unconstitutional. But nothing quite compares to the indignity of the Supreme Court being interminably condemned to gaze upon the spoils of a land grab such as this. The monument site was meant to house, remarkably, the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Judicial Building; instead, it will become an oddly terraced parking lot that lacks the critical advantage of actually offering any parking spots.

Which brings us to the design of the terraced, useless parking lot itself. Rather than illuminate the authoritarian sensibilities of communism, it replicates them. It would have been better to just replicate existing memorials: the haunting, willowy figures that descend Prague’s haunting Memorial to Victims of Communism; the wooden stakes that form the enclosure for Norway’s Memorial to Victims of Witch Trials; any memorial to anything, really, instead of what’s proposed.

So how’s an ostensibly anti-authoritarian but unnervingly authoritarian-esque monument built? Only through a less-than-democratic process. Advisory committee members don’t love the site; the government doesn’t care. Design jury members don’t love the design; the government doesn’t care. The chief justice presumably hates the site and certainly hates the design; the government really doesn’t care, and may be a little pleased. As for the greater public, it questions such an expensive, ideological, politically desperate and aesthetically offensive affair. About this, the government cares enough to shrink the monument down, but not to throw it out.

For even non-authoritarian governments care about solidifying power, and Canada’s monument belongs mostly to voters who were indeed victimized by communist rule and who Conservatives now court. But it also belongs to a long line of governments that shore up monument walls precisely when they’re besieged. With one memorial to communism’s victims, another to war victims and another to holocaust victims, the country has gone on a small monument spree just as its ruling party must contemplate going out the door. The timing isn’t deliberate. Still, it’s reminiscent of the former Russian Empire’s call for “monumental propaganda” under Lenin, made in an uncertain era and, as author Owen Hatherly observed, “not the action of a government confident of its longevity.”

While Canadians consider ridding themselves of a Conservative government, they ought to keep resisting one of its physical legacies before it’s erected.