April 08, 2020

Sledgehammers and other hollow gestures

On Jan. 13 a woman in her 30s, whose identity still is a mystery, broke away from a public tour of the White House and entered the Blue Room, where the sculptured busts of Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci are displayed. Vespucci was the Italian navigator for whom the Americas were named.

The woman, who has made no public statements since her arrest, pulled out a can of reddish-brown touch-up paint and defaced the 200-year-old statues, which were on loan to the White House. The Washington Post speculated Saturday that the mystery “Jane Doe” may be part of an American Indian movement that blames Columbus and other European explorers for bringing death and misery to their ancestors.

Indians in Bolivia, Mexico, Chile and elsewhere in Latin America have damaged works of art honoring Columbus since 1992, which marked the 500th anniversary of the Italian’s landing on Watling Island in the Bahamas, the Post reported. Other sites, including the Columbus Memorial Park near Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, have been targeted with messages declaring “500 years of genocide.”

If the Post theory is accurate, Jane Doe’s small act of cultural terrorism fits into the same category as last year’s vandalism of a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer at Bath Iron Works by peace activist Philip Berrigan and five associates. Berrigan invoked the image and words of the prophet Isaiah to explain why he and the others banged away with sledgehammers on the ship’s electronic gear and painted the deck with a bucket of blood.

Isaiah’s goal was to “hammer the instrument of death into a peaceful plowshare. … Either we destroy war, or it will destroy us,” said Berrigan, a former Catholic priest.

Increasingly, we seem to be awash in an era of “political statements” — or more accurately, “hollow symbolic gestures.” A half-century ago those choosing to confront evil merely signed up for the Allied military campaign against Adolph Hitler, or took to the barricades in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary to protest the atrocities of Stalinism. Frankly, defacing statues and beating up on a deserted ship seem pretty weak ways of changing anything.

Lamer still are the political solidarity ribbons that decorate all celebrity gatherings. That trend has been overused so long most people forgot how it began, which was a nice little newspaper story that gained wide circulation in the Reader’s Digest about a prison inmate returning to his home in Texas not sure if his wife wanted him back. From that small slice of life, singer Tony Orlando dreamed up a pop tune that became the theme song for Americans concerned about the fate of U.S. diplomats held hostage for 444 days in Iran.

For the record, there is no evidence that the yellow ribbons played any role in speeding up the hostage release. A more likely cause was concern among the political advisers of Ayatollah Khomeini that President-elect Ronald Reagan would bomb their country into the Stone Age if they didn’t free our people.

This is a sampling of the list of solidarity ribbons that sprang from the original “yellow ribbon” well:

AIDS research.


Cancer research.

Battered women.

Gay rights.

Prisoner rights.

Free use of public lands.

Mourning for slain police officers.

Gun control.

The right to own guns.

Peace in the Spanish Basque conflict.

Both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Two Americans who drove into Iraq and were sentenced to serve eight years on spy charges.

Then there is the new “blue ribbon” movement, which is mobilizing computer geeks to protest proposed controls on the Internet, prompting one brave Net surfer to post a Web site titled “Why I Hate Ribbons.”

“Ribbons are simply a way for lazy people to support a cause without actually having to speak out. Put on a ribbon, and suddenly `you care,”‘ said the unnamed author in his cyberposting.

He makes a valid point:

“Hey, you support AIDS patients/research? So do I! Well so does 98 percent of the country, morons.”

Instead of electronically affixing blue ribbons on your e-mail notes, the anonymous Web page manager suggested, “Why don’t you [cowards] take ten minutes and tell everybody why you support free speech.”

I think you could issue the same challenge to Jane Doe and the BIW vandals. Minor property damage.

Now that’s a big deal.

The Berrigan activists, who were nominated in December for the Nobel Peace Prize, say they want to live in a world where serenity reigns, justice prevails and military despots have been disarmed.

For that, they went to Bath Iron Works?

Why not the killing fields of Rwanda, or the slaughterhouse villages in Algeria — Tiananmen Square during the pro-democracy demonstrations, or Sarajevo before the Dayton peace accord? I must be missing the point, but I just don’t see the cosmic morality about punching out a radar bubble with a sledgehammer.

As for Jane Doe, the story of this hemisphere’s American Indians is a river of tears on a much grander scale than the exploitation of African slaves, assuming that’s the political statement she intended when she spray-painted the White House statues.

If real-life social redress for American Indians was her objective, however, Jane Doe — sadly — would have done better to form a political action committee to pay off the Clinton administration for tribal gambling concessions. — WASHINGTON John Day’s e-mail address is zanadume@aol.com

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