At Mount Rushmore

Michael Carlson

On Sunday evening I took my son to see Mount Rushmore. He is 13, born and raised in Britain, but with an American father and, as he put it, not enough of a British accent to impress the locals in South Dakota. Unexpected pride welled up in me when we climbed the stairs from the car park and he gasped at his first glimpse of the giant, granite-carved faces of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt staring down at him. ‘Wow’ isn't a word you often hear when touring with teens.

Then we got distracted by a flat-bed trailer parked in the access road between us and the visitor centre, the walkway decorated with the 50 state flags, and the outdoor theatre facing the monument. Martial music was blaring from speakers attached to the trailer’s sides, and built up from its bed, like a float in a holiday parade, were large letters spelling out TRUMP. Beneath each letter was a list of slogans with which the president seduced millions of Americans: ‘Secure Our Borders’; ‘Drain the Swamp’; ‘Build the Wall’. Draped across the bottom was a banner reading: ‘Make America Great Again.’

We stood in stunned silence, then looked around for people suffering a similar reaction. We found a few, as well as one or two obviously afraid to react. As we watched, a pair of park rangers pulled up in their SUV. As the driver got out, I said to him: ‘I sure hope this breaks a few park rules’ – and got a cold-eyed ‘Please allow me to do my job, sir.’ In a minute the rangers were chatting away with the motley crew handing out flyers around the truck. I heard the word ‘permit’ and then we moved on, to catch the presentation in the outdoor theatre before the lights were turned on the presidential faces after sunset.

We watched a video presentation quoting Washington’s warnings against empowering the military to run civilian government. We listened to Jefferson promising full rights and the protection of the law to Native Americans. We saw Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and heard Roosevelt talk about the greed of big business and the need to protect our environment. When the film ended with a rendition of ‘America The Beautiful’, the crowd joined in spontaneously.

When we walked out, past the state flags, the Trump float had been moved a few yards down the road, just past the crossing area, and the loudspeakers had been turned off. The messages we had heard just a few minutes before, of freedom, of equality, of purpose, of America’s appeal to immigrants, who were welcomed and who contributed – ideas which still inspire, even if they have never quite come to fruition – were being traduced by the men who gleefully approached us with their leaflets.

As we drove away, my son said: ‘At least we can be thankful Trump’s face will never be up there.’ ‘You watch,’ I said. ‘Next week they’ll paint his face on a giant hot air balloon, and tether it alongside George Washington.’ ‘Make America great again,’ he replied.


  • 17 August 2017 at 11:40am
    mototom says:
    On Tuesday Trump accidentally hit the nail on the head. He said this:"Many of those people were there (Charlottesville) to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E Lee. This week, it is Robert E Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?....... both the first and third (Jefferson) American presidents had owned slaves."

    “George Washington was a slave owner. Are we gonna take down statues of George Washington? ... you're changing history, you're changing culture......”.

    Surely it is time that we all stopped accepting the liberal myth of the USA and emphatically acknowledge its white supremacist foundation and superstructure.

    I'd invite Michael Carlson to discourage spontaneous joining in too.

    • 18 August 2017 at 7:25am
      Joshua K says: @ mototom
      It's one thing for American liberals to cling to self-congratulatory myths. What's less easy to comprehend is the broad, generations-long acceptance of those myths elsewhere in the west.

  • 17 August 2017 at 12:57pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Britain, too. The Tate Galleries are built on sugar. Our black people are forever demoralised. The whole thing is dismal.

    • 19 August 2017 at 6:21pm says: @ Simon Wood
      I don't think it's just a quibble to point out that Tate didn't go into the sugar business until 1859 -- more than a quarter century after the abolition of slavery in the British sugar islands.

    • 21 August 2017 at 2:05pm
      Simon Wood says: @
      Good point, thanks Alan. I should have said the British Museum.

      The truth is finite but endless. I've been reading about the statues hauled down in Paris by the Nazis. Many of them were hideously grandiose but there was a decent one of the Marquis de Condorcet who argued for the idea of progress (as opposed to Nietzsche who thought optimism was for "weaklings").

      The statue question is going to run and run. I'm glad to walk more freely in the Tate for your correction.

  • 17 August 2017 at 1:55pm
    Donald Raeson says:
    'Our' black people? What do you mean by 'forever demoralised'?

  • 17 August 2017 at 10:17pm
    Graucho says:
    All these monuments should be left standing and a large plaque with an unvarnished summary of what the historical figure being commemorated got up to added. Lee was a remarkably good general and that was his greatest crime. Had he been incompetent, the South, which was going to lose the war anyway, would have lost it in months rather than over several of the bloodiest years in U.S. history.

  • 21 August 2017 at 7:42am
    denismollison says:
    I'm surprised that this post doesn't reference Mount Rushmore's history as a monument to european americans' treatment of the indigenous people. It is not a coincidence that it is sacred land to the Lakota, and close to the sites of the Little Bighorn (1876) and Wounded Knee (1890).

    [see e.g.]

  • 21 August 2017 at 7:44am
    denismollison says:
    PS : Apologies, that link should be

  • 23 August 2017 at 12:31am
    grootka says:
    Pretty spectacular bit of mountain carving and I can't say that any of the four men depicted there were bad guys. Folks in the Dakotas had some appreciation - and some ridicule - for Mr. Roosevelt, but I don't think anyone meant him ill. He's the only one who had anything to do with the Dakota country and I have a feeling he would have been at least embarrassed to see his phiz up there. Beyond that, he was notable as a seminal supporter of environmental concerns. On the other hand, if I were an indigenous person of those parts I would rather the placement of American presidential faces had not been imposed on the mountain side. Well, in time the wind, rain, and the trembling of the earth will bring it all down.

  • 24 August 2017 at 11:34pm
    ksh93 says:
    Here's another monument carved in mountainside that was venerated by those committed to white supremacy for decades (principally KKK) and unlike Mount Rushmore it's conveniently located almost a bicycle ride away from the World's busiest airport:

    Many years ago I read George Mosse's Fallen Soldiers which shone a much-need light on the relatively recent origins of the monument-building mania:

    At the outbreak of the First World War, an entire generation of young men charged into battle for what they believed was a glorious cause. Over the next four years, that cause claimed the lives of some 13 million soldiers--more than twice the number killed in all the major wars from 1790 to 1914. But despite this devastating toll, the memory of the war was not, predominantly, of the grim reality of its trench warfare and battlefield carnage. What was most remembered by the war's participants was its sacredness and the martyrdom of those who had died for the greater glory of the fatherland.

    War, and the sanctification of it, is the subject of this pioneering work by well-known European historian George L. Mosse. Fallen Soldiers offers a profound analysis of what he calls the Myth of the War Experience--a vision of war that masks its horror, consecrates its memory, and ultimately justifies its purpose. Beginning with the Napoleonic wars, Mosse traces the origins of this myth and its symbols, and examines the role of war volunteers in creating and perpetuating it. But it was not until World War I, when Europeans confronted mass death on an unprecedented scale, that the myth gained its widest currency. Indeed, as Mosse makes clear, the need to find a higher meaning in the war became a national obsession. Focusing on Germany, with examples from England, France, and Italy, Mosse demonstrates how these nations--through memorials, monuments, and military cemeteries honoring the dead as martyrs--glorified the war and fostered a popular acceptance of it. He shows how the war was further promoted through a process of trivialization in which war toys and souvenirs, as well as postcards like those picturing the Easter Bunny on the Western Front, softened the war's image in the public mind.

    The Great War ended in 1918, but the Myth of the War Experience continued, achieving its most ruthless political effect in Germany in the interwar years. There the glorified notion of war played into the militant politics of the Nazi party, fueling the belligerent nationalism that led to World War II...

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