Ideals & Symbols, Historical & Temporal Empathy

Last night, here in Madison, two statues outside the State Capitol were toppled by demonstrators. One was of Hans Christian Heg, a Norwegian immigrant who became an abolitionist, prison reformer, and volunteer colonel in the Union army before he was morally wounded at Chickamauga. The other was a replica of Forward”, a statue created to symbolize progress. The statue of Colonel Heg was beheaded, dragged a half-mile through city streets, and dumped in Lake Monona.

Doubtless Heg — as with just about any historical figure — had views we would not agree with today, even if they didn’t survive for us to examine in the historical record. Humans are not perfect, so we can freely assume some level of imperfection.

Secular saints can disappoint us when mores shift late in life or after their deaths, so choosing to create & promote them is fraught with potential for frustration and embarrassment. Yet we create them, and fight over them, adore them, and genuflect at their memory. Gradually, secular saints lose their humanity, as they become deprived of the annoyances, dalliances, failings, misgivings, and nearsightedness that made them humans.

Without the right approach to historical education, they can also lose their temporal binding in their transition to historic figures. If we judge a person of the past purely by our contemporary standards instead of how well they lived up to or exceeded the best, most enlightened conduct & thought of their day, then we deserve the same puritanical lack of empathy from our descendants.

Forward” is a statue symbolizing an ideal — one which our state has not consistently or universally embraced. If its continued presence is repugnant in light of the state’s past, present, and future, then I can understand the desire to remove it. Trappings of self-congratulatory, cuncatory, and non-universal advancement support delusions of continued progressive virtue. When progress has been made in Wisconsin, as with suffrage, it was incomplete and deliberately exclusive. A statue should not enable us to pretend otherwise, to lure us into complacency of mind and heart, secure in the belief we achieved in the past all that we are called to do with our short time on this Earth.

Hans Heg was an actual human who seems to have rendered great service to the most pressing cause of his era. He didn’t merely rally support with his words, though he used his words effectively to rally others to the cause. Heg sheltered an abolitionist-turned-federal fugitive after that man helped foment a Milwaukee jailbreak that freed a fugitive slave named James Glover, who subsequently escaped into Canada via Lake Michigan. Heg was part of the Wide Awakes, a militia that thwarted slave-catchers. Heg volunteered to fight for the Union’s cause, and he he died the day after he was gut-shot while leading a charge at Chickamauga.

Hans Heg was an exemplary human because he transcended the moral standard of his time. That his life — which ended nearly 157 years ago — may not transcend the standards of our own time is to miss the point. Heg understood his responsibility to act decisively, and he followed the path of righteousness to an early, agonizing death. Hans Heg’s commitment should endure as an example for the people of Wisconsin, one that demands we face up to the responsibilities of our own moment.

Hans Heg was not an ideal or an abstraction of virtue. He lived. He was mortally wounded leading a charge for good.

That seems worthy of a statue — a reminder on our landscape to keep making progress in our own time. To keep moving — forward.

America society Wisconsin

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