Thursday, July 19, 2012
On Statues and their Meaning
Symbols are important. This is what we are told when we are told that our fighting men and women are doing so for the flag of the United States. A symbol can come to represent the Platonic ideal of a thing and serve as a lasting testament to its worthiness. When we turn something into a symbol we announce publicly that the ideals it represents are ones we aspire to. When the basis for the symbol changes, so too does the symbol itself change.
The statue of Joe Paterno outside the football stadium at Penn State was erected to eternalize the admirable qualities that his fans and admirers presumed their beloved JoePa to possess. Based on the available evidence they fairly reasonably concluded that he was a decent man with a legendary commitment to the school and the men he coached. He seemed like a breath of fresh air in the world of collegiate athletics, determined to have his players stay out of trouble and graduate, and for decades that is exactly what they did, with hardly a whiff of corruption to be smelled.
But now, of course, we know that the reputation of Joe Paterno was based on a rotten foundation. His commitment to the school and its football program was not the selfless act it was portrayed as, but rather the propagation of a relentless need for self-glorification that fed itself on the adoration of the Penn State community. Joe Paterno turned himself into a living legend, and when something threatened to poke a hole in his armor, rather than live up to the legend and do the right thing no matter what, damn the consequences to his legacy, Paterno looked the other way, and perhaps even helped convince others to do the same.
Next to that what, really, do all the victories and graduations matter? However much those victories, that program, mattered to the community, how can Joe Paterno represent anything honorable from this point forward?
The statue of Joe Paterno is no longer a symbol for the commitment to doing things the right way and achieving victory and honor. It is a symbol for the dysfunctional and disordered thinking that led to a football coach becoming bigger than the school itself, and led directly to that coach doing everything he could to protect that status, even if it meant delaying justice for child rape victims and even allowing more children to be victimized.
The tragedy of what happened at Penn State should, one would think, have been enough to wake up the people of that community and get them to reassess their priorities. And perhaps for many it has. But a dismayingly large and vocal percentage of the community are sticking to their guns, making excuses, or minimizing the impact this scandal has on their beloved institutions.
One might reasonably have expected that, outraged by the malfeasance of the men they had so entrusted, the students at Penn State might have rallied to demand that the statue of Joe Paterno be taken down. Perhaps one might have expected that some enterprising and industrious students would attempt to perform this task themselves.
Instead what has happened is that committed Paterno loyalists, blinded by years of following the party line on the coach, are forming a vigil to ensure that the statue remains unharmed. It’s a pointless task, and self-defeating. By standing by the statue, and the man it represents, they are serving only to further establish the connection that all outsiders will hereafter make when they see Paterno’s statue: Here is a place whose priorities are all fucked up.