Home The Soapbox The Soapbox: our own statue story informs national debates

The Soapbox: our own statue story informs national debates

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He’s part of history, albeit a lead character in a regrettable chapter.

Whether you choose to view him as a famous son or an infamous one, his home will always in some way hold a connection with his name and actions. Some would say that removing a statue is no more than a misguided attempt to wash away those ties.

Yeah, this description could fit the boiling hot controversy over the statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Va. There’s a battle to remove it from its prominent place in the former confederate capital. 

But we’re talking about Outagamie County, Wis. 

In 2001, our leaders made a decision that was well ahead of its time in moving a bronze bust of the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy from its prominent home of 42 years. 

And it offers some insight as debates over statuary roil across the country as part of the reawakened push for racial equality.

The senator’s likeness was hoisted from an environment suggestive of honor within Outagamie County’s courthouse, where he once served as judge. It’s still on display today and accessible to the public, though in a locale that encourages a different perspective. 

You’ll find it at the The History Museum at The Castle.

McCarthy stands among the rare few who achieved the feat of having his name become an ism. To many, he’s a reviled figure who destroyed lives through fiery accusations during his anti-communist crusade. Yet McCarthy remains a sympathetic figure to some — even a hero — and his hometown ties are still celebrated among them.

Removing the 250-pound bust of the nationally historic figure was far from a snap decision. County leaders entertained the idea in 1986 and again in 1991 before finally following through a decade later.

In a July 11, 1986 Associated Press article, then Outagamie County Executive John Schreiter offered a sentiment all too similar to those opposing removal of confederate statues today.

″Whatever negative things there are to say about McCarthy are best said by people who look upon him and remember history,″ he said.

Ah yes, the history argument.

It’s been a common refrain from voices in leadership all the way down to overshared Facebook memes. It’s suggested that removing statuary in some way serves to erase or rewrite our past.

Let’s be honest here: we’ve never erected public statues of individuals for the purposes of teaching our history — and thank goodness for that.

It would open the door for a statue of Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City or of Jeffrey Dahmer in Milwaukee. 

Our rodeo with McCarthy’s likeness points out some of the deeper issues at play.

We’ve always placed statues in prominent public places as a means to honor and memorialize.

Sorry, historians. 

And as we change, our sentiments on who is worthy of honor.

When many of our people see confederate statues in public spaces, they see honor being given toward the bondage of their ancestors and the struggles that continue generations later.

And, frankly, why shouldn’t they?

Certainly, the majority of those who oppose removal aren’t out with malintent to keep their neighbors subjugated. 

The focus is statuary, but the arguments are very much about the preservation of the status quo.

Change is hard. It isn’t comfortable. 

But Outagamie County’s statue debate shows it’s inevitable. 

Misgivings simmered. They didn’t disappear. And while it took 15 years, those misgivings won the day. The same will likely hold true wherever statues honor those who fought to maintain people as property.

In the Fox Cities, we reached a tipping point and decided we could recognize our history without paying honor to a man we’d rather not.

Perhaps, like in Appleton, there’s room for compromise.

Might more statues make their way from points of honor to places of education?

Only time will tell.

Yet however this current moment of history making unfurls, we can know one thing for certain: our past will not be forgotten.

After almost 20 years, we’re just as much linked to Joe McCarthy as we ever were.