What You Should Think About Mount Rushmore

June 3, 2011

“Monuments are the grappling-irons that bind one generation to another.”

–Joseph Joubert

This nation, since the final months of George Washington’s Presidency, has been troubled by a partisan divide.  It is in the nature of any self-governing people to take sides as disagreements about policy give rise to factions in politics.  Unlike most other authentic democracies, ours seems afflicted with a craving for simplicity in these disagreements.  Even journalists are often inclined to dumb things down so that, in presenting “both sides of the story,” they prop up the false narrative that a complex issue can be understood from only two perspectives.

Thoughtful people know better than to embrace false dichotomies.  Because so many Americans assume the duty to actually cast a vote is much more important than the duty that ought be its prerequisite — to form a rational fact-based opinion that would make such voting well-informed — false dichotomies have become the norm in our political life.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, the divide was crystallized.  It was Republicans who championed progressive values, social justice, and modern thinking; while the Democratic Party took its strength from supporters of traditional values, racial segregation, and fundamentalist religion.  The bipartisan oligarchy offered a neat and simple way for the political process to address a reality that was rarely ever neat or simple.

In a dance that could hardly be described as delicate, these two parties traded places during the 20th century.  Little by little, the Democrats who once opposed emancipation and largely withdrew from Congress during secession were transformed.  Today they are aligned with positions that support bettering the plight of minorities and broad exercise of the powers of the federal government.  Little by little, the Republicans who once preserved the Union and promoted emancipation as a matter of principle were transformed.  Today they are aligned with positions that oppose efforts to alleviate hardships experienced disproportionately by minorities.  They so vigorously oppose the exercise of federal powers that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some actually suggested that the timely deployment of emergency relief assets was an abridgement of states’ rights!

In 1927, this dance was already well underway.  President Calvin Coolidge was among the first of our national leaders to promote the absurd belief that the private sector is innately and consistently more efficient than the public sector.  He earned public support in part through arguments like, “government ought to be run more like a business.”  He firmly believed, to the extent there was any concern about Wall Street speculation at all, that this was a matter to be settled at the state level.  His unwillingness to act in this realm was clearly a key factor in the severity and duration of the Great Depression.  Even so, it was through his rhetoric that the very institutions established to create space for Americans to enjoy liberty became branded as impediments to that exercise.

Yet Calvin Coolidge was still a very different man from the sort of anarchocapitalist ideologues the Republican party embraces in the 21st century.  He understood that what differentiates partisan zealots from one another is far less important than what unites as all as Americans.  He understood that working together as a whole would propel this nation forward far better than working against one another across a political divide.  Even in the midst of unprecedented poverty and unemployment, he was not in complete denial about the value of taking action to uplift public morale and renew pride in what greatness could rightly be attributed to our nation.  It was with this in mind that he worked with Congress to approve funding for the sculpting of Mount Rushmore into a national monument.

Of course, President Coolidge was not entirely above the partisan divide.  For his part in the negotiations, he insisted that the monument feature two Republicans and one Democrat along with George Washington.  In this way he showed partisan favoritism without taking the project so far into that realm as to make it unpopular with people outside the Republican base.  Thomas Jefferson was an obvious choice, for he was both the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and a prominent supporter of so many other measures crucial to the establishment of liberty as an American value.  Abraham Lincoln was also an easy pick, since he alone had served and died as a President determined to keep these states united in the face of a real threat to that unity.  The original sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, selected Theodore Roosevelt for the fourth figure — a perhaps not-so-subtle dig at the cozy relationship between government and big business that Roosevelt once so boldly opposed.

Gutzon Borglum would not live to see his great vision completed.  Work on the mountain began in 1927 and continued through the fall of 1941.  The man who conceived and planned this project would die in the spring of that year, leaving it to his son to continue the work.  Originally, Mount Rushmore was intended to depict the four former Presidents from the waist up, alongside a panel commemorating the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and a variety of our nation’s territorial acquisitions.  Due to funding constraints imposed by acts of Congress subsequent to the original authorization, young Lincoln Borglum was only able to apply some finishing touches before concluding work on the monument as a carving of the four faces in place there today.

In spite of all this time and effort, the final cost of Mount Rushmore’s sculpting was less just under $1 million.  Even adjusted for inflation, this is less than the cost of three hours of funding for the war in Iraq.  A site that has inspired millions of Americans, a marvel that is known throughout the world, was less expensive than 1/20,000th of the effort made to replace Saddam Hussein’s regime with something else.  Even more remarkable, in spite of the obvious dangers of sculpting the face of a mountain, not a single worker died during the construction of Mount Rushmore.  There is simply no way to compare that with the cost in human lives lost in pursuit of eliminating the non-threat Saddam Hussein’s government posed to American national security.

There is no doubt that the United States of America can achieve great things.  We once enjoyed the highest standard of living in the world, all measures of quality of life in constant ascent, while we helped to vanquish the Nazis, subdue Japanese imperialists, and even sent explorers to the surface of the Moon.  Yet there can be no doubt that something changed in our national character during the final stage of the Cold War and the years to follow.  Some of us no longer seem to want rising standards of living.  Some of us no longer seem to care about exploitation by the elite nor suffering among the downtrodden.  The “square deal” and the “fair deal” have given way to the “raw deal.”

This has coincided with a shift in national priorities.  Today funding for artistic pursuits is routinely criticized as “government waste.”  The small-minded among us attack scientific grants as “pork barrel spending” and receive approbation for what any honorable American would instantly recognize as shameful conduct.  We allow ourselves to be limited by the words of the petty and the deeds of the ignorant.  Yet it was not always so.  Given sound national priorities, the United States is a nation that will prosper like none other.  Fiction tells tales of people from a future dark age, gazing up at Mount Rushmore and asking, “how did human beings ever do that?”  I sit in the present, knowing full well what we as a people can accomplish, and ask, “why did we ever stop doing that?”

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