Tuesday, March 12, 2013


External Memory

How very sad it is. Not the idea of a shrine itself, but the way some people are driven to upload photographs of restaurant meals they ate too fast to focus on, or to erect shrines to lives or religions that they lived too fast to focus on. If you reject the effort and discipline required to store your memories internally, external storage often beckons. "Put it here. That proves it happened."

It's an artistic act, of course: an expression of mourning, perhaps, or of belief; of uncertainty, obligation, or hatred. If we're a relativist about art and art history, then the intrinsic value of the work is subjective, and the only question remains, should the installation be allowed on the side of I90? And, barring the purchase of a display license from any given locality's Sponsor-A-Highway program, the answer tends toward "no."

Morals, though, are better stuff for consideration than the price for which a State will sell public functions to advertisers. If some jerk puts up a cross and a teddy bear on the shoulder of a road, and the local sheriff's office doesn't seem to care, does it bother us? And, when someone takes the little shrine down, is it cruel? What if the shrine was commemorating Joey, the troubled youth at the local high school who wrapped his car around a nearby telephone pole five years ago? What if, when Joey's father put it up, he was thinking not so much about Joey, but about how to remind the local perverts that Jesus is going to kick their heinies something good, come Armageddon? I.e., the creation of the shrine is a way of attempting to force the public to take notice of an issue they'd prefer to ignore?

Conversely, what if it's a long string of visitors putting up memorials to a gay man who died in Laramie, Wyoming? What if a handful of them are doing it because they feel a deep personal sorrow for the deceased, but most of them are doing it to force the public to take notice of an issue they'd prefer to ignore? We could then move our focus to the quality of the expression--whether or not the current set of people judges, at the current time, that the art is worthwhile enough to be allowed--or we could decide, on principle, that all such expressions should be allowed or disallowed. "Leaving it to the democratic process" results in what we have now: namely, stereotypical jerks with crosses (as well as nice and/or genuinely grieving people with crosses) tend to win more often than not. So, if democracy is our desire, then we already have our answer: crosses, yes; pretty-much-anything-else, no.

Pilgrimage ~ Historical Aside

Belief systems--whether LGBT rights, consumerist postmodern Christianity, or giving expressions of universal love via a symbol of sacrifice--expand through shrines and pilgrimages. Troop deployment, overwatch, flanking maneuvers, and forward base protocols are military translations of the social aspects of religious survival; websites and foundations are others. Little people, with makeshift crosses, are the guerrilla warriors of thought.

We often look at America, and the dummies making public displays, and see it as a relatively new invention. The white-guy roadside cross-shrine, besides obviously continuing a long human tradition that could be stretched until it linked with cave-art, draws heavily from the Hispanic Catholicism of the Americas, and its outgrowth from (or assimilation of) earlier Native American pilgrimages. How? Well, when wealthy, powerful missionaries were putting up gilded crosses and stained-glass images of old European saints, conquered native tribes would, either good-naturedly or rebelliously, make up their own saints, often from tribal elders who had died. In an attempt to allow some of their cultural traditions to survive under Spanish conquest, they put up cross-shrines across much of the southwestern U.S. and South America, and encouraged their people to visit them--ergo the utility of "roadside" crosses.

This intermingled in a really cool way with earlier Native-American tribal pilgrimages, where sacred lands had long ago become the excuse for encouraging the genetic diversity of cross-tribal marriage, the raiding of horses or brides, and establishing the physical memory of oral histories, by linking memorized stories with places. Brutally Catholicized natives hid their earlier traditions under the cross, so that they could still send young people on walks of hundreds of miles across the jungles or deserts. It proved, largely, not to work: over the generations, the cross was all that remained for many. Now, the descendants of the people who had tried to preserve their culture were left with the cross, not as a mask, but as a meaning.

(The Japanese senja mairi, or thousand-shrine journey, worked in a similar way, sending pilgrims on long trips to link disparate communities and foster cultural exchange, driving the memory of cherished stories into the brain in a very direct, unforgettable way. We back up our hard drives and copy our sketches; building a mound or taking a really long walk helps reinforce the neurons pre-electricity. The senja mairi also helped pass messages under dictators' noses, and keep shinto alive in the face of western encroachment.)

Which wasn't to say there wasn't any genuine compassion or spiritual sentiment remaining. Rather tear-jerkingly, Native Americans (or "Mexicans" or "Hispanics" or whatever you like) would still go on their pilgrimages. Little boys would wait until they were old enough to hitchhike from New Mexico to Belize to leave a flower on great-grandpa's shrine for their mother and justify their inheritance. Grandmothers would shuffle four hundred miles with a single bottle of water, praying at (and getting snacks or a bed from) Hispanic communities along the way, just to visit a dirty old cross of white wood, set on a recessed lane divider between honking eighteen-wheelers going eighty, and remember a son who had died in a war thirty years ago.

Ergo there's a terrible, laughable, pitiful white-boi irony in American whites now trying, a few hundred years after conquering the northern continent, to use "roadside crosses" to remind people that they are still there, too.

Aaaaaand...the personal moral choice

Wouldn't it be funny if, in the stereotypical evangelicals v. gays scenario, the gay group protested the removal of the cross on free-speech grounds? Yeah, yeah, that's not really the personal moral choice, but it would make for a better local nightly-news segment than the usual. Moving right along... =]

But no, maybe not moving right along. The worst thing about Americans putting up blatant shrines nowadays is that it's almost certain to come as a form of advertising, just like a Sponsor-A-Highway sign in memory of a depressed teenager who committed suicide, one mile down the road from a Sponsor-A-Highway sign in memory of great deals at your local Brake King. The vulgarity of the advertisement is cheapening if you're not aware of it. So, if it's really a commons area, instead of taking down the cross, you could always put up a little Coca-Cola ad nearby, or a picture of Eugene Debs, Matthew Shepard, or a quote from a different Matthew:

"Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you."
Matthew 6:5-6

All a lot of fun. If someone did actually put up that cross to meaningfully remember a departed person, then you can match your attitude to theirs: if you put up your own Coca-Cola ad (12-pack of 20 liters, ice cold, for $8.99! This week only at the Minit Mart, in memory of Lillian Alderbridge!) and you do so in the genuine spirit of helping that person better remember the departed by reminding them of how it can cheapen memorials to be used like roadside billboards, then there's no wrongness. Now, this one can't easily imagine anyone sticking that Coca-Cola banner in the ground, dusting her or his hands off, climbing back in the car, and giving the side-by-side memorials a glance before driving away, without giggling at least once. But it's possible.

There is always, though, the one chance that someone's sweet, frail, utterly-good-natured grandmother asked to have a little cross put up to help her remember so-and-so on the way home from the oncologist's office in her last year. Highly unlikely, but if you growl at the shrine, you have to be aware that you might be growling at her. Growl if you have to, because if she's really that sweet, she'll believe in forgiveness and not judging.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing post. It sheds light on all the dark and murky moral/ religious/ legal parts of this issue. I probably won't hate seeing the shrines (and there are A LOT in our area) so much after this, but I will be regarding even more suspiciously those permanent installations, the crosses and the stuffed teddy bears that are replaced with even bigger ones, the bling getting brighter and more gaudy with each year.