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Richard Kyte: Hiawatha puts democracy to the test
THE ETHICAL LIFE

Richard Kyte: Hiawatha puts democracy to the test

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The Hiawatha statue is being removed from Riverside Park.

Whether you are cheered or saddened by that fact is not as important as the way in which it is being removed. The statue is coming down peacefully, deliberately and more or less democratically.

Mayor Tim Kabat formally asked the La Crosse Board of Park Commissioners for a decision on the matter. The commissioners deliberated and voted unanimously to remove it.

Now there is talk of collecting enough signatures to hold a referendum on the matter in the November elections. If enough citizens vote to retain the statue, it might have to be reinstalled next spring.

Welcome to democracy. It is messy and often ugly.

Consider, however, the significant fact that nobody is pulling the statue down with ropes or chains. Nobody is busting it up with a sledgehammer. No crowds have gathered in the middle of the night to topple it over and roll it into the river. People are not assaulting one another over it.

At this particular moment in history, that is something to celebrate.

Democracy does not always get us what we want. In fact, the results are often downright discouraging. It’s a wonder it has lasted this long.

What gets lost in the ugliness of the democratic process is proper regard for different people’s genuine interests and perspectives, and this can often feel like disrespect.

Perhaps those who spend a great deal of time in the political battlefield get immune to those feelings, but for those of us who participate only occasionally, the experience can be pretty raw.

Many of those most vocal in defending the Hiawatha statue were students or friends of the artist who created it, Mr. Zimmerhakl.

When they look at the statue, they do not see a caricature of Native Americans. They see a work of art created by someone they love and admire, someone who, by all accounts, taught them to honor and respect indigenous cultures.

They feel, with some justification, that the mayor and the parks board rushed the decision and did not take sufficient time to hear their side of the issue.

Nevertheless, I think the parks board reached the right decision. Two years ago, I wrote in these pages:

The great virtue of public art is that it can bring many people of different interests, ages and backgrounds into a space of shared identity. Whether intended to honor a hero, mark a historic event or just display a symbol of the community’s pride, it says, in effect, “This is who we are.”

When public art fails to do that, when the image itself or the ideas it represents turns some people away due to race, gender, ethnicity or religion, when it says to some, “You may live here, but you do not belong here,” it fails in its purpose. The moral justification for its being in a public space is forfeit.

This is the kind of situation that puts democracy to the test. People on both sides of the debate have strong feelings about the outcome, and both sides have a legitimate argument to make.

Unfortunately, there is no option for a satisfactory compromise. One side is going to win and the other is going to lose.

Our commitment to democracy is only revealed when we find ourselves on the losing side.

Democracy is disappointing because a genuine commitment to freedom and equality for all practically guarantees disappointment.

It means I have to put up with listening to and often abiding by the decisions of all the yahoos and nincompoops who live in my community.

That’s frustrating, because nincompoops generally make dumb choices, and I have to live with the results.

But it is also comforting, in a way, because it doesn’t take too much reflection to realize that I am someone else’s nincompoop, and they have to live with the results of my dumb choices, too.

Maintaining democracy requires that we learn how to live with disappointment and not let it grow into resentment. And the key to that is what psychologists call “reframing.”

Reframing is the ability to look at a situation from a different perspective. And in just about every situation where sincere, reasonable people are locked in disagreement over some significant issue, the problem is that both sides have a legitimate concern and neither fully appreciates the others’ point of view.

When most native people look at the statue they see a cartoonish figure they had no part in creating; what many longtime residents see is a familiar landmark that recalls fond memories of their past.

If we are to be satisfied with living in a democracy, we must learn to take comfort in the fact that those who disagree with us are usually not crazy or evil or even unreasonable; they are just standing in a different spot. And with a little imagination, we can see what things look like from that point of view also.

Whether the statue goes or stays, I will celebrate my good fortune to live in a democracy where we have enough respect for one another to live together in peace even when we lose.

Richard Kyte is director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University. He also is a community member of the La Crosse Tribune editorial board.

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