Monuments to Ignorance

COMMENTARY Political Process

Monuments to Ignorance

Aug 16th, 2001 3 min read
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.


Edwin J. Feulner is the founder and former president of The Heritage Foundation.

In 1986, I took my teen-age son to Berlin. We went to the Berlin Wall, of course, and even crossed it to visit East Berlin. After going through Checkpoint Charlie, the official gateway between the divided city, we walked around for a couple of hours and then went back. When we returned to West Berlin, I noticed my son was choked up. I asked why.

Because, he said, he realized that people who lived on the other side of the wall could not come out the way we had.

This all changed three years later. The wall is down. Checkpoint Charlie is gone. Germany is reunited and free. Yet I can't help but wonder, as we mark the 40th anniversary of the Berlin Wall going up this month, why some Americans don't seem to appreciate communism's true legacy.            

Take the citizens of Seattle. For 13 years, a statue of Vladimir Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, has stood in the city's hip Fremont section. A sculpture-loving local brought the 18-foot-high statue from Slovakia, and it has stood in a public square with little fanfare ever since.

Until this past July. Matt Rosenberg, a free-lance writer, wrote in the Seattle Times that he was ashamed of the statue because it was like having a monument to Adolf Hitler. "It's finally time for Seattle's limousine liberals and bicycle-riding bohemian bourgeoisie to face Lenin's real meaning," Rosenberg wrote.            

Amen. Lenin and his communist disciples are responsible for killing 50 to 100 million people worldwide in labor camps, mass executions and midnight raids by secret police. At least, that's what the estimates are. We may never know for sure.

But tell that to Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist. When the Communist Party U.S.A. held its annual convention in his city over the summer, Norquist sent a letter of welcome noting that Milwaukee, with its socialist past, had much in common with "the history of the Communist Party and all those engaged in the fight for a decent life for working people."

Decent life? Would Mr. Norquist like to explain, then, why "working people" in communist countries try to escape in droves? It makes sense when you consider their lot: They can't speak and publish freely. They aren't allowed to assemble and to worship as they see fit. And their economic plight is intolerable: North Korea and Cuba, for example, consistently vie for dead last in the "Index of Economic Freedom," an annual survey of the world's nations published by my Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal.

I'm not suggesting that communist sympathizers are taking over America with statues and letters. Another Lenin statue stands in Dallas with the inscription "America Won." Even Norquist's aides later backpedaled from the letter, saying that the mayor doesn't "endorse communist ideology and condemns many elements of communist history." (Many elements? As if there were some great times in the gulag.)

The real enemy here is ignorance. My guess is that twenty-something Norquist aides wrote the letter as if they were greeting a Shriners' convention because they don't remember the Cold War and weren't taught communism's evils. Some additions to a summer reading list can fix that, including "Architects of Victory" by my Heritage Foundation colleague Joseph Shattan, "The Gulag Archipelago" by Nobel Prize-winner Alexander Solzenitsyn and "Witness," a modern political classic by the late Whittaker Chambers.

As for the statue, some would say Fremont is the perfect spot for it in a funny, ironic sense. The neighborhood's motto is de libertas quirkas ("freedom to be peculiar"), and it's the headquarters for a novelty company that specializes in rubber chickens and lawn flamingoes. Directional arrows on Fremont's streets point to such places as the North Pole, the Milky Way and Atlantis.            

And that's fine. In America, we're free to be silly. Still, as Rosenberg pointed out, a statue of Lenin is no more funny or wacky than a statue of Hitler. And considering the 28-year-old legacy of the Berlin Wall, built to detain people who didn't like Lenin's ideology, the only thing ironic about the statue is that no one has put barbed wire and guard towers around it.

Let's hope Seattle takes down the statue. It did come from a scrap heap, after all. Now's a good time to send it back there -- for good.  

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

Distributed nationally by the Scripps-Howard Wire