Monday, September 12, 2011

Monumental Paraphrasing

I recently spent time in Washington DC, and whenever I go there I enjoy visiting the National Mall. I was especially thrilled to see the recently unveiled monument honoring the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of my personal heroes. It is certainly fitting that we finally have a monument there to the man who reminded an entire nation that the words of Jefferson and Lincoln must carry the full faith and credit of the United States. Otherwise, we are bankrupt. He reminded us that we are a nation whose deeds have their genesis in ideals and words – often beautifully articulated.
He’s not only been to the mountaintop, he’s been glued to it.
But there is some controversy around this memorial and not just because the sculptor made him white.
It is over a quotation from Dr. King inscribed on the memorial which is from a sermon in 1968. King was preaching against the lead-the-parade instinct of self-importance and superiority.  He said, “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
Let’s hear it from the man himself:

Stirring, humble and, according to the memorial committee, a little wordy. Which is why, on the monument it was paraphrased so that it would fit on the north side of the statue. The memorial version reads “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”

There you have it; short, pithy, and to the point – but not particularly Dr. King’s point. Evidently the memorial’s committee believes in the age old saying, "Brevity is the soul of saving money on chiseling fees."
C’mon!!! Why the need to edit?  Across the mall, every word of Lincoln’s second inaugural address is carved in stone without so much as an ellipsis to mar its poetry.
I realize that capturing the essence of a human being in stone is a flawed enterprise anyway. To make poetry jump out of fountains or from a narrative carved in granite is next to impossible. And even though its surely possible to paraphrase a quote in such a way that it’s not stripped of its original meaning and intent… it’s so improbable the result will be an improvement that there’s little to recommend it, and no reason at all when the very point is to memorialize the content of an individual’s or group of individual’s character.
However there are exceptions to this rule with regards to some Thai monuments. Thais, like Americans, are a monument-building people. However a few of their monuments would be tremendously improved if we could paraphrase – even only a little bit.
For instance, one of the relief sculptures at the base of Thailand’s most famous monument, the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, shows a heroic and united armed forces doing battle (it is not clear against whom).

This panel is entitled: "Soldiers Fighting for Democracy" but by cutting the fat out and making it to be just “Soldiers Fighting Democracy” allows a more historically accurate description of Thailand’s military. I mean since when in history did the Thai military ever fight FOR democracy? On the other hand, there are many instances where they have been shown to be directly opposing it; the 18 coups in 80 years, the violent and deadly repression of democracy movements (1973, 1992 and 2010), the interference in politics, and, of course, their own admittance that their role is to protect their monarchy.
Ironically, this October 14th marks the 38th anniversary of the deadliest massacre of innocent Thai citizens peacefully protesting for democracy by the Thai military. Two days after this anniversary, on October 16th, Dr. Martin Luther King’s memorial will be officially dedicated.

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