A lot of people are upset by protesters pulling down or defacing public statues of and memorials to Confederate figures, and even of historical persons who espoused racists views, or who owned slaves. Even some readers of this blog have revealed deep ambivalence about this movement. Many Americans are confused and angry that Black Lives Matter protesters would do this. It seems unilateral and disrespectful to our shared history. These statues represent our national story, our cultural icons, and, to many, our heroes. Why would anyone want to erase our heritage and our history?
I certainly don’t speak for Black Lives Matter, but allow me to make my best case: a public statue honors and celebrates the subject, along with the subjects’ animating ideas. Many Americans feel that we should no longer celebrate or honor the racist, traitorous, slave-owning, imperialistic, and white-supremacist ideas of our past. Those old, terrible ideas are certainly an integral part of our history, but they should not be celebrated or honored publicly in our present. Those ideas should be rejected and denounced unequivocally. Offensive statues should be removed from display in our public spaces and only presented in a context that makes clear they represent a grave mistake on the part of our culture.
Overwhelmingly, people of today reject the racist and imperialist ideas of white supremacy and racial inferiority that were common, widely-embraced, or at least widely tolerated, in the past. Arguably, some of those who strongly object to this latest wave of iconoclasm are really demonstrating that they still embrace those terrible ideas, and are arguing in bad-faith that they merely standing up for our history. We can best understand our history by studying it and acknowledging our mistakes, rather than insisting that the worst be honored along with the best.
Keep in mind that this is not just an American movement. People the world over, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement here in the United States, are pulling down statues depicting champions of a racist and imperialist old order.
How can we ask people who would have been relegated to the status of mere property, or, at best, second-class citizens, under those offensive old ideologies to live with the constant reminder and public celebration of those persons and the terrible ideas they championed? How can we publicly celebrate those who would have sought to oppress so many of our citizens, without also implicitly endorsing their worst ideas?
We can not and should not. It’s disrespectful to the living, and we should value the dignity of the living over the memory of the dead: both those historical persons, and the dead and discarded ideas they lived by. You are free to disagree, but if there is an insoluble conflict between the living and the dead, my ethics tell me the living should win. Every time.
So does that include our own slave-owning Founding Fathers, like Washington and Jefferson, and other openly-racist public leaders of the past, like Roosevelt or Wilson? Are we to pull down George or Thomas because they owned slaves at a time when it was common and legal? Yes, if their veneration offends those living. Should we remove a statue of Teddy or Woodrow because they held common views on race for their time? Yes, if their celebration is offensive to those living. It’s not even a hard call if you merely prioritize the living over the dead.
Time and public discussion of our racist and unjust past will ultimately bring us to a new discourse on how to properly memorialize and contextualize a celebration of our history. In the meantime, why give the living offense merely to honor those long passed? No one is going to forget our Founding Fathers or significant leaders merely because they are no longer standing on a plinth in a public space. They will live on in our minds and our history books, regardless of monuments or statues.
Now is a time to listen to the voices of the descendants and inheritors of those oppressed and victimized by our history, and by the worst aspects of our present. Now is a time for us to understand why these statues and monuments represent a grave insult to the dignity and rights of so many of our fellow citizens. We will ultimately come to a new social agreement about whom in our history we should celebrate and honor, and how best to do that sensitively when those persons are closely identified with a deeply dishonorable past.
But why must protesters be so precipitate and hasty in their effort to change things? Can’t they slow down and discuss these matters and negotiate democratically? They have already waited over a century or more to pull down the hated icons of our racist past. That sounds plenty patient to me.