Why Are Protesters Pulling Down Our Statues?

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George Washington statue defaced with paint in Baltimore.

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.

10 COMMENTS

  1. “Which one of the names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall do you think took Trump’s place?”

    Some working class kid, 18 or 19 yrs old, maybe finished high school, and whose life was expendable to the warmongers pursuing “peace with honor”.

  2. Just keep it simple: America does not honor traitors. Period. Benedict Arnold, synonymous with traitor, only has the Boot Monument at Saratoga battlefield national park (it makes no mention of Arnold by name and honors the leg that was broken during the battle). A plaque including Arnold’s name among the American generals at Saratoga was donated by the Daughters of The American Revolution in 1938, but was later removed in the 1960s.

    At the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, plaques hanging in the Old Cadet Chapel recognize all the American Revolution’s generals except one. Arnold’s plaque reads: “Major General. Born 1740.” (After he joined the British side, Arnold had tried to deliver West Point to the British).

    The point is that every Confederate officer was a traitor to his country. Period. They should have suffered the same fate as Benedict Arnold: no statue or anything else honoring their service in the treasonous Confederacy.

    As for the Founding Fathers, for all their genius and enlightenment, they were deeply flawed men, many of whom owned slaves. But the promise, if not the reality, of what they created served as an inspiration to the world even to this day and led to the creation of modern democracies. America is a work in progress always striving to be “a more perfect union.” While imperfect and deeply flawed men, these men were not traitors to their country. They were the founders of this country, and they are to be honored for this achievement.

    Treason is the reason for removal. Everyone else gets to stay, just add some historical context in a plaque to the statue if it really bothers anyone that much.

  3. A monument or memorial will not withstand the test of time if it glorifies a revised history. Here in the US there has been a lot of historical revision and many monuments dedicated to the revised story. But as they say, sooner or later everyone knows everything. Not exactly true, but close.

    A monument or memorial that is reflective of our unrevised history will probably never be taken down, and there are numerous examples.

    Before it was built, there were people who opposed the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, but we haven’t heard from them in decades. That’s because the black granite walls with the names of the 58K American service members who died in that savage war is reflective of the true history. It honors those who were sacrificed without glorifying a revised history that isn’t believed now and certainly won’t be believed by future generations. Those granite walls will stand.

    Some monuments are better than others, of course, but all of them left standing should remind us of our true history, no matter how painful. That is the whole point of knowing our history, isn’t it? To build on and take pride in what is good and not repeat the mistakes of the past?

    • The GOP, The Party of Lincoln, is defending confederate memorials.

      The GOP, the Make America Great party, is defending people who attacked America.

      The GOP’s leader, likes to call people “losers”, is defending losers.

      Which one of the names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall do you think took Trump’s place?

  4. “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.“

    There will be a time and place for a deliberative process to determine the future. It will not be now. You can’t ask people who are chanting in the street to obey parliamentary procedure. You have to read the room.

  5. Last sentence should say: “Are we to say those people are not worthy of a future memorialization?”

  6. Michael,
    As an attorney wouldn’t you agree there is a right way and wrong way to deal with statues or other historical figures?
    To me it’s “mob rule.” It reminds of the “Old West” where you shoot first and ask questions later.

    Everyone has flaws or biases. It’s easy to say bec someone owned slaves they were bad people. Slavery goes back a long ways and, I believe, in the Old Testament it wasn’t considered wrong to have a slave. My ancestors were slaves in Egypt.

    But getting back to your original premise that if a statue “offends” a group of people bec they believe a person shouldn’t have a statue in their honor, then it’s OK to tear it down, even if on private or govt. property, I couldn’t disagree more.

    We’re a nation of laws and there is a right way to go about taking down monuments, if the representatives of the government decide it should come down.

    We’re a more enlightened generation than those who came before us in terms of race, religion and sex. But Washington and Jefferson were more enlightened than their ancestors in terms of wanting a way of life where the people and government decide how to rule and not a king or despot.

    So let’s not lump everyone who had some “arcane” views on slavery as being the worst of the worst. It wasn’t very long ago that a strong majority of people in this country were against same-sex marriage. Are we to say those people are me worthy of a future memorialization?

    Brent Fine

    • Ironically, Brent’s attempt at a thoughtful response to the removal of confederate monuments is exactly why the confederate monuments are and should be torn down.

  7. I was listening to the radio in bed the other night.to a discussion of the Black Lives Matter movement and the massive peaceful protests going on around the world. As I was drifting off, I heard someone say “Just be glad they’re looking for justice and not revenge.” And I whispered “amen.”

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