In the aftermath of Charlottesville’s violent, despicable protests, America has grappled with an overwhelmingly important question: how do we deal with the ghosts of our past?
The white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville to protest the imminent removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee did not do so merely for the sake of history. For them, the monument was—and is—a talisman of meaning and ideology, a symbol for present and future generations.
We must ask ourselves, while Baltimore vanishes its Confederate monuments overnight and protesters topple a Confederate statue in Durham, what place these objects have in America’s life. The question is important not just for history’s sake. It matters for posterity, as well. What we hallow and uphold today will influence the perceptions and understandings of generations to come.
The Arguments For and Against Confederate Statues
There are two primary arguments swirling around the Confederate statue debate. The most prominent from conservatives is that these statues are important for two reasons: for the sake of history and its preservation, and for the sake of solemn remembrance. As Matthew Boomer put it for The Federalist yesterday,
What one should see in a statue of Lee is a ghost: a remainder from a past we cannot banish. It is important to remember that we live in a country built by strife and bloodshed, as well as hope and prosperity. That is the value of a Lee monument in a society that has largely rejected him: to remember he existed, remember his mistakes, and preserve that memory to avoid repeating it. Having it in a public space can be a reminder that this sordid history is still with us, no matter how we try to bury it.
However, the other side of this debate is also worth considering. A monument, many argue, is more than just commemorative: it holds and designates honor. A public statue uplifts (literally) its object. In a society still grappling with deep racial discord and tension, why would we uphold such figures? Why would we give them such a public place—to the detriment and exclusion of countless other historical figures who better deserve commemoration?
According to this argument, the statues should not be covered with graffiti and broken to bits. They still belong in a museum, perhaps—a place that can give them context and the proper note of sobriety. But they don’t belong in a lofty position in the public square.
Avoiding the Dangers of Iconoclasm
A commonly heard rebuttal to this is, more often than not, that we should add memorials to public spaces, without removing others. To remove them would be a work of iconoclasm or historical revisionism, like tearing down the Colosseum (also a troubled and bloodstained historical artifact) or the pyramids.
However, it’s worth considering the difference in kind between such objects. Removing a statue does not also dictate the obliteration of Southern plantations, many of which still serve as a somber reminder of the troubled history of the South. Plantations, like the Colosseum and the pyramids, are geographical spaces, whose histories are filled with oppression and injustice. Their preservation enables us to teach important lessons to future generations. (And, again, it’s important to note that most people want these statues to be placed in a museum, not destroyed.)
Perhaps one of the best cautions against Confederate generals’ space in the public square comes from Lee himself, ironically enough. He wrote, “I think it wisest not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”
In Germany today, public memorials are dedicated to those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, not to the Nazis themselves. The faces of those they oppressed serve as reminder enough of the sinful, bloody proclivities of human nature.
Of course, it makes many angry to draw such a comparison. We don’t have concentration camps here in America. Lee was not Hitler. But unlike the Nazis’ atrocities, which lasted for just under a decade, we enabled slavery to exist in America for more than two centuries before finally decreeing its end. To consider the staggering loss of human life—in the Atlantic passage from Africa to America, as well as over those 200 years on American soil—is sickening and troubling to the extreme. (And this doesn’t even touch on our treatment of Native Americans throughout this time.)
We cannot and should not consider ourselves “better” than another nation in matters of oppression. Demeaning and disregarding human life is evil, no matter how and where it happens. For decades after the British empire had abolished its own slave trade and begun to grapple with its evils, America continued to cling tightly to its own. Lee, despite his faith and generally well-thought-of character, still sought to protect and preserve a national system of human oppression.
Mobs Won’t Solve Our Societal Ills
However, this should not give license to mob action and vitriolic iconoclasm. As we saw in Durham—and Wednesday at the Lincoln Memorial—there will likely be a temptation in days to come to obliterate or vandalize public monuments. Members of the Left must remember that such frenzied and uncontrolled action will only foment more vitriol and resentment, and likely hurt their cause instead of helping it.
Similarly, proponents of this anti-Confederate statue argument must reckon with the dangerous slippery slope it could present, one President Donald Trump rightly pointed out on Tuesday evening: if you begin tearing down these statues, where do you end? Will statues of the slave-owning Founding Fathers, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, be allowed to remain in venerated public spaces?
Steven Inskeep argues for NPR that statues of the Founding Fathers are drastically different in meaning, and thus not at risk of being removed. Confederate statues were erected to propagate and protect an idealistic, whitewashed image of the South. Washington, on the other hand, is celebrated not because of his relationship to slavery, but because he was a virtuous statesman and founder of our republic.
That said, in a society grappling with the meaning of and limits to “political correctness,” such a removal project could spiral dangerously out of control. Our country (and all other countries) is made up of troubled, sinful, and despicable human beings. None of us are perfectly good. To only hold up flawless exemplars of virtue via our monuments and statues would result in a rather sparse public space.
What Do We Most Want to Preserve?
But we should also consider which parts of our history we are most proud of, and most eager to uphold. Conservatives believe in preserving and carrying on the best of the past—not its worst. When Trump called for the nation’s citizens to “cherish our history,” he didn’t ask a second important question—one Alexandra Petri asked in the Washington Post yesterday: “What will we cherish, and what will we disavow? What are we putting on a pedestal, and what are we putting in a museum?”
Not everyone will agree with the anti-Confederate statue movement. But all of us should seek to understand and sympathize with their arguments, and consider ways in which—if we do not remove these statues—we can mitigate their toxic effect, either via the erection of new memorials (to Martin Luther King Jr., or Harriet Tubman, or Sojourner Truth, or Frederick Douglass, or any number of other worthy individuals), or by adding context to the ones that exist.
Because ultimately, America is supposed to represent “one nation, indivisible.” And if there’s anything we’ve seen and learned this week, it’s that these memorials are splitting us further and further apart. Our republic is already fractured. Let’s not make it worse.