Back in 2017, soon after the fatal Charlottesville clash, a 22-year-old African-American student named Takiyah Thompson climbed a ladder and tied a tow-strap around the statue of a Confederate soldier in Durham, North Carolina. The bronze statue, dating to 1924 and located in front of Durham’s Old Court House, was then yanked down to the ground from its high pedestal and gleefully stomped.
The crowd that gathered for this staged media event was mainly white and youthful. Sheriff’s deputies were on hand to observe, but did not intervene. The event was organized by far-left political groups, with Thompson belonging to the World Workers Party, a Marxist-Leninist outfit that supports Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro as well as North Korea — where just about everybody gets to be a slave.
This revelatory event was in the early days in the Orwellian crusade for the annihilation of the presence of the past in the nation’s public realm, which has reached fever pitch since the brutal killing of George Floyd at the end of May.
We Must Know Our History
Statuary monuments are landmarks. They help us understand our history, where the nation and the communities comprising it have been and what they’ve been through, the ideals to which they have subscribed, and the leaders they have revered. In some cases, the ideals they embody — as well as their beauty — are enduring.
Sometimes, their resonance is universal, as with the majestic Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. In other cases, their appeal is more complex and complicated. That’s because history is complex and complicated. Our typically college-educated iconoclasts appear to be entirely incapable of dealing with that complexity.
A great many Americans are well aware of the landmark value of our monumental heritage. They also know that many statues’ originally intended symbolism is thankfully obsolete. This is most notably the case for the many monuments that implicitly enshrine the Confederate “Lost Cause” as a matter of vindicating states’s rights while ignoring the “peculiar institution” that caused the Civil War.
These statues, however, still retain cultural value as part of the historic fabric of American communities. More specifically, most Americans can appreciate that such monuments retain artistic value apart from any ideological baggage they might carry simply because they are of higher quality than the memorials we are apt to produce today.
Not surprisingly, a recent Morning Consult-Politico poll shows only 32 percent of respondents favor the removal of Confederate statues. Still, the number of those favoring removal is rising, while the number who say they should remain standing is falling — which is hardly surprising given the legacy media’s coverage of the issue.
Because the current iconoclastic mania was initially precipitated by Confederate memorials, which range from the heroic equestrian figures of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart along Richmond’s Monument Avenue to the many solitary soldier statues across the South, such as the demolished Durham figure, we should be mindful of the issues they raise.
What many conservative politicians seem never to have grasped about the removal or defacement of these monuments is that they were always just the initial appetizer on the menu, never the main course. We are now at the point where an anti-democratic minority is hell-bent on discarding the nation’s public realm of all statuary at which it takes offense, usually in total contempt of the law.
The distinguished Civil War historian James M. McPherson addressed the Confederate landmark issue in a 2017 interview:
I can certainly sympathize with a point of view that people who fought to break up the United States with the purpose of preserving slavery should not be celebrated, but it happened. Many of these monuments, which were put up from about 1890 to 1920, illustrate the ‘Lost Cause’ mentality of the Confederacy. I think that that needs to be understood as part of the mythology of the Civil War — and people live as much by myths as by reality. If you try to wipe that out, you’re shortchanging an important part of our understanding of history. As a historian, I don’t like the idea of banning statues. I think the better way would be to leave most of these memorials where they are with some kind of explanation of who put them up, and when, why, and what they stand for.
Conservative politicians have failed to absorb the wisdom of McPherson’s remarks. And McPherson is no conservative. He simply articulated the common sense informing a wide swathe of American public opinion: to destroy public monuments, Confederate or not, is to destroy part of the nation’s history.
We should be hearing this message loud and clear from senators and representatives in Washington. We’re not, and this reflects a troubling hollowness at the core of contemporary American conservativism. Tucker Carlson is one of the few commentators to forcefully denounce it.
This Was Never Just About Confederate Statues
Columbus, Washington, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Grant, and even Abraham Lincoln are all apparently fair game now. The American Museum of Natural History elected to part with the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt, flanked by figures of a Native American and an African-American (the latter two on foot) because the museum deems it racist.
Facing New York City’s Central Park and framed by John Russell Pope’s magnificent museum entrance and Ionic colonnade, this statuary group, the work of James Earle Fraser, forms part of an extraordinarily fine civic composition. Would we arrange the statuary figures in the same way now? No. Does that mean the sculpture should go? No.
The ideology and rhetoric of the vandals are clear. When they destroy statues of Columbus, they tell us the European settlement of this continent was illegitimate, a simple matter of unbridled greed and plunder unredeemed by any higher civilization-building dynamic. When they go after statues of distinguished figures in our nation’s history, they tell us the American political system was erected on a foundation of “systemic racism.”
Because a Civil War hero, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, is portrayed on horseback amidst the black infantrymen under his command, his monument on the Boston Common has been defaced as a loathsome symbol of white supremacy. The Confederacy evidently differed from the rest of the country simply by being more explicit in its racism.
Thus, the vandals see history in simplistic, vacuous terms, reduced to slogans and Twitter memes. The media types who indulge them have been indoctrinated in similarly simplistic national-guilt narratives at our colleges and universities and dwell in a social-media echo chamber in which deviation from current orthodoxies often has quite unpleasant consequences.
The almost certainly imminent removal of the Confederate statues along Monument Avenue — Jefferson Davis was toppled on June 10 — is particularly noteworthy. This elegant, mile-long thoroughfare is one of the great civic art venues in the United States. It is a National Historic Landmark.
The removal of its handsome statuary is foolish. It will impoverish the River City’s cultural patrimony. And it will do absolutely nothing to improve life for black Richmonders.
Salon sophisticates, of course, assume they must fervently and unanimously support the avenue’s statuary purging. How do they know? On Monument Avenue, as elsewhere, video footage shows the vandal gangs converging on their targets are mainly college-age white kids. This is hardly the Paris of the French Revolution, with half-starved sans-culottes raising hell.
The Importance of Symbols
Everyone knows there would have been no Civil War but for the existence of slavery, and almost everyone knows the right side prevailed. But that doesn’t mean everyone who fought for the South did so because he was a devotee of the “peculiar institution” — let alone a slaveowner. Many Southerners fought mainly because they believed their homeland was being invaded. Many thousands gave their lives to defend it.
Princeton historian Sean Wilentz would have us believe Monument Avenue’s statuary panoply was not about redeeming the Lost Cause. Rather, Confederate monuments were intended “to celebrate … the re-subjugation of the formerly enslaved and their progeny into the economic peonage and racial caste system of Jim Crow.”
Wilentz ignores the almost religious veneration white Southerners held for the men who led them through years of extreme privation and misery. Beyond their romantic exaltation of the Lost Cause, Confederate Monuments also idealize the virtues of honor and bravery. Similar veneration, of course, inspired legions of Civil War monuments in the northern states.
Historical memory is grounded in the literary and documentary narratives of different kinds and in symbolic works such as statuary monuments, which often seek to redeem historical experience by idealizing its noblest aspects. Monuments are thus selective — history without warts — and there is a vital and by no means necessarily tidy interplay between them and historical actuality.
The underlying objective of the crusade of modern iconoclasts is to undermine our civilization by demolishing its symbols. Symbols resonate at a metaphysical level. The vandals seek the destruction of the artistic manifestations of higher ideals guiding our nation and its leaders throughout its often turbulent history.
This is just another facet of modernity’s war on the metaphysical dimension of our being, without which no civilization worthy of the name can survive. Material prosperity helps civilization thrive, but its survival requires more than material prosperity. If conservative leaders can’t figure that out, this country is in serious trouble.
Jim Crow went down more than half a century ago. Few if any of our statue-desecrators have ever experienced real political oppression or economic privation. Far more likely, their fanaticism answers not so much to an unjust world as to a profound emptiness within themselves — a spiritual void that must be papered over with narcissism and hatred. They should not be allowed to inflict their nihilism on the rest of us.