On the one hand, we have “monument fever” — with an endless array of, not just people, but groups, getting monuments in our public places. Will future generations feel the need to clean up the National Mall, in order to memorialize heroes of future civic or military battles?
On the other hand, we’re engaged in a process of clean-up now, getting rid of monuments to people who we conclude weren’t that heroic after all.
On the third hand, when ISIS and the Tailban got rid of monuments that they didn’t like, we got outraged. Is the difference that our “bad monuments” are not old enough to have historical significance?
On the fourth hand, we cheered when statues of dictators were toppled in the Soviet Union and Iraq, and will likely do so again, if someday the Kims lose their hold on North Korea.
What’s the purpose of a monument? And when does it become a “historic site” which should be preserved whether we like it or not?
It seems like an easy call that monuments to military generals and politicians in the Confederacy should go. From Robert E. Lee to Jefferson Davis to Stonewall Jackson, they supported a rebellion against the United States whose very purpose was the preservation of slavery, much as it was later idealized as a states’ rights and independence movement.
Of course, this shouldn’t be a matter of private individuals, vandals, taking the matter into their own hands, nor of the federal government mandating this, but each local government body should feel free, in a democratic manner, to make that decision for themselves.
As much as the rallying cry of those upset at this turn of events is that these are a part of our history, a monument placed in a city park is not the same thing as a historical site. Monuments should serve the people, not be fixed and frozen in time.
But there are three complicating factors.
In the first place, we need some kind of standard that differentiates between anyone with a complicated legacy, and those individuals whose primary “claim to fame” is directly and concretely associated with slavery or other Bad Things.
Washington, after all, was a slaveowner, as was Jefferson. To a certain degree, it’s my understanding that they themselves understood that there was a conflict between their pursuit of liberty and the system of slavery, but were unwilling to break with something that was so ingrained in their way of life at that point. It seems like common sense to say that only those men who specifically worked to preserve the slave system lose their places of honor — but students at places like Yale and Princeton have rejected this differentiation as they demand that any building named for anyone connected with slavery be renamed (though bloggers claim that students are hypocritical in not asking for Yale to rename itself — since its namesake was a slave trader — lest they lose the “Yale” cachet).
Second, there are some sites where the “monuments should serve the people” formulation doesn’t work as well, because they have become historical sites in their own right. Chief among these is Stone Mountain, in Georgia, of which Wikipedia says,
Stone Mountain is a quartz monzonite dome monadnock and the site of Stone Mountain Park in Stone Mountain, Georgia. At its summit, the elevation is 1,686 feet (514 m) MSL and 825 feet (251 m) above the surrounding area. Stone Mountain is well-known not only for its geology, but also for the enormous rock relief on its north face, the largest bas-relief in the world. The carving depicts three Confederate figures during the Civil War: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
The carving was done in fits and starts from 1916 – 1972; the mountain itself was owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy until 1958, at which time it was deeded to the state of Georgia.
And, in the context of all the calls for the removal of any sort of Confederate monument, there are similar calls now for this carving to be sandblasted. Given that Teddy Roosevelt is the object of protests vilifying him as a “white supremacist,” a blanket “destroy all monuments of Bad People” dictum would involve dynamiting Mount Rushmore as well.
Finally, we should address the “keep the monuments” claims that these are a part of Southern heritage, and that Southerners want to remember these people has having at least attempted to fight for independence. They may be flat-out wrong, but is it really appropriate, and pragmatic, to run roughshod over them? The rallying cry of “white nationalists” is that they want to have “white pride” and I imagine that their message becomes much more appealing to young people, when they’re told that their ancestors were racist, had no redeeming qualities, and that their “heritage” contains nothing of value and should produce only shame and repentance. Could at least some of those statues be replaced, not universally with Civil Rights icons, but with local men and women known for music and the arts, literature, science, or community service, from any time period, not just the 1960s?
Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AStoneMountain.jpg; By KyleAndMelissa22 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons