In the last couple of days, I’ve gotten two messages from friends in different (Northern) states who are troubled about the efforts to remove statues of Civil War figures.
Here’s the first:
I am in a quandary. I am an educated, white, privileged male. I can understand, but not empathize with, the thoughts of those who wish to see the statues of Confederate officers removed. As an English major, I also see the statues as art. So what is next? Paintings, then books? Are the Holocaust museum displays too emotional, the paintings at the WWII museum too one-sided, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel acceptably historical? And who would decide?
Shakespeare said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Is Fort Bragg any less offensive to humanity than Fort Sherman?
I don’t want to get too deep in the weeds with the idea, but I do see the opportunity for a slippery slope. Maybe it’s just my white, privileged male quandary?
I look forward to your thoughts.
Here’s the second:
I’ve been thinking a lot about the new wave of dismantling Confederate statues, not displaying the Confederate flag, dropping Gone with the Wind from Netflix, Lady Antebellum changing their name to Lady A, etc. I agree with a lot of this, but I wonder if we’re going too far? Where do we draw the line? I noted on Facebook that Washington and Jefferson were slave owners. Should we tear down their monuments while we’re at it? Is it rewriting history? I would love for you to write a blog about this and help me figure it out!
Both of these individuals are progressive, thoughtful and public-spirited. If they are uncomfortable with removing these monuments and renaming bases, I’m sure many other people are equally conflicted.
Here’s my “take” on the issue:
First of all, I see a profound difference between statues and monuments that honor historical figures, and museum and other displays that educate about those figures. The placement of statues in public places pretty clearly falls into the first category. (In a couple of instances, Confederate statues have been moved to museums rather than destroyed–an implicit recognition of the difference, and in my view, an entirely satisfactory resolution.) With respect to the names of military posts, same thing—we don’t name streets, buildings, etc. for “bad guys,” we reserve naming rights for figures we admire.
Germany doesn’t have statues of Hitler, but German history certainly hasn’t been lost.
The men who fought for the South in the American Civil War were defending slavery– an indefensible system–and they were traitors to their country. We should remember them, but we certainly shouldn’t honor them. (There’s also the fact that most of these monuments were erected long after the war, to signal white resistance to the civil rights movement.)
So I think removing Civil War statues is a relatively easy call. But I understand the concern about “slippery slopes.”
None of the historical figures we admire were perfect people. As the second message notes, Washington and Jefferson (among others) were slaveowners. But we don’t honor them for slave-holding; we honor them for their willingness to risk their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” to bring a new nation into existence, and for their crafting of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
If being a flawed human being was reason to ignore significant contributions made by historical figures, there wouldn’t be many statues. (Maybe Mother Teresa, although who knows? There might be something in her past….)
Before we either defend or dismantle a monument, I think we need to ask why it exists, and what it is that we are honoring.
It’s pretty clear that the only reason there are statues of Robert E. Lee and other Civil War figures is because they were central figures in an uprising–a rebellion– against our country. We are honoring their decision to be traitors, and implicitly sending a message that although they lost, their “cause” was honorable.
In the case of figures like Jefferson, Madison, Washington, et al, we are honoring their undisputed service and the importance of their contributions–and those contributions are clearly worthy of honor.
Anyway–that’s my take on the issue. I welcome the perspectives of my readers.