The Morality of Monuments

In the aftermath of Charlottesville, over what started as an attempt to protest the removal of a statue, the United States has once again become embroiled in a debate on the ethics of public monuments. Cities like Baltimore have even preemptively removed Confederate statues to avoid them being taken down extra-legally as happened in Durham, NC. Should we continue to allow monuments to stand that honor historical figures who fought for morally repellent causes? President Trump, in a series of tweets, responded in the affirmative:

Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So Foolish! Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!

There seem to be three distinct arguments here:

1) Taking down these monuments does not change history, and besides, these monuments teach us about history, so we should let them stand.

2) Judged by our moral standards, Generals Lee and Jackson are no better or worse than Presidents Washington and Jefferson, so if we leave Washington and Jefferson alone, we should also leave Lee and Jackson alone.

3) We shouldn’t take down monuments that are beautiful, even if they honor morally tainted historical figures.

Public opinion appears to be on Trump’s side, so perhaps Trump is channeling the public’s sentiment in an attempt to cut through the din of elite/media opinion that is almost uniformly against Trump, and therefore uniformly against leaving the monuments up.

What should we make of these arguments?

A common counter-argument to 1) is that if we want to learn from history, we should move Confederate monuments to museums, where they can be placed in their proper historical context. Or, as one tends to see on social media: “if you want to learn about history go read a book!”

But how likely is the average person to grapple with the complex history of the civil war in a museum, untainted by moralized “contextualizing”? Or for that matter, read about figures like General Lee in a good history book? If the educational system was better, we might be optimistic about these questions. But the left has remade history as a discipline that only exists to apply our own morality to criticize it, not as it ought to be: a genuine engagement with the peoples and ideas of the past.

There is also the issue of whether there might be utility in these monuments appearing in public, where we all must confront the past together, rather than, say, stuffed away in a museum that we experience as separate individuals. Without diminishing the pain these monuments undoubtedly cause, Trump’s statement suggests that there may be something to confronting that pain together, rather than sanitizing our public spaces to allow us to carry on as if everything is okay.

Trump’s second argument has drawn a lot more attention and discussion. If we should get rid of Lee and Jackson, why not get rid of Washington and Jefferson too? They were, after all, slave owners, and set up a nation that preserved slavery as an institution. One may reasonably say that there is no Lee and Jackson without Washington and Jefferson. Astonishingly, CNN commentator Angela Rye bit this bullet and endorsed the idea of getting rid of the Founders’ monuments as well. But an op-ed at the Washington Examiner responds to Trump’s challenge in a different way:

The immediate answer from Trump’s critics on Twitter and on cable news was that Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson fought against the United States. Why should they be honored in public places alongside Washington and Jefferson, who created the United States and raised it from a young age? This distinction seems good, but it begs the question. It assumes that rebellion is obviously worse than enslaving other human beings.

There is, however, a much strong distinction to draw. In each case, ask not what a person might have done wrong, but for what reason they are being honored. [emphasis added]

So, according to this argument, we should take down the Confederate monuments because these men are being honored for fighting the cause of slavery and white supremacy, whereas we honor Washington and Jefferson for their service to the United States, e.g. Washington’s bravery in the Revolutionary War and subsequent Presidency, Jefferson’s authoring the Declaration, his Presidency, The University of Virginia, etc. In short, Lee and Jackson were the bad guys; Washington and Jefferson, the good guys.

Now, one might respond, in the manner of Angela Rye, that the institutions championed by Washington and Jefferson nonetheless upheld the ideal of white supremacy, and therefore one cannot disentangle so easily the reason for honoring them from the evils represented by said honoring. Angela Rye appeared to be making this point on CNN:

[Washington] wasn’t protecting my freedom. My ancestors weren’t deemed human beings to him. So to me, I don’t care if it’s a George Washington statue or a Thomas Jefferson statue or a Robert E. Lee statue. They all need to come down. [emphasis added]

Meanwhile, the Washington Examiner argument depends on us being able to determine definitively why certain historical figures were/are honored with a monument. That alone diminishes our ability to engage with the complexity of history. But some have pointed to seemingly compelling data that show most of the Confederate monuments were built during periods of increased racial backlash, i.e. the Jim Crow and Civil Rights era. In light of that data, the argument is that these monuments stand as enduring symbols of white terror over the black population, rather than innocent memorials to the dead. Why, then, should black citizens be forced to indirectly support these symbols of oppression with their tax dollars?

As far as it goes, I think this is the best argument in favor of taking the monuments down. But we should appreciate that it is far from a simple matter for the public to decide collectively what a given monument means, and so these decisions should always be reserved to local decision and democratic control, rather than the lawless mobs we saw in North Carolina.

Of course, there are many alternative interpretations of what these monuments mean. For instance, in response to why the Army has not renamed bases named for Confederate figures, Brig. Gen. Malcolm B. Frost, says “Every Army installation is named for a soldier who holds a place in our military history. Accordingly, these historic names represent individuals, not causes or ideologies.” (emphasis added)

Can we separate an individual from a cause or ideology? Many people want to say no, but Frost’s response is a powerful plea that we should judge and remember people as individuals, not as cogs in support of a cause or as puppets of an ideology, as a Marxist might argue. On this view, to allow a monument to General Lee to stand is not necessarily to justify or honor the evil cause he fought for, but to recognize that Lee was a complex man, who like the Founders, had admirable qualities in spite of obvious moral blind spots. The point of reflecting on a man like Lee, which arguably public monuments encourage us to do, is not to honor his flaws or his misguided cause, but rather to emulate the virtues he had and learn from his mistakes.

This is a form of moral development that you can’t learn on a social justice tumblr. A much larger divide looms here between the left and the right. The left believes in the perfectibility of man, and so claims that we shouldn’t celebrate figures who are not moral praiseworthy by our enlightened, more perfected standards. These standards increasingly have nothing to do with one’s moral character, but rather consist in being clean from the sins of oppression, as preached in the various denominations of identity politics. In contrast, the right, perhaps because of their higher degrees of religious sentiment, is deeply aware of the fallen nature of human beings. For the right, it is a mark of hubris to apply our moral standards to the past precisely because we are morally fallen in the same way that they were. Our sins may be manifest in less overtly evil ways (at least as far as we can tell), but they are sins nevertheless. Monuments like the one of General Lee in Charlottesville, then, are an opportunity to reflect on our fallen nature as human beings. We should not expunge them in a display of our moral superiority.

Trump’s final argument is that the monuments are beautiful, so we shouldn’t take them down. This is perhaps his weakest argument, although I do not think it should be dismissed entirely. One may naturally respond that we can replace these monuments with other beautiful monuments that represent more universal or inclusive values. That may be true, but beauty is not a good that can be replaced in kind. Some beautiful things are so because of their history, place in people’s lives, and unique qualities. We might replace them with other beautiful things, but nevertheless something is lost when they are gone. In an age of disposability and functional (but often grotesque) public spaces, this may not be seen as a real loss. But the conservative temperament senses that we have reason to conserve existing beautiful things, even if they could be replaced by other beautiful things.

I’ll close with this thought. It is tempting to dismiss the monuments issue as peripheral, driven by the latest horrible event on the news. But I think it points to a deeper question: who are we as a people? It is far from trivial that some of our fellow citizens see Confederate monuments as symbols of their oppression. But we also shouldn’t ignore that others have decidedly different attitudes toward them, attitudes we should not simply dismiss as racist (even if some are). This means that where we go from here depends crucially on being able to talk about issues like this in good faith without being labeled a Nazi-Neo-Confederate-white supremacist sympathizer. And whatever you think about the monuments, the frightening thing is that after Charlottesville it seems less likely that that conversation is going to be possible in the future.

Lucius Vorenus

Lucius Vorenus is a philosopher somewhere in the United States. He thinks academic philosophy is long overdue for a shake up.

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18 Comments

  1. I’m not giving a formal argument here, but more like an argument sketch. Call it the Theodore Roosevelt argument: “Those who will not fight for the graves of their ancestors are beyond redemption.” Southerners honor Confederate monuments because they are their ancestors similar to how I honor my father because he is my father.

    As I Catholic the only justification for armed revolution is Just War and the American Revolution in no way fulfilled such requirements. It was an unjust revolution. Nevertheless, I honor the Founders because they are the founders of my country, acknowledging both the good and the bad.

    • Indeed, Urban. My sense is the intersectional left doesn’t grasp the scope or scale of what they’re asking from mainstream white Americans; namely, to repudiate their ancestors root and branch. And to condemn one’s ancestors in the stark and reductive fashion of contemporary social justice movements is ultimately to condemn oneself. I can regret the sins of my ancestors or feel some guilt over their failings but I’m not sure that I can coherently wish to remove them from cultural memory without also wishing that they’d never existed. But I can hardly wish my ancestors had never existed while taking a pro-attitude toward my own existence. If I’m prepared to assert that the world would’ve been better off without them, I ought to be prepared to assert that it would be better off without me.

    • My ancestors were in the IRA. I wouldn’t complain if a statue to one of them came down in Belfast. Why not?

      The answer you’d like to be true: I must be a corrupted liberal who can’t even appreciate my own heritage.

      The actual answer: I want to see Belfast thrive, even if that means I have to honor my ancestors more privately than I might like.

    • “The actual answer: I want to see Belfast thrive”

      I think everyone here would like to see America thrive, Dave. Do you think whether a culture is thriving has nothing to do with how it regards its ancestors and how it recognizes them? If it does, then don’t all the concerns that the original poster raises come into play?

  2. This response seems to reflect a lack of understanding of both history and the pragmatics of English.

    “My pigs are sick” can be felicitously uttered if I have six pigs, two of which are sick. You didn’t pay attention in whatever philosophy of language class you sat through, if any.

    And to presume that you arbitrate the distinction between civil wars and terrorism is laughable. 1798 was a civil war. So were ’16 and ’21. Hell, the Irish nearly won ’21.

    Thanks for showing your 7/2 split, Urban.

    • On the important *philosophical* point: Urban II thinks that if you say “My kids are sick” you must surely mean that all 11 of your kids are sick. He is not very astute.

    • “My kids are sick” is vague. A perfectly reasonable interpretation is “all your kids are sick”. If you want to be more formal, please add a quantifier and spare me the rant.

    • It seems to break the maxim of quantity to say “my kids are sick” if only two are sick. The hearer needs to have prior info that you refer to the smaller subset of children.

  3. I’d rather not get into the whole freedom fighter versus terrorist thing here. I definitely see the disanalogy between the CSA and the IRA, sure. But how disanalogous they are sort of depends on whether you think things like tradition and ethnic nationalism (and robust religious freedom) are important. I don’t. I’m a pluralist libtard, if you wish. But my ancestors who joined the IRA did think that these things were important. And so did the CSA (modulo the bit in the previous parentheses).

    I’m done. When Urban II failed a basic test of fluency in English (the possessive morpheme *in our beloved English* doesn’t somehow encoded the universal quantifier, genius), I decided to retire from this website for right wing “philosophers.”

    If this post is deleted, you’re cowards. Keep it up. And throw darts at it, like real Americans.

    • You obviously don’t pay attention to detail. I am not a contributor nor am I a right wing philosopher. My formal education is computer science and mathematics. I frequent this website to support it and will on occasion make comments and ask questions.

      The question I asked was a rhetorical question used to make the point that the sum total of your ancestry is not the IRA. In response, you go on a pedantic tirade about the philosophy of language, even though as I pointed out earlier “my pigs are sick” is vague; it neither encodes a universal quantifier nor negates it, thus “all your pigs are sick” is a reasonable interpretation. I assume you know this. What is not known is the point of your little rant.

    • Why would anyone want to delete your post? You’re not that important. Besides, censorship doesn’t fly here.

  4. The thing I keep wondering about is, what if the Confederate statue brouhaha was instead about a lawless mob of pro-lifers who were going around tearing down/torching abortuaries because of the pain they cause, their immorality, and the hate they engender?

    Plausibly one could even spin race into the argument for the moral virtue of their toppling PP given Margaret Sanger’s eugenics and the statistics that demonstrate PP overwhelmingly locates in poorer urban minority areas, and aborts children of color at a rate staggerlingly higher than whites.

    Would the liberal cabal and media elite be genuflecting in the same ways? But we already know the answer.

  5. The monuments have to be contextualized of course. (How about documents as well? The founding document of our government, the Constitution, codified slavery until the 1860s. Rather than removing the offending document or portions of it, the people amended it and nullified that portion of what came before. Not sure how this could be done with monuments. But, still, there’s *slavery* there in the original. Can we as a people ever confront such a reality without having a meltdown of some kind or other? Is it possible?) So when it comes to contextualizing monuments in the South, how about some history lessons on what figures *aren’t* commemorated in the South. Although found via the Loathsome Leiter’s blog, this appears rather damning.

    The South has what we might call quite the checkered history, moreso than the North. Had it not been for the “war of northern aggression,” would there still be slavery in the South even today? That the question even has to be asked is somewhat horrifying. There are decent and intelligent folks in the South just as elsewhere, but there’s a pretty ugly and sick history here as well (as evidenced by the choices of whom to memorialize and whom not to; see the link). Here we get the likes of HRC going overboard with her “basket of deplorables” rhetoric, but the issue is her having gone overboard, not whether there is a basket of deplorables that makes up a sizable chunk of Trump’s base. Or more precisely: a basket of folks who hail from a region historically known to harbor various deplorable folks and ideas. I don’t think Trump is politically sophisticated enough to know just whom he is getting in bed with when he courts the South as he does. (None of this lets the Democrat Party off the hook by any stretch of the imagination. Their candidate still lost swing voters in PA, MI, and WI, and the Democrats seem quite incapable of coming to terms with this, and of getting of clue as to how to win them back to the Democrat column. They can’t very well blame racism when these people broke for Obama twice. I guess they’re reduced to the charge of sexism? Also, the notion that moral compasses get superior the closer they are to big coastal cities is a myth concocted by conceited progressives. Not sure who is more intellectually and morally bankrupt, them or the more crude Southerners they feverishly imagine to be the bulk of their opposition.)

    • The GOP’s rather recent meltdown in which it nominated the manifestly unqualified Sarah Palin for VP (“she has the right valyuuuuuuuuuuuuues!”) is a clue that not all is well in that party, either. (Just because Sowell was so used to smacking down “progressive” “elites”, didn’t mean he was correct in defending Palin in this case. She really is a doofus. “Refudiate” corrected to “refute the plan of” rather than “repudiate”? This is how dumb the rabid anti-Trumpers imagine him to be, which means they’re kinda dumb too.)

      The anti-Trumpers pretend to think that his comments on the Southern monuments are motivated by racism, but anyone with a clue can tell that they come from a profound ignorance of matters political and historical – profound by the standards we normally apply to a POTUS. Trump has forcefully and repeatedly denounced and repudiated racism and violence in all its forms, and specifically called out groups like the KKK; meanwhile he isn’t nearly sophisticated enough politically to know and do “dog whistle politics.” That’s D.C.-swamp stuff, and it is dishonest media hacks that took his one statement about “decent people on both sides” (of what? monument removal? white supremacy? I’m assuming the former, as it is the simplest and best explanation for what he said) out of all that context in order to vilify the president. Gen. Kelly can bow his head all he likes when Trump speaks, but have you seen the shitshow that is the opposition/media these days? The liar, hypocrite, identity-politics-monger HRC would be preferable somehow? At least Trump, for all his political or other faults, isn’t a phony like she is. (“What Happened” is that she dodged every straight question about her private server setup and lots of voters saw right through that. And she might well be the most narcissistic political figure of our time, and she has lots of competition there no less.)

    • I suggest the North has ever bit as checkered history as the South. The North had to pass the Fugitive Slave Act along with the South. Runaway slaves knew better than to just stay in the North for fear of being tracked and turned over to their previous masters by Northerners. Canada was the only safe haven. Not the Northern States. Looks like Northerners are not without sin, so stones should not be cast.

  6. The great irony here is that even as the SJW’s bemoan the benighted masses of racists in the flyover states, and most especially among the wholly racist mouth-breathin’, knuckle-draggin’, booger-eatin’, incest-ridden “Southroners”, the enlightened Leftists actually go to court and *sue* for institutionalized racism.

    It’s mind-boggling Orwellian stuff, really.

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