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.