Leave the Statues Alone--For Now

June 23, 2020

 

Last night, Capitol Police arrived in Lafayette Park just in time to keep a mob from tearing down a well-known statue of Andrew Jackson that has as its backdrop the White House. As someone who has spent the past 15 years working to protect cultural property, the story resonated with me.

 

The President who adorns our $20 bill certainly has a checkered past, with troublesome involvement in some seriously dark matters. Perhaps a strong argument can be made that this monument to him should be removed. Further still, reasonable people can debate the removal of many statues across this nation, from Confederate generals to Christopher Columbus.

 

But that’s exactly what is missing from the daily toppling and defacing of statues today: debate and reason.

When the statue of Ulysses Grant was defaced and unceremoniously dragged to the ground in San Francisco, it wasn’t after community members, historians, and local government officials discussed the matter and made an informed decision, weighing Grant’s ownership of a slave against the fact that he laid his life on the line to rid the entire nation of that repugnant practice. Instead, it was the work of a mob that made a summary decision to remove the 18th President and Civil War hero from the public square. It's impossible to know how many among them were experts in the great man's life.

 

A less angry and violent group would have done well to deliberate over the distinction made so well by opinion writer Radley Balko: ““There’s a huge difference between honoring historical figures in spite of their sins (Washington, Jefferson, etc.), and honoring historical figures because of their sins (Lee, Davis, Forrest, etc.).”

 

Instead, some academics—even those who advocate the preservation of antiquities and who should be at the tip of the spear countering mob rule—have taken to social media to call for those very mobs to make their own frenzied decisions about who is “problematic” and who should stay. One notes that none of them have urged mobs to topple Seattle’s statue of Vladimir Lenin, despite his role in the death of millions of people.

 

There are good examples of a better way. A WPA mural that graces a Post Office in Medford, Massachusetts, has been the subject of thoughtful debate, with many voices lending perspectives. So, too, has a George Washington mural at a high school named for him in San Francisco been the subject of controversy, but one in which “artists, community and Native American leaders, curators, and more talked about why Victor Arnautoff’s Life of Washington murals should remain.”

 

I personally believe that military bases named after Confederate figures should be re-named immediately. It’s shocking to the conscience that such an honor would be bestowed upon men who were traitors to their country and risked their lives to dismantle the United States. There’s even precedent for changing the names: In February of 1778, construction began on what would be called “Fort Arnold” in New York. But in 1780, when it was discovered that Benedict Arnold was a traitor, the fort being constructed in his honor was renamed Fort Clinton. No one would argue that the change was a mistake or "erasing history."

 

I also believe that when memorials are no longer useful to the community, there should be discussions about taking them down. To many Americans, statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee and his ilk represent discrimination and the fight on behalf of oppression. Reasonable people can meet and decide what should become of them, and these conversations should happen immediately. Clearly, that’s what a great number of people desire. We should listen to their irate voices. We should consider their righteous cause. But we should not abide the rule of mobs—ever.  They render government, and therefore, the whole of the people, mute.

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