A little over a year ago, in the aftermath of the violent protests in Charlottesville, America struggled with an enormously important question: “How do we deal with the ghosts of our past?”
The white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a monument to Robert E. Lee did not do so for the sake of history. For them, the monument was—and is—a “talisman of meaning and ideology,” a symbol for present and future generations.
As Americans grapple with the ghosts of their past, it is fitting to ask ourselves what place these monuments have in America’s life. This is an important question not just for history but for our future. What we uphold and honor today will certainly influence the generations to come. Much like every other issue today, Americans are just as divided on the statue debate, split between the conservatives and liberals.
The most prominent argument from conservatives is that these statues are essential for the sake of the preservation of history and for the sake of solemn remembrance. Matthew Boomer of the Atlantic writes:
“What one should see in a statue of Lee is a ghost: a reminder from a past we cannot banish. It is important to remember that we live in a country built by strife and bloodshed, as well as hope and prosperity. That is the value of a Lee monument in a society that has largely rejected him: to remember he existed, to remember his mistakes, and preserve that memory to avoid repeating it. Having it in public space can be a reminder that this sordid history is still with us, no matter how hard we try to bury it.”
The other side of the debate also has its merits. A monument, they argue, is more than just commemorative; it designates honor. A public statue literally uplifts its object. America is a society still struggling with deep racial discord—why should we uphold figures that fought for the institution of slavery? Why should we uphold their actions to the detriment and exclusion of so many more worthy figures.
The most common rebuttal to this argument is that we need to avoid iconoclasm. Instead of removing memorials to public spaces, we should be adding them. To remove memorials is historical revisionism. After all, we do not remove the Coliseum or the Pyramids, both troubled and bloodstained artifacts of history.
Perhaps the best argument against Confederate statues in public spaces comes from Robert E Lee himself, ironically enough. He wrote, “I think it wisest not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered."
In Germany, you will not see memorials dedicated to Hitler and Nazi generals. Instead public memorials are dedicated to those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. The somber faces of the oppressed serve as reminder enough of the cruel, hateful, and sinful proclivities of fallen human nature.
This argument alone will anger many. How dare we compare Lee to Hitler. There were no concentrations camps here. Nowhere in America was there the systematic, bloody, and brutal murder of millions of people. This could not be further from the truth. Hitler’s atrocities lasted a decade; we enabled slavery not only to exist but to flourish for more than two centuries. Imagine the staggering loss of life over 200 of years of bondage.
We cannot consider ourselves the shining city upon a hill, the nation better than others in terms of oppression. Disregard for human life is evil and detrimental to the common welfare, whether it happened in 1945 or 1845. Lee, despite his faith and his belief that the America was the city upon a hill, still sought to preserve a system of government whose proliferation was directly tied to the institution of slavery.
We must avoid at all costs “mob action and vitriolic iconoclasm”. The temptation certainly is to vandalize and obliterate all confederate monuments. The Left must remember that uncontrolled actions such as these will only serve to foment more hatred and resentment.
The removal of confederate statues presents a slippery slope, one that President Trump rightly acknowledged. Where does it end? Will statues of the founding fathers be toppled? Will veneration of Washington and Jefferson cease to exist?
I argue that it should not, for the monuments of the founding fathers are drastically different in meaning. Confederate statues were erected to protect an idealistic and white image of the South. The monuments to the Fathers, however, commemorate the actions of those who founded the republic; they were not fashioned because of their relationship to slavery.
We live in a time of political correctness, and an overzealous removal project could result in there being no monuments left. Our country is made up flawed humans, no more so than our historical figures. To uphold only the flawless exemplars of perfection would leave us with only Lincoln.
The time has come for Americans to truly examine their history and determine what they are most proud of and most eager to uphold today for our future generations. I would like to see these statues taken down. I do not believe these statues, as they currently exist in public spaces, serve as reminder of our sordid history but rather as a fuel to the fire of racial discord. Not all of you will agree with me and I welcome any and all comments. But it is time that all of us seek to understand and sympathize with the arguments of the Black anti-Confederate statue movement. To those whose great grandparents were slaves, these statues are not merely stark reminders of a sordid past, but memorials representing the enslavement, trading, torture and sometimes murder of their forefathers. You will be hard-pressed to find a memorial of George III or Cornwallis in this country.
However, I am not a historical revisionist. History cannot and should not be ignored. The past is essential to the understanding of today’s issues and tomorrow’s solutions. These monuments to the Confederacy do indeed need to be taken down. In their place, we should erect memorials of Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, or Sojourner Truth. But under no circumstance should the statues of Confederates be destroyed. Rather they should be placed in museums where they can be remembered in the historical context with which they belong.
Ultimately the United States is supposed to represent “one nation, indivisible”. These memorials are splitting us apart, further and further. Our house is already divided. Let’s not make it worse.