On Monuments


I didn’t use to call this blog “The No Kool-Aid Zone”. In fact, it wasn’t even me who changed it. “The No Kool-Aid Zone” used to be the subtitle, I guess you would call it, but one day I came to the blog and found that WebbieDude Paul, in doing some refreshing of my blog, had taken it upon himself to change the name. Either because I decided I liked it better, or because I have lived most of my life allowing myself to be abused in one fashion or another by WebbieDude Paul and am thus resigned to it, I left it as he had changed it. Now, I actually like it better, for sure, even though it’s a take-off on the now-discredited Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone”. Basically, I try not to drink the Kool-Aid for anybody. Or anything. Jesus is Lord; there are no sacred cows. I try my best to call balls and strikes, and it doesn’t matter who has taken the field. Double standards make me retch (part of the reason I claim no political party affiliation these days). But I digress…

The name of this blog, back in its infancy in the early 2000s, was “A Ticking Time Blog”, because I reasoned that it would likely eventually tick just about everybody off, one blog post at a time. Sometimes–foreshadowing here–if I were really on my game, I might manage to tick off just about everybody in the space of one single post; sometimes, contrarians such as myself tend to do that. Today’s post may well accomplish that, because I am going to weigh in on this whole tear-down-the-monuments thing, and it’s reasonably likely no one will agree with me totally. But I’ll give the truth, as I see it. In love, as best I honestly can.

One final caveat, before I dive in: the opinions at which I have arrived weren’t necessarily the opinions with which I began. Instead, to arrive at them, I tried to think through a Biblically-focused lens. I freely admit that these conclusions, at which I have arrived (indeed, perhaps am still arriving), are neither the “gospel truth” nor the be-all-and-end-all on the matter; they are my opinions. But they are opinions arrived at via thinking through these issues, not via some knee-jerk response. So…

There are several different items to address, and so I think I’m gonna hit ’em in enumerated form. Here goes:

1. I support the orderly removal of Confederate statues from public land. Good people might disagree on the question of whether or not removing them is an utter, absolute moral imperative, but I am sure that keeping them is not.

What are some reasons I believe that the (lawfully-executed) removal of Confederate statues to private property is appropriate?

* Public spaces are public. There is, as we all should appreciate, a distinct difference between spaces which are public, and those owned by private individuals. One issue that has come up, for instance, during this entire debate is the statue of Lenin to be found in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. Lenin is one of history’s leading murderers, and it’s abhorrent that he should be memorialized. Alas, the offensive statue is currently situated on private property though, which renders its display a different thing from memorials in city squares on public property. Ironically, one wonders if those eager to tear down statues (Confederate or otherwise) would tear down this one, were it on public property. Regardless, while there must necessarily be some degree of latitude accorded the maintainers of public property–we aren’t going to please everyone all the time with our choices (I would take everything down with the name “Rachel Carson” on it, for instance)–it stands to reason that there are some things that in public places that are beyond the pale. I am sympathetic to the notion that Confederate memorials belong to this class…keep reading.

* Symbols are important, to all of us. I used to laugh at the liberals along with Rush when he would talk about how “liberals value symbolism over substance”. Turns out, at least to some degree, we all value symbolism (witness those conservatives who hailed the President’s silently holding up a Bible recently; witness it, don’t get me started on it), or those who fight against placing Harriet Tubman’s likeness on the $20 bill (for reasons that elude me). Symbols matter. They don’t matter as much as people, but they matter; they indicate what we approve of, what we cherish, what we applaud, what we honor. When we place a monument bearing the likeness of a person in a public space, we are not simply calling others to dispassionately consider that person; we are in some measure saying, “this person is a hero; this person ought to be revered.” This was clearly the intent of those who placed such statues in the first place. We should remember the evil of Adolf Hitler, but we don’t erect a statue of him in Borough Park so that descendants of Dachau victims can simply reflect; to do so would be an abomination. Now, don’t misunderstand; I don’t use Hitler as a comparison to anyone, but rather to make my point: statues are not erected merely for their “neutral” marking of history. They are erected for a reason, and that reason generally is to lift up the person as some sort of hero.

Now, it might be easy for me to look at a statue of Lee and not be terribly bothered by it, but I’m as white as the driven snow; to my knowledge, there does not flow in my blood a drop that can be traced back to Africans brought to this country to be used as slave labor. I fear that of all the things we seem to have lost in this country, the quality of empathy has to be near the top of the list. I don’t have any idea what it is like to live with brown skin. I don’t know what it is to see the world through those eyes. And frankly, I need to listen to those voices, that I might learn, and then respond accordingly. Are all black people bothered by the statues? Of course not, and that’s absolutely great. But if the public square in my town memorializes a man who, if his side had won, the often-inhumane oppression of my ancestors would have continued a lot longer, I am not sure I’d be terribly thrilled about that.

I bet you wouldn’t either. If, that is, you are able to muster empathy for others (and for Christians, yeah, that’s not an optional thing). Part of being my brother’s keeper is that very quality: empathy. It’s not just blurting out my own opinion, but considering the experiences of others, seeking to learn from them, as best I can walk at least a few yards in their shoes, etc. For Christians, this is part of the deal; it’s endemic to the outworking of our faith. And so prior to simply declaring my perspective on these symbols, I need to consider how they are perceived by people whose experiences are different from mine.

Symbols do matter…to all of us.

* The Confederacy is inextricably linked to the slavery of our fellow human beings.. Yes, I do understand that the reasons for the Civil War were complex; believe me, I don’t dispute that for a second. Heck, I think you can make a good argument that Lincoln damaged the Constitution by some of the things he did, even that on certain Constitutional questions, the South was right. Further, I’m pretty sure that some of those boys rallying behind the Stars and Bars weren’t terribly concerned one way or the other with the whole issue of slavery; some were enlisted to fight against their wills, and fairness ought to demand that we consider the likelihood that some fought for reasons utterly untethered from a personal support of slavery. There were even, at the end of the war, a few–very few, but a few–black soldiers who took up arms for the Confederacy. So sure, there were other issues.

But it all comes back to slavery in the end, doesn’t it? Would those Constitutional questions have been raised in the first place, had there not been the heinous situation where men put other men in chains, demanding of them not only their labor, but their dignity, their pride, and their very lives? Of course they wouldn’t, not in this setting. And thus regardless of what we think of some of the men who fought for the Confederacy, the fact remains: those whom we “honor” by allowing their likenesses to grace public squares are men who led the army of a rival nation to the United States, a nation which existed as a nation significantly because of the depraved institution of human slavery.

Now, I reject cardboard stereotypes of these men; they were men with a mixture of good and bad, same as those young men who stared at them across enemy lines. We need not get into the nobility, or lack thereof, of individual men, in order to ask the question: should public spaces be used to honor these who represented the Confederacy, knowing what we know of why the Confederacy existed in the first place? I think not.

* Many of these statues were erected, not shortly after the Civil War, but during particular times of racial unrest in the country, further calling into question the motives of those doing the erecting. It gets harder to make the “don’t take down history” argument when we consider all of the history surrounding the erection of these monuments in the first place. For the several decades following the Civil War, relatively few statues and memorials honoring Confederate generals and soldiers were erected. Things began to change just a little prior to the turn of the century (over 30 years after Appomattox), until there was a veritable tizzy of monument-erection begun, particularly between, say, 1905 and 1915. Jim Crow laws had begun a few years previously. The legend of the “Lost Cause” came into being shortly before as well. The KKK was reconstituted in 1915. Lynchings had reached their high water mark prior to this, but there were still plenty going on. About 1920, the building of such monuments tailed off over for several decades, only to once again become popular between the mid-50s and the mid-60s. Since history is important, I might call the reader’s attention to two very significant happenings on the racial front during this time: Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark civil rights case, was decided in 1954; ten years later, in 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed by our Congress and signed by LBJ.

Now I suppose it could just be a grand coincidence that we got all excited about building Confederate monuments at just about exactly the time black folks was a-gittin’ all uppity.

But probably not. And we all know that the answer is probably not.

* For crying out loud, Robert E. Lee was against the Confederate monuments. He said so. Seriously. If history is important to you, research what he had to say about them.

Perhaps I could martial more arguments given time and further thought; perhaps my readers might add some of their own. But I find both each individual argument, and especially the combined force of them all, pretty persuasive. Yet there are some arguments, of course, against the removal of Confederate statues.

Arguments against removing the monuments (which I find weak)

* “We will lose our history if we take them down.” I am definitely concerned that we do not “lose our history”; there are all sorts of reasons why we should know our history better than we currently do, among them, “those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them”. Agreed.

But I didn’t learn my history from going to monuments (particularly ones in the city square).

If you cite “losing our history” as a concern, great; may I ask what you plan to do to address this in a real way? A friend lamented recently that several history faculty were being cut from an institution of higher learning with which she is associated. Perhaps this is a lot more problematic than taking down a few statues?

Now, I very much concur with the concern that there are some who would rewrite history to bring it in line with their ideological biases; I see this happening on the left (the 1619 Project, for instance), and I see it happening on the right as well (yes, I am talking about you, David Barton and Eric Metaxas). I don’t want to lose history. I want to strengthen its (accurate) teaching; I want to tell the whole story (I had never heard of Black Wall Street until this month). I want the people who play significant roles in our nation’s history not to be presented as one-dimensional, black-or-white, all-good-or-all-bad individuals. I want our children to learn why this country is great–and it is–and where it has failed to live up to its ideals. I want them to learn why this country is great, and why we sometimes have fallen short of the aspirations of our Founding Fathers. But if taking a few Confederate monuments out of town squares, and renaming a few buildings, means that we will “forget our history”, then let’s demand more and better teaching of history. Let’s turn off America’s drug-of-choice (television) and get our kids reading historical fiction and the like. Let’s teach more history, better. I am absolutely down with that. I just don’t think removing a few Confederate monuments is going to make a hill o’ beans’ worth of difference.

* “They left some of the concentration camps standing so that history wouldn’t be forgotten, so we should leave these monuments standing.” C’mon, friends, surely we can see the difference, right? Surely? Dachau stands today and can be visited, but nothing about the place honors Nazis. Memorials have been built through the years at Bergen-Belsen, but these memorials honor the dead, not the killers. The parallel to keeping Dachau standing might be seen in keeping Andersonville standing: these are places where awful things happened. But they are not memorials to those who fought on the side of those who dehumanized people.

There might be some other arguments, but I haven’t heard one yet that outweighs the many suggested above which support the orderly removal of Confederate monuments. One final caveat: while it might be convincingly argued that it’s been a long time since we’ve had a surfeit of common sense in this country, might I plead for a little? I’m not sure that even the strongest arguments for removing the statues demand going to extraordinary lengths to remove every single vestige of such things. Specifically, I think it’d be a mistake–on other grounds than above–to feel we have to obliterate the carvings on Stone Mountain (and here and there, there may be similar projects). Is that a tad inconsistent? Perhaps, but “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”, as Emerson said. Or maybe it’s the exception that proves the rule…

2. I am very bothered by monuments being torn down and defaced by mobs. Sorry, tear down the monument–any monument–and you’ve just surrendered whatever moral high ground you think you had. This is not the way we do things in America. In fact, the monuments, works of art as they are, should be preserved; I believe than once removed, in an orderly fashion, they should be re-positioned on private land, hopefully accompanied by historical explanations that tell the story–the whole story–of the awful Civil War that ravaged our nation.

Several times recently–and we are in the midst of this today–we have seen mobs take it upon themselves to topple, deface, or otherwise desecrate statues. I oppose anarchy and violence. The rightness of one’s cause doesn’t justify taking the law into one’s own hands. Yeah, that means that the Boston Tea Party wasn’t the right way to protest (the fact that an event occurred 250 years in the past doesn’t justify it). But I can’t do anything about the loss suffered by the East India Tea Company; I can today say that there are non-violent means which can accomplish purposes and ends absent violence (Dr. King did manage to accomplish a few things, did he not?).

3. I am also very bothered by the indiscriminate desecration and tearing down of monuments that have nothing to do with slavery or the Civil War. We have seen the images of statues of people such as Ulysses S. GrantUlysses S. Grant, for goodness’ sake!…ravaged by these vandals. Now, I am torn between explanations for this: on the one hand, I want to decry this as utter madness, as the work of unthinking mobs of people who want the thrill of feeling as though they are part of some violent revolution, and I do think that this is about the sum-total of it for some people. But on the other hand, I think that some of my friends who see in this scorched-earth, tear-it-down-no-matter-what-it-is approach a genuine desire to cast off the “restraints” of our history, are likely onto something. We know that there are some who advocate Marxism (talk about ignorance of history!), and don’t seem terribly concerned about who or what is harmed in the “revolution” (talk about history repeating itself). It’s not mere idle chatter to consider such things; as this mindless, evil system is (often uncritically) taught to generations of college students, it’s foolish not to expect that some would actually take university “intellectuals” seriously. Frankly, the damage done to all Americans–white, black, Asian, Hispanic, you name it–by the adoption of Marxism, dwarfs the damage done by leaving remaining Confederate monuments standing. We have managed to make an incredible amount of racial progress in my lifetime–a fact lost on some but undeniably true–even with these monuments standing tall. There remains a good bit of work to be done on the racial front–a fact lost on some but undeniably true–and choosing to promote certain symbols–and in an orderly fashion, to remove others–will play some role in moving us further down the path to achieving Dr. King’s noble dream. Adopt the Marxism advocated by some of those demonstrating today, and we should be absolutely certain of this from the unmistakable evidence of history: nobody’s life will matter.

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