If you’ve scrolled through a news feed over the last month, you’ve undoubtedly seen stories and op-eds about the growing statue wars. Throughout America and the world, statues – of mostly white men – are being reexamined by a younger and more diverse generation. People are questioning whether George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or even Abraham Lincoln should have monuments built to memorialize them, often structured in ways that either downplay their faults or ignore them completely. America is having a debate; and it’s going terribly. The reason this conversation is inadequate is because pundits on the right are filling the discourse with unpersuasive arguments.
The arguments from the right on the statue debate are straightforward and designed to scare. If we don’t stop “the mob” they will force us to conform with their ideology. The rioters are trying to erase history. The political correctness mob and SJWs (social justice warriors) are using these as backdoor opportunities to implement their grand conspiracy of domination. They were men of their time.
The right’s defensiveness and panicked hysteria are obvious, but they’re also just bad arguments.
Perhaps one of the most common arguments is that this debate is between the America-hating politically correct “mob” on one side and the benevolent Americans who know the true history. This mob is not peaceful, and they want conformity. As Tucker Carlson so eloquently puts it, “if they can tear down a Lincoln statute because it’s racist, they can ban the first amendment.”
To a certain extent, protesters have absolutely turned to direct action – taking matters into their own hands by often pulling statues down themselves. When that is not an option, they turn to graffiti or deface them in other ways. Do I think people should be tearing down statues themselves – most of the time no. Do I think these events foreshadow a conspiratorial takeover of America that will turn our society into an Orwellian dystopia of groupthink and totalitarianism? Of course not.
But that’s the way the right’s arguments work. They take videos of burning, graffiti-covered statues being pulled down by SJWs and then draw absurd connections to Hitler and dictatorship. They make people feel that if they don’t stop them from taking down statues, liberty itself will cease to exist. In short, that’s a huge leap.
They were men of their times
Some have also tried to downplay the atrocities of individuals because they were “men of their times”. But this ignores the fact that these men were often called out for their views on things like race.
In a piece in The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates highlights instances when individuals closely connected with Thomas Jefferson not only freed their own slaves but provided them with land and means to build a meaningful life. One was a protege, the other was Jefferson’s own cousin. And Jefferson wrote to his cousin and said what he did was a mistake.
People like Mark Twain actively criticized the imperialist policies and decisions of leaders during his time.
Twain once wrote of America’s treatment of the Philippines:
As for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one–our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones.
This notion that great men were just part of a collective whose morality was not on par with our own – and that that should excuse them – is not persuasive to me. The argument that they either didn’t know any better or there wasn’t sufficient pressure from society at large to make the morally just decision is not accurate. People in Jefferson’s time argued with him and acted against the evils of slavery and racial injustice, but he wasn’t persuaded.
The “taking down these statues is erasing history” line of reasoning is as prevalent as any other. Taking down certain statues is not about erasing history; it’s about questioning why we’ve decided to memorialize certain historical figures through statues that oftentimes overlook the more flawed aspects of their character or decisions. But an even more salient point I want to draw out here, is what do we actually learn about the history of those depicted in these statues? I would argue very little.
Here is a hypothetical to demonstrate this point. Let’s pretend there’s someone who was from a remote part of the world who knows of America, but nothing of George Washington. If they came to America and the first thing they saw regarding George Washington was a statue of him or even the Washington Monument, would that person know the history of George Washington? Of course not. Because that’s not what statues and monuments are for. Statues and monuments are not meant to educate people on the history of the individuals they depict – at least not their full history. They are meant to memorialize the good while ignoring the bad. They idolize the best of the person but don’t demonstrate areas where they erred. In short, statues to Jefferson or Andrew Jackson don’t teach people the history of these men – they lionize them.
For many Americans, some statues represent harmful scars from our national memory. George Washington didn’t have wooden teeth, they were dentures of real human teeth, some suspect from his own slaves. Thomas Jefferson wasn’t just a slave owner, he was a cruel one as well. When someone walks by the Jefferson Memorial and sees the 3rd President majestically surrounded by his own quotes – which include his famous lines from the Declaration of Independence – some who know this history don’t see Jefferson the great president, but Jefferson the great hypocrite.
Taking down or altering statues and monuments wouldn’t erase history, it would correct it. Monticello – Jefferson’s home in Virginia – has done a good job recently shining a bright light on the darker side of Thomas Jefferson, the slave owner.
The debate surrounding statues is wanting, and it is because of the right. They refuse to engage in these debates with any real sense of empathy or understanding of how historically marginalized communities see these statutes. History isn’t being erased. They may have been men of their times, but others during their time criticized their actions. The idea that the leftist mob is using this as a trojan horse for grand plans of an Orwellian dystopia is conspiratorial and clearly comes from a deep sense of defensiveness.
This isn’t an easy discussion for anyone. I have a problem of occasionally deifying men whom I thought – and hoped – were ahead of their times on issues of equality. Ulysses S. Grant is one of them. When his statue was torn down, I was a little defensive about it. He did many things for African Americans – protecting them from white violence in the South after the Civil War, decimating the KKK, and signing the 15th amendment. But his record with Native Americans is not as glowing. He aided in cultural eradication by insisting Native Americans should become Christian and Grant’s policies led to horrible massacres like the Black Hills campaign led by General George Armstrong Custer. The point of these debates around statues is not to make people like me feel bad about admiring the good things Grant did. It is to get me to see how one person’s history may be glowing for some and horrifying for others. I admire Grant. If it were my decision, I would probably want to keep his statue. But if it were up to someone who is Native American, they would undoubtedly disagree.
There’s too much of a good versus evil binary in this debate that I think often misses the point. The point is to inject more nuance and viewpoints into America’s cultural and historical memory – and I’m fine with that.