It’s easy to mock all the statue-removers as crazy mobs accomplishing nothing on behalf of the real victims of racism, past and present. It’s not as if for every statue that comes down, an underprivileged person gets a college scholarship or a good first job.
It’s easy, that is, if you’re like me: white, and male, and Christian, and middle-class, and straight, and cisgender….
To be fair, someone like me can also be sincerely sympathetic with casualties of a horrifying incident of police brutality, or of an ugly episode of racist invective, or of a landlord or banker or employer redlining minorities.
Still, what about respecting our history? What about wrecking works of art? What’s with the statues?
Well, it’s worth slowing down and asking, What is indeed with them?
What comes along with each statue is this: a public statement of values.
You get a statue of yourself put up because this community (this institution, this town, this state, this country) thinks you’re pretty special—and in a pretty special way: you personify the ideals of those who put up the statue. You’re such an excellent example of those values, in fact, that we want people to look at you for a long time and recall those values you (and eventually your statue) stand for.
When you walk by the statue of Michael Jordan in Chicago, you’re supposed to think about, and be inspired by, athletic excellence, determination, commitment, leadership, and achievement. That’s what it stands for.
Michael Jordan, as even the adulatory Netflix series “The Last Dance” makes clear, is hardly a paragon of other virtues. He’s evidently a raging narcissist—capable of literal raging in a practice or a game—and someone apparently incapable of forgiveness of even small slights. But we all appreciate that statues in front of sports arenas don’t stand for moral virtues. (Babe Ruth, anyone?) They stand for athletic virtues.
So what about statues of Robert E. Lee?
Robert E. Lee can stand for military excellence, to be sure. He apparently was quite a general, which is why he was offered command of the Union Army before he decided to fight for the South.
But he did decide to fight on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War. And the Confederacy nowadays signals to most Americans not just “states’ rights” or “the genteel life of the Old Southern aristocracy” but, of course, predominantly the nightmare of chattel slavery.
So his statue needs to come down. He fought bravely and brilliantly, yes, but on behalf of a terrible cause.
What about someone like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson?
Statues of America’s Founding Fathers didn’t go up because they were slaveholders, of course, but in spite of their being slaveholders. Americans have honoured them because of the good they did and the ideals they personify that Americans want successive generations to honour.
Americans don’t walk by their statues and think of slavery—or, for that matter, what kind of fathers or husbands they were, or how kind or nasty they were to small animals…
Unless we do, now, walk by them and we do think of slavery. Whatever actually happened between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, lots and lots of us think he abused his slave, including fathering children with her. So today whatever else comes to mind when people encounter Jefferson’s likeness, that does.
And for many, many Americans, that hurts. It hurts that Jefferson’s good qualities for two centuries have been prized above his bad ones, and his accomplishments have been valued above his failures. Not because we should be remembered more for our bad deeds than our good ones. If so, we wouldn’t put up any statues at all. No, the problem is that this was a very bad failure.
Moreover, that particular failure was typical of powerful Americans of his day. And that particular failure meant enslavement for millions, the ancestors of millions today who have to look at Jefferson being revered as a great man.
Statues are made to last forever. But values change. And if a new generation is not being inspired to goodness and greatness by the statues, but instead is provoked to grief and fury, then why should they remain? If they no longer do the job, we don’t need to wreck them. But let’s put them where they can at least do a different helpful job: in a museum, as objects of education, not where people have to encounter them day after day as provocations.
Aren’t people overreacting, though? Are we caving in to an overly sensitive radical fringe?
It’s worth thinking about crowds in the former Soviet Union and other communist states pulling down statues of Lenin and Stalin and their local overlords. We’re sympathetic to them, aren’t we?
And let’s take another look at that statue of Michael Jordan. Suppose MJ’s flaws weren’t limited to being a fierce competitor and an egomaniac. Suppose he had been exposed as an embezzler, or a pimp, or a traitor. He still won all those championships, sure. But how do you feel about the statue now?
To find our way through this controversy, we need to keep asking: What’s with the statues? Whatever they were intended to accomplish when they first went up, what are they doing for, and to, a new generation?
And if they no longer inspire the general public to good, but instead seem to condone, if not to celebrate, a serious harm, then out of the general public’s way they should go.
Now, about those statues of our first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, up here in Canada…