This article is a continuation of yesterday’s article. In order to keep things short, I’m going to reference the other article, but not quote it. I recommend you give it a read before you start on this.
As I said yesterday, I believe that communities should be allowed to erect whatever statues they want, prohibit whatever statues they dislike, and remove any statues whose time has passed.
The mechanism for making such decisions is simple: democracy. Even better if it is put to the ballot, and not decided by a city council behind closed doors.
Of course, that merely describes the mechanism by which the decision should be made.
Each person who casts a vote must decide how they will vote. And, unlike a lot of matters, there’s not a good framework for understanding exactly just what it is that is being voted on.
Something I’ve heard thrown around a lot is the idea that the statues are somehow racist.
Let’s be clear: statues cannot be racist.
They can depict someone who held racist beliefs, hold symbolic meaning for racists, have racist imagery on them, and so forth.
But, they’re inanimate objects, so they cannot be any kind of “-ist.” They merely “are.”
What seems to be happening here is that we’re holding a public referendum on how we judge the moral fiber of the person depicted in the statue.
The truth of the matter is that everyone falls short of perfection. There is no way to account for human moral failings in regard to statues without banning statues altogether. That’s not a great solution, but at least it’s a consistent one.
I have full confidence that the line we draw will be less extreme than that, but that doesn’t mean that the current place we have drawn the line is any good.
Another argument against Lee’s statues that I’ve heard is that he defended slavery and is thus not qualified to be honored with a statue.
But, forget defending slavery. Let’s talk about the people who actually owned slaves.
If we tear down their statues, we’ll really be making progress.
We’ll also get rid of the statues belonging to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant. That’s ten out of the first twelve presidents who owned slaves, as well as a couple of framers of the Constitution.
Should we also remove their names from all streets and buildings named after them? What about states? Should Washington and Washington D.C. be forced to change their names, as they are named for a prominent slaveowner? Should their names be struck from the Constitution? That thing has to be crawling with slaveowners. Is it the most offensive document in the United States?
What about all the colleges these men endowed? Should they change their names?
And, there’s the history textbooks.
Should all pictures of these men be removed? All textual references to them, too?
If we can’t handle their presence in a public park, they have no business in a public school, either.
But, hey, maybe we can do better than just slavery.
Let’s look at all moral vices to see if there are any more statues that need to come down.
How about marital fidelity?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt likely cheated on his wife.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had at least one extramarital affair.
Should we discredit the good things they did in public because of the morally-wrong things they did in private?
How about people who have likely killed others?
Theodore Roosevelt fought in the Spanish-American War.
Harry S. Truman fought in World War I.
Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush all served in the military during World War II.
Interesting how all of history starts to fall apart if change how we judge those who lived it. But, let’s bring things back to the Confederacy.
Research has revealed that of the early volunteers in the South, “one in 10 owned a slave and that one in four lived with parents who were slave-owners. Both exceeded ratios in the general population, in which one in 20 owned a slave and one in five lived in a slaveholding household.”
For the record, that’s 65% of early volunteers that didn’t own slaves. That’s a better ratio than the pre-Civil War presidents. 12 of the first 15, or 80%, owned slaves.
That’s not to say that the soldiers weren’t racist. But, to be fair, most northerners were racist at this time.
What I am saying is that they weren’t slaveowners, and by the peculiar moral matrix we’ve set up, they’re more qualified to be on a statue than more prominent figures in history.
But, why do we put up statues?
Yes, it is in part to honor people.
But, there’s more to it than just that.
Seeing a statue is a chance for reflection, both upon history and upon yourself. The people who came before us serve as lessons about how to live our lives. The good things they did in life and the good character traits they developed are worth emulation in our own lives. Likewise, the mistakes they made and the things they believed that were wrong are examples of how we can be led astray in our own lives.
So, maybe what we need is not an analysis of whether someone was good enough to appear on a statue, but an analysis of whether we ourselves are mature enough to grapple with the moral complexity of the world.
Lee fought for slavery. His wife owned slaves.
He wasn’t terribly fond of slavery, for weird reasons, but moral ones, nonetheless.
When the war ended, he told his troops, “The Confederacy has failed . . . As Christian men, … we must consider only the effect which our actions will have upon the country at large.”
After the war, he was excluded from the ranks of those who were automatically offered citizenship. He reapplied, just the same.
For the rest of his life, his agenda was oriented at helping the country heal.
When we purge the bad from our history, we purge with it the good that can be found.
We’re worse off as a result.