Let’s talk about statues. We tend to use them to mark a historical figure or event. Most of them are meant to signify something we view positively. Great former leaders, victory in battle, human achievements that marked milestones. That’s not to say there’s no statues to mark low points (I mean most cemeteries kind of do), but there’s a lot more Winston Churchill statues than Neville Chamberlain.
Lately, we’ve been debating statues that were erected to a lot of Confederate leaders in the rebellion against the United States. For me, this is an easy one. They were wrong, they lost, and they opposed the United States. People use the example of a Hitler statue, or the lack thereof in Germany or here, as some sort of evidence to remove these statues, but I think that’s going beyond scale to prove the point. We don’t generally name American bases after British Generals from the Revolution, so why do we do so with Confederates from the Civil War? Further to the point though, the Confederates fought to preserve their “peculiar institution,” and “state rights,” both of which in the 1860’s context were very bad things. We have no good reason to celebrate the folks who fought on the wrong side of both history and morality. Let’s tear down their statues and remove their names from our bases. Their history can be preserved fine, like Hitler’s, without statues, and in a history book.
Over the past few days though, we’ve entered more difficult waters. Francis Scott Key wrote our national anthem, but his statue was recently defaced. George Washington’s Portland statue was torn down. Ulysses S. Grant, who has a legacy both as a General and President of destroying the Confederacy and Ku Klux Klan, had his statue pulled down because he was gifted a slave once, which he freed within a year. Now, the Teddy Roosevelt statue in front of the Museum of Natural History in New York is coming down, mostly because of the slave and Native American next to him. With such national icons now suddenly in question for removal, we’ve moved well beyond the point of easy calls.
I guess at the point we’re tearing down Grant and Roosevelt, my initial reaction is we’ve left rational debate (though Roosevelt is less about him and more so the statue). If Washington is too terrible to have a statue, why have any statues? Many imperfect people did great things. JFK and RFK were womanizers, FDR refused to address segregation, and Jefferson not only owned slaves, he forced them to bare his children. Some extraordinary people in American history also did some awful things, both by the standards of their time, and today. Does that outweigh the great things they did? On the one hand, if we’re viewing them in full, and allowing their greatness to outweigh their sins, it’s crazy to be tearing down the statues of some of them. I mean Ulysses Grant? C’mon, these youths tearing him down deserve to be mocked.
I’m coming down to a different view though- that maybe nobody should have statues, at least if we can’t put them into context as a society. Sure, Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Ulysses Grant, or Woodrow Wilson might have done some things in our history that are worth commemorating, they may have even done more positive than harm, but none of them are the kinds of saints they have been held up as at times in our history. Perhaps anyone that practices politics, simply by the nature of seeking public support, at times falls short of being exceptionally moral. Julius Caesar is incredibly important in western history, but is he worth holding up as an idol? Even more to the point, in a society where our values change quite literally decade to decade, is it even possible for hero worship to keep up with evolving and advancing values? What was acceptable social views in 2005 is not today, so how can any 19th century leader meet the bar of today’s social morality? Perhaps if we’re going to meet values-based teachings of history, it’s important to not hold people up as more than they actually were. By that standard, literally no one meets the bar.
This is not to say I’ve accepted “cancel culture,” something I abhor to the core. If anything in some ways I’m cheapening the value of historic critiques of the social values of leaders by simply saying absolutely no one is worth being held up as an idol. The imperfections of quite literally every national leader we’ve ever had force us to reckon with the deep flaws and sins of our history. If this standard is too high of a bar, we can either recalibrate why exactly we build statues to anyone- or we can accept a certain amount of stain on our heroes and leave their statues up. Either way, I think the reckoning with our sins and imperfections is a worthy national conversation.