In the last couple of days, I’ve gotten two messages from friends in different (Northern) states who are troubled about the efforts to remove statues of Civil War figures.
Here’s the first:
I am in a quandary. I am an educated, white, privileged male. I can understand, but not empathize with, the thoughts of those who wish to see the statues of Confederate officers removed. As an English major, I also see the statues as art. So what is next? Paintings, then books? Are the Holocaust museum displays too emotional, the paintings at the WWII museum too one-sided, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel acceptably historical? And who would decide?
Shakespeare said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Is Fort Bragg any less offensive to humanity than Fort Sherman?
I don’t want to get too deep in the weeds with the idea, but I do see the opportunity for a slippery slope. Maybe it’s just my white, privileged male quandary?
I look forward to your thoughts.
Here’s the second:
I’ve been thinking a lot about the new wave of dismantling Confederate statues, not displaying the Confederate flag, dropping Gone with the Wind from Netflix, Lady Antebellum changing their name to Lady A, etc. I agree with a lot of this, but I wonder if we’re going too far? Where do we draw the line? I noted on Facebook that Washington and Jefferson were slave owners. Should we tear down their monuments while we’re at it? Is it rewriting history? I would love for you to write a blog about this and help me figure it out!
Both of these individuals are progressive, thoughtful and public-spirited. If they are uncomfortable with removing these monuments and renaming bases, I’m sure many other people are equally conflicted.
Here’s my “take” on the issue:
First of all, I see a profound difference between statues and monuments that honor historical figures, and museum and other displays that educate about those figures. The placement of statues in public places pretty clearly falls into the first category. (In a couple of instances, Confederate statues have been moved to museums rather than destroyed–an implicit recognition of the difference, and in my view, an entirely satisfactory resolution.) With respect to the names of military posts, same thing—we don’t name streets, buildings, etc. for “bad guys,” we reserve naming rights for figures we admire.
Germany doesn’t have statues of Hitler, but German history certainly hasn’t been lost.
The men who fought for the South in the American Civil War were defending slavery– an indefensible system–and they were traitors to their country. We should remember them, but we certainly shouldn’t honor them. (There’s also the fact that most of these monuments were erected long after the war, to signal white resistance to the civil rights movement.)
So I think removing Civil War statues is a relatively easy call. But I understand the concern about “slippery slopes.”
None of the historical figures we admire were perfect people. As the second message notes, Washington and Jefferson (among others) were slaveowners. But we don’t honor them for slave-holding; we honor them for their willingness to risk their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” to bring a new nation into existence, and for their crafting of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
If being a flawed human being was reason to ignore significant contributions made by historical figures, there wouldn’t be many statues. (Maybe Mother Teresa, although who knows? There might be something in her past….)
Before we either defend or dismantle a monument, I think we need to ask why it exists, and what it is that we are honoring.
It’s pretty clear that the only reason there are statues of Robert E. Lee and other Civil War figures is because they were central figures in an uprising–a rebellion– against our country. We are honoring their decision to be traitors, and implicitly sending a message that although they lost, their “cause” was honorable.
In the case of figures like Jefferson, Madison, Washington, et al, we are honoring their undisputed service and the importance of their contributions–and those contributions are clearly worthy of honor.
Anyway–that’s my take on the issue. I welcome the perspectives of my readers.
38 thoughts on “About Those Statues…”
Our country has already expended vast amounts of time and money honoring its warriors while ignoring those who brought us advances in science, literature, and art. Where are the statues of those good folk? How about a statue of Kurt Vonnegut down there in Garfield Park? Do we have a statue of Eli Lilly anywhere in town? What does it say about Indianapolis that the very center of the city, Monument Circle, is reserved for the honoring of soldiers and sailors? Have we no room for the peacemakers?
I think there should be NO statues of traitors in any public space. All of the confederates were first and foremost, traitors. Nothing more. The KKK will not like it. Good.
You’re right on track. We didn’t erect monuments to Benedict Arnold, yet we all know about him. Neither should we erect or maintain monuments to confederate soldiers. U.S. taxpayers paid for their generals’ educations at West Point, and then they decided to fight against the country that had trained them FOR FREE.
These monuments were erected in political deference to the Ku Klux Klan decades after the Civil War ended. I wouldn’t want to walk past them. I can only imagine the revulsion felt by a Black person viewing these tributes to enslavement and the Klansman terrorists who made sure they were built so that black would ‘know their place’. These monuments are shameful and embarrassing. They should all be removed. Put them in a museum but not in our public parks or state and national capitols. They’ve already been up much too long.
I have a solution for the president on this matter. Let’s change names of these bases to as example Trump Air Force . Allow him to build a hotel where soldiers will be forced to live and he will quickly agree to change all their names.
Copied and pasted from the Desert Sun, part of the USAToday network on June 13, 2020: “Authorities investigate 2 separate deaths of Black men found hanging in Southern California” “As the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department launched an investigation into the hanging death of a Black man in Palmdale, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said on Saturday there were no indications of foul play in the hanging death of another Black man in Victorville last month.”
I am in a quandary regarding the removal of Confederate Generals and the monument to the Confederate prisoners who died in the prison on that site in Garfield park. They were all Americans who did not commit treason, did not try to overthrow the United States government but tried to remove their states from the Union and become their own Confederate nation…FOR ALL THE WRONG REASONS IS NOT TO BE DENIED. But they were American citizens; welcomed back into the Union by President Abraham Lincoln with no legal charges filed against them.
There is no question in my mind that the copied and pasted article above from Southern California is a continuation of the racist foundation of the Civil War. “…no indication of foul play in the hanging death of ANOTHER Black man…” Their deaths were by lynching which began a century or more before the Civil War and Rand Paul stopped the bill against lynching proposed to the United States Senate body to prevent it even being heard. Obviously this country does need a statute from the federal level to provide a basis for arrest and conviction of those still commit this terrible crime. What is the political makeup of the police department who concluded “…no indication of foul play in the hanging death of another Black man…”? Who will erect a statue anywhere in this country honoring the thousands of Black men and women lynched in this country…which obviously continues in this 21st Century.
My heart cries for my Black and Brown family members and for all others in this country as we watch films of another Black man being shot in the back in a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta, Georgia on Friday night…armed with the tazer he wrested away from one officer for protection. In his terrified state he only wanted to escape being murdered by police or he would have used it when the officers were “up close and personal”. We are not yet done fighting for George Floyd but have new victims of police brutality to add to the REFORM POLICE movement, NOT Defund Police. Where are the statues and monuments to their victims?
Great response to the questions. I’ve long been derided as a kook (and worse) for insisting that my home town of Fort Wayne be renamed Kekionga, which is what is was called before the first white fur trapper showed up.
Most of those statues were erected in the 20th century – not to honor the Confederacy, but to intimidate African-Americans who might feel they should have the right to vote (as guaranteed by the Fifteenth Amendment).
I suggest the issue is not who but why. The Confederate statues were generally placed during two eras — 1890-1905, as the “Lost Cause” effort teamed with the passage of Jim Crow legislation, and then again following Brown (1954) to 1965 (Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.) The statues were placed to intimidate not to honor. For example, the infamous Confederate flag over the South Carolina Capitol building was not mandated by the legislature until 1962.
This was exactly the focus of my blog post yesterday. The norm throughout history has been the elimination of statues after regimes fell and wars ended. No one who is currently complaining about Confederate statues lamented when the Cold War ended and statues of Communist dictators toppled.
There are no Confederate soldiers buried in Garfield Park, so it is incongruous to have a monument to the soldiers “buried here” where there are none. Here in sunny southwest Florida, we have a bust of Lee that has resided in the public square since the war, not the Civil War, but the Vietnam War, when the locals were fighting hard to avoid integration of the public schools.
As to Benedict Arnold, he probably should be remembered better than he is, since without him, our war against England would have ended badly and quickly. The guy spent his entire fortune outfitting and arming the men who fought in his command, only to be hauled back to Philadelphia three times to be accused of crimes he didn’t commit. He decided to do what he did because he thought the clowns running the place would be no better than the king. Considering what we have wrought, he may have been prescient, rather than traitorous.
In most instances history is written by the winners, but in the case of the Civil War, the losers have had a much greater impact than the winners. In our time this is due mostly to sentimental slop like “Gone with the Wind.” Maybe it’s time we turned that around. Maybe it’s just time for us to see and teach history as it happened, rather than as we’d like it to have happened. In case you’re wondering, I would like to move all statues of traitors to museums and rename all military bases after respected non-traitors.
We remain a divided nation and the splinters on the wedge of race and slavery continue pain us all. Yes, the statues were a symbol of intimidation. Yes, they were a middle finger salute to the proponents of civil rights.
Thy hypocrisy of those aggrieved white people who claim to be patriotic Americans and still harbor abject racism as their underlying philosophy have yet to make that intellectual leap into the realm of ending the Civil War, accepting all brown people as having the same rights as they do and taking ownership on their own failures and disappointments.
Waving the confederate battle flag at stock car races? Really? Does the guy who finishes last get rewarded with that flag?
Sheila, you have pulled out all the “ifs, ands, and buts” like weeds, in the garden of truth.
Are “slippery slopes” really that slippery? As many times as I’ve heard that argument, it’s never come with relevant examples.
Jefferson Davis stands in the Capitol of the United States. WHAT!
Please see “The Missionary Position”, by Christopher Hitchens for a better look at Mother Teresa.
A lightly-edited cut/paste of my reply in a FB discussion on exactly this topic:
IMO a statue or other monument to a historical individual is intended to celebrate that person and their accomplishments, and to do so in the context of a society that values those accomplishments. The traitors who fought (and lost) the Civil War should not be celebrated although their failures and accomplishments shouldn’t be erased. A likeness of John Wilkes Booth in a museum about Lincoln is entirely different from a heroic statue of him in front of Ford’s Theater.
I’ve been to Auschwitz and the only monuments there are to the victims, not the perpetrators. There are no hagiographies to Himmler in the bookstore, either.
WADR to all. First and foremost, let’s focus energy, time and money on REAL problems of black/brown people – red lining, employment discrimination, healthcare discrimination, etc.
Second, re slippery slopes….one example should suffice. I am terribly pained every time I look at a dime and see FDR as he turned away Jews fleeing Hitler.
Third – the thousands of dollars being spent for newspaper and TV ads by rich folk and companies exclaiming that they think “black lives matter:. Sure – if they buy their products.
Last – as was said by a former black basketball star returning to the University of North Carolina campus when the Silent Sam statue (of an anonymous Confederate soldier with no references to the Confederacy other than honoring students who died) – “bothered by that statue while I was here? Barely noticed it – what bothered me was how the black people who cleaned the buildings were paid and treated.”
First, I am offended by the slippery slope assumption I see expressed in more than one place in this blog, beginning with: “…but I do see the opportunity for a slippery slope.”
No policy decision nor any idea-philosophy-religion-opinion that I know of rests on level, sticky ground; all are on a slippery slope; all can slide to unacceptable extremes. So, if it is prudent to reject any of them on the grounds of being on a slippery slope, we must then reject all.
I have for some time been offended by the naming of US Army Forts after Confederate Generals. I have wondered how an African-American Soldier feels about serving at Fort Bragg, or Fort Polk for instance as these forts are named after Confederate Generals. The bottom line is these Generals led their soldiers to preserve slavery.
I have read some of the declarations by the states to secede from the Union. Various arguments concerning the legality of slavery is put forth. The real issue was not the tortured “legality” of states rights but a moral justification for keeping people against their will in slavery.
At it’s heart these justifications for secession rested upon the idea that the slaves were property and not human beings.
I have been to the battle field at Gettysburg. There are statues and monuments there of both sides. This would make some historical sense because of the battle that was fought at Gettysburg.
No way shape or form does the South’s Confederate Cause have any moral validity, for this reason the names of the Army bases should be changed.
These southern generals were traitors who wanted a country of their own in order to protect their
“peculiar institution.” Their statues in public places are rightly to be removed though I think their busts in museums labelled as traitors and seccessionists is appropriate. This is not as some say a rewriting as history but rather is a correction of history.
I would like to see a Revilement Park in every region of the country.
Our Revilement Parks would be home to sarcastic and biting monuments (editorial sculptures, more or less) to people and ideas that we denounce and vilify. It is just as necessary to make plain that which we as a people disapprove as it is to honor that which we admire.
Talk about monuments to vilification, Revilement Parks fit right in with my drive to establish an Editorial Artist’s Hall of Fame in Indianapolis. Editorial art is the master of revilement; we should honor it.
And imagine visiting Revilement Parks and seeing the world’s finest editorial sculptures. Revilement Parks may not give much in the form of warm and fuzzy, but they could inspire many laughs at the expense of bad, bad people and stupid, stupid ideas.
And don’t tell me Revilement Parks and Editorial Art Hall of Fames are a slippery slope.
Again, many excellent posts!
Peggy writes, “Maybe it’s just time for us to see and teach history as it happened, rather than as we’d like it to have happened.”
What would the USA look like and feel like if we did this versus the whitewashing of our local, state, and national histories?
Our local Oligarchs in Muncie had their hands deep in racism in our small town. I always wondered how Howard Zinn would write the history of Muncie, Indiana, so I did a little research in our community. The “definitive history” was written by Ball State students with a grant from the Ball family. All the community “leaders” endorsed the report as the official history of racism. It was complete bullshit.
We all got to witness how the likes of Mitch Daniels handled the historical perspective of Howard Zinn. Daniels immediately ordered the censorship of Zinn’s view taught in ANY Indiana school.
Don’t you think the people of the same mindset assisted in the erection of confederate statues and named military bases?
In my opinion, we need to rewrite history going back to Columbus and how we treated Native Americans and acknowledge to the world that we are the largest terrorist organization on the planet. If we can remove troops in Germany, we can also remove them from all the other countries across the globe.
We also need to acknowledge all our regime changes in countries where we installed puppet leaders to further the expansion of capitalism.
F*** the slippery slope! We need to wake up to the horrible lie called American Exceptionalism. It’s a false narrative built 100% by propaganda (lies).
Are we seriously afraid of the truth?
i side with Sheila, thanks, i like words in order,, not as the chips fall. ( mine are as the chips fall)
id like to rename the street that fox news works off of,,,flagrant fake news blvd. and rename the street tucker lives on as, commie carlson circle… seems they both cant handle capital hill in Seattle..
Thank you for addressing this subject. Like the individuals whose messages you note in your blog today, I too can appreciate the justifications but am conflicted regarding the removal of the statues. Interestingly, I don’t feel a similar conflict regarding the removal of Confederate flags. As a lover of history and former social studies teacher, I too have mixed thoughts. Still, I understand and appreciate the symbolism, and the need to take down these symbols of past hate and segregation. However, my thoughts often turn back to that old aphorism, of those not knowing history are doomed to repeat it.
Art & history not to be destroyed, add a brass footnote who they are & why.
Hell, we can’t even teach our own kids the true history of our own family.
1. We likely don’t know the true history of our own family.
2. If Daddy was a whore monger, Mommy will protect the kids from the fact…until it’s appropriate…whenever.
3. If Grandpa was illegitimate, watch the lies flow for generations.
4. If Robbie fled to Canada to cower from the draft, we make up all sorts of heroic excuses, like he was opposed to war.
5. If Mommy beat little Susie unconscious, it will all be hidden Sunday at church.
On and on it goes.
“Are we seriously afraid of the truth?” Hell yes we are. And so are you. We can’t handle the truth. And we never shall.
How can we learn from history when history is often a coverup? History is written by the losers, who often “win” wars for which there are no “winners” but long before the war were bona fide losers, enormously afraid of the truth and infinitely careful in camouflaging their own faults.
Given our accumulation of faults, we are lucky to have the society and the history we do have…but ol’ fickle Luck ain’t done yet.
I am fascinated by the idea that “culture” is both inclusive and personal. I have my own personal culture and yet for any particular group that I could be included in, there may be described the cultural trends and averages of all of the individuals in the group.
My personal culture represents my early observations of how people who I deemed to be like me, as I figured out what I was, behaved in certain circumstances.
One of the things that this thinking reveals is how much of me stemmed from what I was born into (the times and my parents and relatives and location and family histories and “class”, etc) as well as what I was born with (my gender and race and abilities and inabilities and looks and handicaps, etc).
Are people accountable for those things over which they had no control or even influence or for whether they applied all of that to exclusively their own benefit or the benefit of others? Of course even this calculation is a combination of luck plus what we each attempted.
That having been said, I personally have my heroes. Many of them for all kinds of reasons. If I see others celebrating their heroism I feel good that it’s not just me recognizing that.
I see the centuries when mankind celebrated both colonialism and slavery (which I see as the same evil) as dysfunctional for oh so many people and there’s no doubt that our times are still in the wake of it. In these times we can see the lasting effects of what those times put so many people through but in some ways their suffering led ultimately to improvements in the lives theirs impacted for generations after them as well as the continued damaging culture that we live among.
Life is complicated and largely random and ours to continuously and endlessly learn more about rather than understand. Bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice is a process, a journey, but will never reach its destination.
Thanks, Ms. Kennedy, for your clear reasoning. Personally, I take a bizarre comfort in all our (Washington, Jefferson) heroes being flawed (sometimes egregiously!) human beings. If someone who owned and enslaved people could point the way to “all men are created equal” then surely someone as imperfect as myself can make an important contribution also. My favorite statue – Martin Luther King – for it is unfinished, incomplete, imperfect. He is emerging from the stone, faulty and flawed, but leading us in the direction of justice and love. All those I honor lead to something they themselves were/are still striving for. As the poet said “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” Let’s build statues to the visionaries. We have far to go.
Great discussion and seems, to me, to be full of systemic bias. Systemic bias is not just and solely racial bias, although this is certainly a good point to start and change our understandings. Of this we might want to be aware, and expand our views into it outward and inward.
I’d argue that history does need to be rewritten. In other words, it needs to be written accurately and fairly. In many of the places where these statues were erected, “history” is one of the great and noble effort of the confederacy. (And this makes me physically ill.) This abomination affects the people who live in those places, differently by “race”, of course, but badly in all cases.
The statues should be removed to museums, and the place names should be changed. The abominable and traitorous confederacy should not be celebrated in any fashion.
I consider myself a liberal, who has a degreee in History from Butler, and who has throughout my life read hundreds of books on American History and Biography. I am convinced that I got two people wrong. One is Margaret Mitchell and the other is Thad Stevens. It is too bad that Thad did not live 40 years longer than he did – he passed in 1868. His eloquence and personal love and faith in former slaves and free blacks would have charted a different course for our country. But alas, Mitchell and historians, perhaps many bigoted and racist, have painted a different and erroneous picture.
Used to live in Richmond VA and often drove down “Monumant AVe.” I was offendedby those staues when it wasn’t an issue.
From an artist’s view the destruction of any art work is abominable. Moving it is tolerable.
I went to college in Texas and occasionally have lived in the South. I have been instructed to sketch rebel statues and thought nothing negative about it…except why do they revere the guys who lost and who got them all on the losing side. Seemed illogical to me.
But then there are those who admire the individual who gets knocked down and gets back up to resume the fight, as Joe Biden brags. Maybe that is what those rebel statues represent…that the intent all along is to recover from their loss and resume the fight.
Artist point of view once more: When my parents sold the family farm and moved to town, they hosted an auction one Saturday of household goods and tools. I was late arriving and the auction had started. Some things that my parents just wanted to get rid of were tossed in a dumpster. I checked it out and found every painting I had given my parents inside that dumpster. So, I know what it feels like to know your art is no longer wanted. Saying that, however, is not to say it feels too awful. My feelings are not easily hurt. Besides I got the pieces back into my possession. Good? Maybe not. Now, I have to pay for a roof over their head, and I worry what will happen to them when I die.
From Mexico City University comes another side of the statue issue. I spent a summer there on some sort of Pan American cultural scholarship in 1959, I think it was.
The most interesting thing to me about Mexican students was their tendency to be active in politics. There was a heroic equestrian statue recently installed on the MCU campus amid passionate controversy. The statue was of a Mexican War for Independence hero–Hidalgo, maybe. The statue’s sin was that the horseman’s face was sculpted to look like Lenin. While I was on campus, someone tied a bomb around the statue’s head and blew it to smithereens. It was quite exciting, as were the student riots that followed. I am not certain but I think that statue was removed soon after.
Having made statues and having seen statues blown apart, my take is that blowing them up is much more exciting than making them.
Is moving the statues to Stone Mountain, Ga. a reasonable idea? It is a page from our history.
Removing statues and monuments doesn’t sound much different than burning books in Germany. A news article a few years ago reported Texas was rewriting the history of slavery; portraying it as beneficial to slaves, they were promised housing, food, clothing, jobs and medical care when they got here. True or “fake news”; did the rewrite happen to their history books? How will removing beautiful movies like “Gone With The Wind” which Margaret Mitchell spent 10 years researching records, family diaries and documents to write. And removing “Song Of The South” with Uncle Remus stories? How about “Twelve Years A Slave” which the writer it happened to stated that some slave holders did provide decent living for them but it was the mindset that it was provided the same reason as they provided for their livestock which made them wealthy. Changing dialogue in movies and TV programs do not show the younger generations the truth about the horrors of slavery or the actual newsreels from the Civil Rights Movement; how can they know the fact that much of it continues today or the importance of the Movement and what it did accomplish. Deleting language and events covers up their ancestor’s lives. The book “Roots” fascinated this nation; the eight-part TV mini-series made from the book resulted in a lowering of crime as we had never before experienced. It wasn’t only black families sitting in front of TV sets fascinated with Alex Haley’s story. You are aware that white folks also commit crimes aren’t you? My father got extremely angry with me after he ranted and raved about the blacks committing crimes; I responded that this country would really be in trouble if white people began committing crimes too. I was an adult at the time but was not allowed to have my own opinion or voice it.
Larry Kaiser made a wise statement; “Hell, we can’t even teach our own kids the true history of our own family.”
Big news about the return to removing Confederate statues again but the news of those two Black men being lynched in the Los Angeles area didn’t make headlines. Nor did another police killing of a Black man in New Jersey recently; seen in friendly conversation with officers which suddenly turned violent and witnesses reported he was shot six times and then the officers handcuffed him and reported he had resisted arrest. The situation transpired over a period of 40 – 50 minutes; the chief of police has released a few minutes of videos from witnesses’ phones to the attorney for the victim’s family but so far has refused to provide the activated chest cameras the officers were wearing.
“Before we either defend or dismantle a monument, I think we need to ask why it exists, and what it is that we are honoring.”
I am clearly on the slippery slope category. Professor Kennedy’s blog today was another example of reasoned and common sense put on paper. MY favorite quote:
“The men who fought for the South in the American Civil War were defending slavery– an indefensible system–and they were traitors to their country. We should remember them, but we certainly shouldn’t honor them. (There’s also the fact that most of these monuments were erected long after the war, to signal white resistance to the civil rights movement.)”
When Robert E. Lee’s descendants pushed for removal of the statue then we had clearly reached the tipping point. (pun intended).
I loved what Todd E. Smekens wrote. Good job.
Since so many are concerned about teaching history, let’s take a look at Robert E. Lee. Lee was born in the State of Virginia, and was the son of a Revolutionary War hero. He graduated with high honors from the US Military Academy at West Point, and served in the US Army for 32 years. He was named Superintendent of the US Military Academy, was decorated for valor, and when the War Between the States broke out, he was offered a senior command in the Union (US) Army. Instead, when Virginia seceded from the Union, Lee returned to Virginia and served as military advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. He then assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia and lead many successful campaigns against Union forces. He was, by any standard of definition, a traitor to the country he had served for most of his life.
For a comparison of circumstances, let’s think about a “What if.” What if George Washington had been just a few years younger than he was, had served in the Continental Army, then served as president of the new nation. But, come 1812, decided that it was Great Britain he owed his loyalty to after all, and accepted a commission in the British Army to fight against the US in the War of 1812. We would not be erecting monuments or statues to Mr. Washington at all.
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