Statues And Shades Of Gray

Americans are having yet another iteration of a longstanding argument about the various monuments erected to memorialize–or let’s be honest, valorize– Confederate heroes of the Civil War.

People defending these statues argue that they teach us about our history. Proponents of removal respond that placing them in museums is adequate to the teaching of history, and remind us that Germany still remembers the Nazis despite the fact that there are no statues of Hitler or Eichmann “gracing” the public way.

In my view, deciding that Confederate statues should come down is an easy call.

Here’s the test: why was this particular statue erected? To ask that question a bit differently, why is this person being honored? Public statues are uniformly considered “honors”–so the first question to ask is, logically, “why do we honor Senator or General or XYZ?” If the person portrayed has been selected for his participation in the Confederate secession, the monument should go. If the person is historically significant, move the statue to a museum or other teaching venue; if he is just a reminder of Confederate treason, smash him.

As numerous historians have reminded us, these statues weren’t erected in the aftermath of the Civil War; almost all of them were placed in prominent places during the civil rights movement as a testament of white resistance to African-American equality. They aren’t even legitimately “historic.”

The question of public monuments gets more complicated when it comes to people who were less one-dimensional. What do we do, for example, about people like Woodrow Wilson?

As Ross Douthat wrote in the New York Times awhile back,

When it comes to hating Woodrow Wilson, I was an early adopter. Raised with the bland liberal history that hailed the 28th president as a visionary for championing the League of Nations, I picked up in college what was then a contrarian, mostly right-wing perspective — that many of Wilson’s legacies were disastrous, including an imperial understanding of the presidency that’s deformed our constitutional structure ever since, the messianic style in American foreign policy that gave us Vietnam and Iraq, and a solidification of Jim Crow under a scientific-racist guise.

Now his racism has finally prompted Princeton University, which once had Wilson as its president, to remove his name from its prominent school of public and international affairs. This move was made under pressure from left-wing activists, but it also answered conservatives who had invoked Wilson’s name to suggest that progressive racists might be unjustly spared from cancellation.

For this Wilson-despiser, his fall was a clarifying moment. I expected to be at least a little pleased and justified when the name was gone. Instead, the decision just seemed fundamentally dishonest, a case study in what goes wrong when iconoclasm moves beyond Confederates to encompass the wider American inheritance.

Douthat says that monuments and honorifics are intended to honor deeds,  “to express gratitude for some specific act, to acknowledge some specific debt, to trace a line back to some worthwhile inheritance.” I agree.

So–what do we do with monuments to inevitably flawed real humans–to Founders who glorified human liberty while “owning” other human beings, for example?

Thus when you enter their Washington, D.C., memorials, you’ll see Thomas Jefferson honored as the man who expressed the founding’s highest ideals and Abraham Lincoln as the president who made good on their promise. That the first was a hypocrite slave owner and the second a pragmatist who had to be pushed into liberating the slaves is certainly relevant to our assessment of their characters. But they remain the author of the Declaration of Independence and the savior of the union, and you can’t embrace either legacy, the union or “we hold these truths …” without acknowledging that these gifts came down through them.

I find myself in agreement with Douthat. The relevant question remains the one I previously outlined: what, exactly, are we memorializing?

To repudiate an honor or dismantle a memorial, then, makes moral sense only if you intend to repudiate the specific deeds that it memorializes. In the case of Confederate monuments, that’s exactly what we should want to do. Their objective purpose was to valorize a cause that we are grateful met defeat, there is no debt we owe J.E.B. Stuart or Nathan Bedford Forrest that needs to be remembered, and if they are put away we will become more morally consistent, not less, in how we think about that chapter in our past.

On the other hand, complicated and often profoundly flawed individuals often do very good things. If the statue we have erected was intended to honor those good things, it should stay. If it is only there to remind us that something happened–especially when that “something” was regrettable– it shouldn’t.

If we shouldn’t celebrate what a monument celebrates, it should go.


  1. I see no “shades of gray” in this statue war; what I see is full support of Donald Trump’s White Nationalist distraction tactic as he gathers his maskless supporters, crowded together at his rallies promising to protect those statues. A strong stand needs to be taken against his lies about the Covid-19 Pandemic as he spreads coronavirus among his foolish supporters who then spread it further in public. Those statues will still be waiting after November 3rd, whatever the outcome, but thousands of American citizens will no longer be alive and how many of them living will NOT be allowed to vote?

    “…what are we memorializing…” is a vital question but a more vital question should be why now? Trump has sucked many into his distraction hoping to claim the racist vote while spreading the coronavirus and this country’s deepest disease of racism and strengthening the White Nationalist foundation of HIS administration. We have a disease to survive and an election to win; we can decide the statue issue later…they are immune to coronavirus and are going nowhere.

  2. There are terrible boy bands who lasted longer than the Confederacy. The Civil War era statues were erected as an intimidating reminder to black people that the true believers and fellow travelers among the white people who still harbor traitorous notions remain entrenched in that “peculiar” institution. Cultural racism, like the pathology associated with gun fondling, will be with us until the end of our country’s existence.

    We’re seeing the beginnings of the end of our democratic republic. Oh sure, I’m certain that the Great Depression Era people were saying the same thing. Then the largest killing event in known human history “saved” us from collapsing. This is different.

    WE now have the fascist monster as national leader. WE now have the duping of millions who believe in this monsters. WE have a Congress who is totally beholden and committed to the cult of the monster. And WE lack the courage – so far – to stand up and remove the monster before he destroys us all. If you’ve ever looked at the German and Japanese cities right after WW II, you’d know what I mean. And, if it weren’t for the Marshall Plan, those flattened countries would be very different places. Still, Republicans resisted strongly to re-building German and Japan. Their donors and sponsors wanted to return to isolationism too.

    So, is history going to teach us something? The idiotic statuary to our Civil War continues to mock progress both socially and culturally for our once great idea of a nation. For those of us who care to look up from the foam of their warm beer, we see we are in a fight for our very existence, because once again, the traitors to our Constitution ( See: McConnell, Mitch; Graham, Lindsay; Nunes, Devin; Johnson, Ron; Ernst, Joni; and so many more Republicans) are following the cult of hate, bigotry and false values in order to placate the monster and their own equally backward constituents.

    Who will prevail? We will find out very soon.

  3. Mores change. People change. Is there anyone on this blog who can say that he or she has not changed his or her outlook or mind over even so short a time as the last decade? I think it was William James who said that a good man in one society would be a good man in any society. Why must we insist that people who aren’t alive today meet the standards of our current time?

    I do favor taking down the monuments to Jim Crow that have been erected in the name of a heritage of cruelty. We shouldn’t be honoring traitors. I also have no qualms about taking down statues of Christopher Columbus. I note that there are no monuments to Columbus in Genoa, which was his home. Further, I suggest that we eliminate the Discovery Day holiday and make Tuesday after the first Monday in November a national holiday.

  4. Peggy,

    Good summary. Columbus, after all, brought sugar cane and slavery to the new world… in that order. Maybe Columbus, Ohio should change their name to the river that passes just past Ohio Stadium, the Scioto. That has a nice ring and gives credit to the original inhabitants.

  5. Well, I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time. It is one thing to have a statute of Confederate Generals at the battle fields it another to “honor” these traitors outside the battlefields. The US Army forts that are named after Confederates should be changed too. We do not have a Fort Benedict Arnold.

    The Trumpet and Pastor Pence know their base and among them are unrepentant Neo-Confederates. This part of their base is fully onboard with Jim Crow White Supremacy. The bible thumper’s, the Neo-Confederates are not the slightest bit moved by all The Trumpet’s and Pastor Pence’s lies, and insults to others.

    Corona has revealed the totality of the The Trumpet’s incompetence and profound indifference to anyone, except himself.

    Biden and the Democrats are not going to win over the hard core base, which is a cult. What I believe Biden and the Democrats must focus on is -We can Do Better.

    Over 130,000 Americans have died from Corona. The number of people, family members and friends that have been touched by a Corona Death must be huge.

    From the beginning of Corona , The Trumpet has tried to dismiss Corona and gave him an excuse not to lead and thus be responsible. Instead he tossed the responsibility of a nationwide pandemic on the individual states. The message from The Trumpet was clear Corona Deaths were collateral damage. Masks, lock downs and quarantines were harmful to The Trumpet’s – boasting of a robust economy. People who believed in Science and Medical Science were the enemy who put people out of work.

  6. Why not erect monuments to concepts and ideas and ideals, but not to people? Artistically, it is more difficult to create statuary that memorializes “We the People” rather than James Madison, but erecting “concept” statuary would be more selective, more targeted, and would challenge artists more than creating busts of famous men (like that hideous and lengthening Mayors’ Gallery on the ground floor of the west wing of the City-County Building.

  7. Two thoughts….likely to draw fire!

    1. None of the great civil rights leaders said more than a peep about Confederate statues. Their concerns were about actual, living inequality, voting rights, justice, etc. Can you imagine MLK being intimidated by a stone statue of some general?? Today’s young seem so meek…

    2. If, given the standards being setting by the President and Attorney General) we are to at all still have the rule of law as a pillar of our democracy, we must not accept mobs taking down statues with no consequences for them. It is one thing for a city or state to decide to take down a monument…I fear that allowing this is setting unfortunate standards for protest going forward – MLK would cry.

  8. All sides of all wars have individuals who exhibited exemplary military behavior. That’s not really a reason to honor them. Human’s need heroes but they should be heroic based on a worthy cause that they led people to advance. Martin Luther King is a hero for instance. Dr Fauci is. Micheal Mann, the Penn State professor who has devoted his entire professional life to human understanding of how we are changing earth to be less hospitable to life is a personal hero of mine and I don’t need statues to reinforce that.

    My statue ire though will be reserved for any and all efforts to honor in any way any of the family Trump and any government official supporting this administration.

  9. And trump tweeted out today his scorn that NASCAR banned the confederate flag. He’s not even pretending any more.

  10. Well, it really was no secret that Woodrow Wilson was a racist and not the closet type.

    Under Wilson, the 1st movie ever to be screened at the White House was “Birth Of A Nation” this movie was adapted from a book “The Clansman” which was penned by Thomas Dixon Jr. who just happened to be a close friend and former classmate of Wilson’s.

    I’ve seen the movie, and it really is as disgusting as described! And because it was given a thumbs up by Wilson, the movie’s narrative about the justification of Jim Crow, and the patriotic Klansmen who were made up of former Confederate soldiers, those who treasonously fought against the United States union, were protecting the nation’s white women and security by demonizing African-Americans and their supporters!

    Wilson was one of those presidents that was admired by Adolf Hitler, and I would imagine Donald Trump would be admired also, along with Donald Trump’s bestie, Vladimir Putin!

    Trumps speeches this weekend are designed to sew racial discord, very George Wallace, very Strom Thurmond! And, not one single mention of the current men and women in uniform dying or have been killed in the very real bounty program by Vladimir Putin’s FSB!

    I found it interesting that in Mississippi, their election Commissioner (Gail Welsch) complained that African-Americans were registering to vote en masse; “I’m concerned about voter registration in Mississippi,” the commissioner wrote. “The blacks are having lots (of) events for voter registration. People in Mississippi have to get involved, too.”

    So, there you have it! Back to the future, back to the good old days, which really were not good old days for anyone but racists.

  11. Sorry they are art & history, a better approach would be placing a large brass footnote explaining who they are what they did, who erected the statue why & when it was erected. honest & factual information is the best teacher of history.

  12. Woodrow Wilson was a terrible President and a truly awful human being. After 50 years of the federal workforce being desegregated, he resegregated the workforce. He screened at the White House, the Birth of a Nation, a movie which glorified the KKK. It was the first movie shown in the White House. The movie and Wilson’s promotion of the Klan played a major role in the KKK’s resurgence in the 1920s. I think you have to judge people by their times, and even by the standards of the mid to late 1910s, Wilson was a blatant racist.

    But his legacy is horrible on other fronts. Faced with the Spanish Flu of 1918, he chose to ignore it. He also barred reporters from reporting on it because he said it would undermine the war effort. (It is called the “Spanish Flu” because members of the Spanish press were the only ones allowed to report it. In fact the Spanish flu probably originated in Kansas.) His censorship went beyond that. He aggressively targeted members of the press who dared say bad things about his administration.

    As a result of his press censorship, the American public was not warned about the Spanish flu and many more died as a result. (About 600,000 Americans died from the Spanish Flu.) It’s hard to believe, but Wilson may have handled the Spanish flu pandemic even worse than Trump has handled the Covid-19 pandemic a century later.

    I understand that our leaders need to be judged on the entirety of their record, but the entirety of Wilson’s record is dreadful. I never understood why so many historians downplay Wilson’s blatantly racist views and actions. But they also completely ignore his response to the Spanish flu pandemic (which resulted in hundreds of thousands of Americans killed) and his attacks on freedom of speech and press.

  13. On the website NextDoor, I agreed with a poster that we need to be more discerning on what statutes get torn down. Statues of Abraham Lincoln, General Grant, Teddy Roosevelt have been attacked. Even some statues of abolitionist activists have been targeted.

    My comments were not welcome, to say the least. I was told in no uncertain terms that they had waited 155 years to tear down the statues and they all represented “oppressors.” I pointed out that you are hurting the cause if you’re targeting every statute, regardless of who they are. Plus you’re helping out that idiot in the White House when you start tearing down statues of people who fought against slavery and supported civil rights.

    Frankly, I think the problem is people do not know history. They’re just lumping everyone together when it comes to these statues.

  14. Peggy,

    I was in the Bahamas several years ago, the first place Columbus landed in the New World. They had a statute of him. Not sure they still had it.

    I have long thought we need to get rid of Columbus Day as a holiday. Presidents Day has become a joke too. I’m fine with replacing one of those days with Juneteenth. The more summer holidays, the better.

  15. Lester; you drew no ire from me. Trump & the mafia in the White House have deconstructed our government, done away with democracy, Rule of Law and abolished the Constitution. They allowed the Covid-19 Pandemic to wreak havoc on this country and kill off Democratic and Republican voters. “We” suddenly want to destroy their southern statues; some of which have been there for over a century! What’s wrong with this picture?

    Caren; they are art and history and after the surrender, President Abraham Lincoln welcomed them back into the Union, they were Americans and no legal or military charges were brought against them. They were WRONG in their States Rights to maintain slavery but they did not try to destroy the United States Government, they tried to leave it.

    We cannot refight the Civil War against statues and monuments; when will Trump’s supporters start destroying statues of Union generals? We are in a Cold Civil War at this time with a full Recession and Pandemic going on; saving our lives and the economy are here and now issues at hand.

  16. According to the article link, the statue of Douglass was toppled and damaged with no attribution of responsibility mentioned. When something that large is toppled, it was witnessed, likely by more than those responsible. Apparently, no one thought to report the action while it was in progress. Interesting place, Rochester. Home to hard core racists? Just like almost anywhere in the U.S., is my guess.

  17. If we refuse to allow honoring anyone of less than perfect morals, values and actions, there would likely be not one statue or place named for anyone. The complexity of the issue has meant long and difficult discussions. Do bad people do good things? Do good people do bad things? How many of us, born into white privilege, are uncomfortable with the changes demanded by those who refuse to accept the notion that race determines access to privilege and move to change that dynamic to one of equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
    The end result may be that we honor no one person but do honor deeds, ideas and accomplishments, memorialize the names of those whom we have lost to infamous and horrific acts done in our name. Reparations are part of forgiveness of not only others but ourselves.
    Being sorry is not enough.

  18. Prior to becoming an atheist, even Adolph Hitler was an altar boy in the Catholic Church (assuming that is a good thing), and Jones of Kool-Aid fame, Graham, Falwell and the mythical Elmer Gantry are or were or cast as preachers, which we are told is a good thing, but look at how they and multi-millionaire TV preachers have turned out. Not so good.

    I suppose the worst of them may have at some time helped a frail widow cross the street, but then turn around and advocate against helping the poor and denying millions healthcare – all in one lifetime and all in contravention of the Thou shalt not kill mandate of the scripture they otherwise claim to revere while simultaneously calling for war where their interests are involved.

    Perhaps the best we can hope for is that individuals will do more good than harm which, politically speaking, would in my view include a spectrum from best to worst delineated by FDR at the best and Trump at the worst, with stops along the way for Hoover, Bush, Jr., Reagan , McKinley, Harding et al, none of whom would rival Trump’s destructive mania, who I would wager has never helped a frail widow cross the street.

  19. Caren , Paul and JoAnn – lovely…let’s educate and fix problems, not just RAGE. What does that buy? ….more of the same…

  20. Did you hear the Dotard tell his disciples that those who point out that Jefferson and Washington were slave owners are liars. Also there are historians who point out that Lincoln only abolished slavery for political reasons, but still believed that Africans were inferior, plus other controversial statements by Roosevelt–all of which, according to Trump, are lies? His disciples believe whatever lies he tells, like the whopper about most coronavirus infections being nothing to worry about. As of this point, we still don’t know what we don’t know about this novel virus–whether it causes long-term nerve damage to people who still can’t smell or taste months after recovery, whether it causes permanent lung scarring, and whether you can get it a second time. Scientists have shown that the virus has already mutated to make itself more infectious–the little spikes on the outside of the virus cell have a different chemical makeup than the first version, which makes them able to invade your lung cells more efficiently. Does this mean that if you got infected with the first version and recovered, that you are immune to the second version? We don’t know.

    What amazes me the most about Trump is not just his pandering to angry, non college educated white people who resent the success of women and minorities, but his ability to get attorneys to ignore their professional responsibility oath, and doctors to violate their Hippocratic oath. Jeff Sessions was constantly badgered, and eventually fired by Trump because he followed the Rules of Professional Conduct and appointed a Special Prosecutor. So now, we have Billy Barr, who does as he is told, including outright lying, going after Trump’s perceived enemies, and “investigating the investigators”, firing prosecutors investigating his associates and cronies, and intervening in criminal prosecutions despite guilty pleas and an order of conviction, in the case of Flynn.

    Trump muzzles the physicians at the CDC, whom we taxpayers pay to tell us the truth about this pandemic and what we can do to avoid getting sick. Trump requires Drs. Fauci and Birx to run all requests for interviews past his office for prior approval, which is never granted. These are America’s doctors, not Trump’s. Why don’t they speak up and tell America that coronavirus is not a political issue–it is a public health and safety issue–and encouraging people to congregate (for rallies, especially, the affirmation from which the Dotard’s delicate ego desperately needs), especially without masks, is irresponsible? Why don’t they state publicly that it is irresponsible to discourage wearing a mask? Because they would be fired. Why do we allow this? Why can’t the CDC be above politics?

  21. Problem is its just a distraction, while people rage about keeping them or tearing them down People are dying, there is no consensus on what to do while waiting for a virus cure.
    poor laws or rules are being put in place. corruption abounds. becoming more difficult daily to get real facts & information. If the kind of energy was put forth to expose & change any one of these things would we gain more? building is preferable too tearing down.

  22. The white supremacy that resulted in the statuary of confederate generals and leaders being prominently displayed and revered (as false idols btw) is the same white supremacy that led to the renaming of the 2nd largest city in Indiana – Fort Wayne, named after General “Mad Anthony” Wayne. A hero of the Revolutionary War, Wayne was later called to help save face for the US Army after Miami Chief Little Turtle handed them a number of embarrassing defeats throughout the Northwest Territories. Anthony routed the Miami’s in a well-staffed, supplied and organized campaign – the most famous being the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Over the next 40 yrs virtually every treaty made with the Miami’s, Potawatomis and other nations In the area was broken and eventually all but a very few of the Indian communities were marched to reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma.

    So, if we’re going to tear down monuments that glorify the domination of people by whites through enslavement and/or removal from their land by any means necessary then it’s long past time that Fort Wayne find a new name. And it can also move General Anthony’s beautiful statue off the Allen County Courthouse green and relocate it to the historic Old Fort Wayne located near the confluence of the three rivers where it can remain an important instructional tool and point of interest of the city’s history but not as a monument to be revered. Last, I suggest the new name be the original name: Kekionga, the capital of the Miami Tribe, and which means “Blackberry bush”. ☮️

  23. Great post, Sheila.

    Peggy – I couldn’t agree more – some people seem to have this view that anything less than perfect is untenable –

    I read two short articles over the weekend. One railed against how America was founded on racism and only a complete restructuring would be acceptable, and how the Fourth of July was a terrible holiday only for Whites. The other was about how during Reconstruction, the Southern Whites hated the Fourth of July and the Black residents of Memphis made it their holiday, even having a parade marching through the White neighborhoods – with troops of Black soldiers who were garrisoned there.

    So now, the man to the left of Lester and way to the left of Paul has to issue statements of agreement.

    Yes, real change is more important than statues, but (you knew there would be one), statues tell us who we are. They are like flags, announcing our allegiance. We cannot effect change until we are rid of Trump, but we can change a flag in Mississippi and have statues, that were erected as a sign of resistance to equality, removed.

    With you, Lester, I prefer that states remove them. I wouldn’t go so far as to seek prosecution for anyone who pulls down a confederate monument, but pressuring the states can be very effective now. That action will state that we reject the racist reasons that led to the statues being erected and (sorry, I can be bad) enrage Trump. I believe an enraged Trump is his own worst enemy.

    Paul, I may not think Wilson is as totally evil as you do, but he was no role model. You are correct about his Spanish Flu cover up. If Princeton wants to rename a college and a public and international affairs school, I think that is fine. I also have no attachment to Columbus, but I think that holiday was more about pleasing Italian Americans (think of Pulaski Day in Chicago).

    The idea that we make monuments to “ideals” is cute, but I am not buying it. I have been to homes with pictures of Jesus and FDR on the wall, or Jesus and JFK, or Jesus and Pope John Paul II. These pictures inspire. People are reminded of the “good deeds” that these people did, or inspired.

    Statues of Confederate Traitors – easy call
    Other, less than perfect people – harder – I would be happy to see Andrew Jackson left to history books and museums, but not on our money or in statues

    I also think that the man who simultaneously showed vindictiveness and lack of a concern for human life have his name removed from our National Airport. Rename it National Airport and be done with it, or if you must have a name, that slave-holder, George Washington. We named our capital after him.

  24. If Germany had statues glorifying Nazis and Nazism all over the place today, I would not feel comfortable visiting the country. I can’t imagine how a Jewish person or other minority person might feel.

    Many of those confederate monuments were erected as a form of terrorism; a constant reminder to black people (and other minorities) that a lot of white people in the South still identify with Confederate beliefs and wish the Civil War had turned out differently.

    I’m white, and live no where near the monuments, yet the confederate glorification angers me. If I were black and lived in the shadow of one of those monuments (or had my children attend a school named for a confederate, etc.), and I had to listen to people tell me how proud they were of the Confederates, I think I would be furious all the time.

    Some of those monuments may be worth keeping in museums where factual context can be provided, but most seem worthy only of the junk pile to me. And it’s not “rewriting” history — which is an absurd argument — it’s writing history accurately.

  25. When I lived in Dublin there were many pedestals British politicians and generals when Britain took over Ireland. I don’t see what purpose these statues pedestals Achieved. It’s still took over 50 years for Eire to establish itself .

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