Here are the two principal arguments made by those who would have us maintain monuments to traitorous Confederate criminals: 1) Confederate monuments memorialize our history, which we should not deny or forget; and 2) Confederate monuments represent our “heritage.”
First, to remove a monument to a historical figure or event is not to remove that figure or event himself, herself, or itself from our history and consciousness. I have heard nobody advocate that Robert E. Lee or his band of racist anarchists be removed from our history books; quite the contrary, their example must remain so that it might be avoided by future generations.
It was not necessary that monuments be erected to Adolf Hitler so that Germans would remember his Nazi reign. It was not necessary that statues of Mussolini be erected so that Italians would remember their history. When a statue of Saddam Hussein was felled in Baghdad during the the second Iraq War, Americans cheered; did Americans mean to say with their cheering that Iraqis should forget about Saddam Hussein and the lessons surrounding his ascendancy?
The German example is especially apt; here is a photo of what now exists at the site of Hitler’s Berlin bunker:
That’s right — it’s a parking lot. Every day, Germans commemorate Hitler by walking past where his carcass was set aflame on their way to their cars — with all the fanfare of a morning constitutional. Have Germans thereby forgotten?
Robert E. Lee and everything he stood for should be handled with the same reverence: Lee’s gravesite should be a parking lot, or better yet, a dog park — where the marker to his legacy would come from the bladder of an off-leash labradoodle.
But Confederate apologists want monuments to remind us. The rest of us must push back, and the reason is no more complicated than the definition of monument:
Monuments are not just reminders; they are reminders or examples “of someone or something notable or great” or of a person who is “distinguished.” In other words, the purpose of a monument is not merely to recall a person or event, but to celebrate a person or event. And the Confederacy, although it should be remembered, should most assuredly not be celebrated.
We’re not going to forget what Robert E. Lee did to our country just because we remove monuments to his memory any more than Germans forgot what Hitler did to their country just because this happened:
The “heritage” argument is similarly unavailing. Check out the entry for heritage in the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
Note that, like the word monument, the word heritage connotes honor and value; it is associated with words like proud and rich. And the reference to battlefields doesn’t help the neo-Confederate case; we don’t erect battlefields — we just preserve them. And we don’t preserve them to honor the enemy, but the loyal fallen.
Does all this mean, as Trump suggests, that monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson must tumble next? Only if monuments to Washington and Jefferson represent the same thing as monuments to Lee and his ilk. They don’t.
Revolutionary-era figures who founded a flawed nation are not normally classed with those who sought to destroy it. Although Washington and Jefferson participated in the evil of slavery, they do not represent it; neither is the very embodiment or avatar of slavery and racism. Monuments to Washington and Jefferson exist to glorify the better angels of their characters, not to perpetuate the worst of their ignorance and bigotry. And those who put up monuments to Washington and Jefferson, unless I have missed something about our history, did not do so for the express purpose of stigmatizing and marginalizing any group of Americans.
If monuments to Washington or Jefferson ever do come to symbolize such atrocities as racism or slavery rather than progress and liberalism, or if they do come to be seen as debasing rather than exalting the human spirit, then I will be among those wielding sledgehammers. In the meantime, maybe we can deal with the moral question before us right now and set aside, just for the time being, the statuary crises of Donald Trump’s fever dreams.
Monuments to Civil-War Confederates should never have been created, so it’s well past time for them to go.