Monuments Men: The Case Against Removal

[Note:  Although I had not planned to originally talk about this issue, the proliferation of vandalism of various monuments to Confederate war heroes of the American Civil War has prompted me to add my own thoughts to the matter.  As my own thoughts on the issue are somewhat complicated, I have chosen to approach this issue as something like what one would have read from a medieval theologian like Thomas Aquinas.  This particular post gives the case against removal of the statutes on an ad hoc basis as is occurring at present.]

Over the past few days there has been an escalation in the historical vandalism that has led to the toppling of numerous Civil War statues by thugs in the dark of night.  These efforts have been cheered by many, rather than being prosecuted as the destruction of public property ought to be.  Regardless of how one feels about the statues of leaders of the Confederacy, it is a principle of civilization that works of art with a historical value–as these statues undoubtedly have–are to be preserved.  The Taliban were roundly criticized by the liberal voices of Western Civilization for destroying statues of Buddha in a deeply Muslim country where such statues were seen as idolatrous.  And the widespread destruction of heathen historical architecture and statuary by the ISIS in Syria and Iraq was seen as barbarism of the worst kind [1].  If it is wrong to blow up statues of Buddhas or destroy old temples to Baal, how can it be just to topple over a statue of Jubal Early or Jefferson Davis?

People may compare the removal of these statues to the jubilant destruction of Communist statuary in the aftermath of Communist rule, but this too would be a false equivalent.  The irrational exuberance of those experiencing freedom for the first time after many decades of Soviet oppression cannot be compared to the stealthy and illegal destruction of statues in the middle of the night in an area that has long been free, and where legal impediments against racial equality have been removed now for half a century at least.  If there is any just comparison, then it is to the cowardly destruction of idols by Gideon (or Jerubbabel) in the dark of night in fear of the idolatry of his family and his neighbors.  While Gideon’s noble father urged Baal to contend for himself, perhaps those destroying these statues may wish to avoid looking for Southern whites to contend for themselves in the face of such dishonor and such vandalism, lest they bring a storm against themselves that they cannot overcome.

Our president has made himself even more unpopular than he is in certain circles by defending the beauty of Confederate statuary, but a strong case remains for leaving such statues alone and keeping them safe from midnight assault on the grounds of prudence.  There is a reason why these statutes are being destroyed by vandalism, and that is because a sufficiently large population is opposed to the removal and/or destruction of these statutes that it cannot be done in the light of day or through legal means.  Are we to encourage vandalism as an act of political discourse?  We ought instead to prosecute all such efforts to the greatest extent allowed by law, to discourage destruction as political language.  Our civil culture is already toxic and destructive enough already, we do not need to encourage such efforts any further.

How, then, should we deal with these statues if we see them as unjust but also as supported by a large part of the population?  There are solutions to midnight acts of vandalism.  Such statues can be removed to places where they may be studied for artistic value and discussed as part for their larger historical value even if we no longer wish to honor them in public.  Whether or not we appreciate aspects of our nation’s history, and these statues are an aspect worthy of much criticism, our history deserves to be remembered honestly.  We do not overcome a legacy of racism and oppressing by seeking to obliterate that history.  We come to terms with the past by honestly confessing it and acknowledging it and then using the memory of that past as a fire to never repeat it again.  Aspects of racism that exist in the present cannot be properly understood without the context of the past.  The people who commissioned those statues and endorsed the worldview of those traitors and rebels did so for a reason, and that reason needs to be understood, however abhorrent we find it.

Let us conduct a brief thought experiment.  Let us imagine that in the future social mores change to the point that it becomes abhorrent to believe that anyone favored the slaughter of innocent unborn children because they were inconvenient or because they had Down’s Syndrome or any other such reason.  Let us imagine that the statues and monuments of people who are currently viewed with great honor by many are toppled in the middle of the night by radical elements of the pro-life movement?  Would those who celebrate the toppling of Confederate statuary be content to see the monuments of Sanger or anyone else who had ever voted for supported anything that Planned Parenthood wanted?  Probably they would view these acts with undisguised horror.  What is different about this situation–only the unjust cause that was supported by these people.  Four million blacks were enslaved at the time of the Civil War, but forty million have been killed thanks to Roe vs. Wade.  All that blood is on someone’s hands, some wicked evildoer who deserves shame and contempt.

Let us think of another principle that is required here aside from prudence, and that is the principle of consent.  Our republic is founded on the consent of the governed [2].  It is that principle, for example, that made the behavior of the Confederacy so reprehensible, in that they refused to consent to the government of someone elected despite their disapproval in the face of their denial of that same right of consent to millions of their own fellow citizens, many of whom were their relatives by blood because of other denials of consent.  While it may be just to deny consent to those who have denied consent to others, the white people of the South today cannot be punished for the sins of their forebears.  We must bear the burden of punishment for our own sins alone, and that burden is enough for most of us to bear, including those who destroy and deface public property rather than behave in a proper and law-abiding fashion.  We may hate the behavior of the Confederates and loath their cause, as I do with great intensity, but we will be judged by the standard we judge others, and those of us who casually seek to destroy the property and memory of others may yet find the repercussions of those decisions to be a burden that we cannot bear when it is applied to us in turn.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/05/22/i-will-remember-them-no-more/

[2] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2013/12/27/book-review-the-age-of-consent/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2012/07/13/the-threats-to-consent/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2012/04/25/the-problem-of-the-consent-of-the-governed/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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