Typically, statues of people are erected to honor them. The implication being, I’d guess, that the subject of the statue is therefore honorable. Meaning, to take this thought exercise to its logical conclusion, that we try, as a general rule, to only make a statue of someone if they really, truly deserve it. And that means, by logical deduction, that if we make a statue for someone we think is honorable at the time, but then later find out they’re, oh, I don’t know, a racist, vile, disgusting piece of slavery defending garbage — we can and should pull down that statue, because, shock of all shocks, they’re not worthy of praise, admiration, or you guessed it…honor.
But don’t tell that to conservatives. To them, once a statue goes up, it has to stay. It doesn’t matter if the good people of The State of Stupid erected a monument to Hitler back when he was just “that silly German guy” because they were all of Germanic descent. You can’t tear it down now, just because he was later determined to be a genocidal maniac! Republicans would argue these days that the statue is a testament to “history” or “heritage” and we just can’t relegate history or heritage to museums! No! We have to have our monuments to racism standing ninety feet tall!
So, maybe the Hitler thing is a bit too Godwin-y for you. And I get that. Thanks to people on all sides of the political compass overusing the comparison, Hitler may not carry the same rhetorical weight he once did. Let’s use a more pluperfectly American example — all those statues and monuments of “heroes” of the Confederacy. I use the word “hero” because only though selective cherry picking of historical facts do you find someone like General Robert E. Lee is a hero.
Slavery and confederacy apologists love to remind you that Lee only inherited slaves through his marriage to George Washington’s granddaughter. They tell you that he really did consider taking the offer of appointment in the Union Army, which is true. They’ll tell you that Lee also didn’t want monuments or statues in his or any other Confederate icon’s honor. Again, that’s true. But none of those facts suddenly make his final decision — to wage war against the union and ultimately in favor of preserving slavery — disappear.
And let’s not go pretending that either Stonewall Jackson or Jefferson Davis even come close to Lee in terms of almost being a decent human being. If Lee falls short of that classification, and again, taking up arms against your countrymen to preserve slavery certainly pulls the ladder out from underneath his feet, then those two don’t even get out of bed in the morning, much less put on their ladder climbin’ boots.
The push to tear down or move monuments to the confederacy have nothing to do with erasing or changing history. They have everything to do with honoring the honorable parts, though. And besides, the overwhelming majority of the statues and monuments to icons of the confederacy weren’t built during the 19th century, when you could at least understand emotions would be running so high in the rebel states that they’d want to honor these men. No, they were built during the Jim Crow years, as a means to not-so-subtly signal to black people living under those laws that white supremacy would always reign supreme in the United States. So it’s not like the monuments themselves were even built with an honorable intent.
Does that stop conservatives from defending the statues though? We all know the answer. The more important question, though, is why they feel the need to defend them.
There’s another battle brewing between the forces of modernity and conservatism, too. It’s a battle drawn along the same lines as the confederate statues and monuments. It’s actually a battle that’s raged just about as long, truth to be told. The battle is over Columbus Day, and subsequent monuments to the 15th century explorer/slaver/bringer of genocide.
See, and that’s where the first problem comes in. Not everyone wants to view historical figures in their full context; they want you to judge them only by the time they were alive. Which I suppose makes sense if you a vested interest in keeping certain mythologies about historical figures alive. But if not, then there’s no reason to keep beholden to things just because they’ve always been like that. In fact, the United States is one big “fuck you” to the idea of just doing things like they’ve always been done. In California, one county is ready to put Christopher Columbus in his proper historical context.
The county of Los Angeles has decided that, when one takes into account the full view of Columbus, both good and bad, he winds up not being someone we should be honoring in the 21st century. No one can deny the impact he had the future of the world, but L.A. county has decided that the bad things about him outweigh the good. So in L.A. county this year, they’ll be celebrating Indigenous Native Day instead.
Conservatives are all up in arms over L.A. county’s decision, of course. They claim this is just political correctness gone wrong. They say that since the native tribes warred and enslaved each other, we shouldn’t celebrate Indigenous Native day, either. And you know what? That’s an argument I’d hear out. Maybe this country needs to stop memorializing dead people and just put them all in museums. Maybe a view toward the future with our monuments and statues is better? I don’t know. But all I know is that pointing out that native tribes also had war, death, violence, and slavery is not an argument for maintaining a holiday’s name just because we want to admire the fictional version of a man.
I wish conservatives would just square themselves with the fact that times change and people change. And change means it’s entirely possible for people to change their mind about who they admire, who they put up on a pedestal, and who is truly deserving of the kind of honor a statue denotes. Then, they might be able to process a very simple truth; a truth so simple really anyone should grasp it.
Some people don’t deserve statues or monuments. Some people never deserved to have statues or monuments to them made in the first place. And sometimes, we think people deserve them when they really don’t, and we figure that out later. What a crazy concept, I know.