The makers of South Park actually do satire well. They touched on this years ago in an episode where Chef was protesting the South Park flag. It depicted a black man (more a stick figure) being hung with a half dozen or so white guys (also stick figures) cheering. It was over the top and crass, but most good satire is. During the course of the episode, people in town kept commenting that they understood that it was racist, but they also agreed that it was history. Thus, nothing changed…until the end of the episode.
Absurdity often helps reveal things that we don’t see in everyday life. One of the general complaints this summer during the protests was the continued sight of Civil War monuments and statues throughout the country. This isn’t a new complaint. We remember Charlottesville well if not for the statue debate itself, but the aftermath and the president’s comments. However, the statue debate is a good one to revisit.
The general consensus from those that defend the statues is that if you tear down a statue you are erasing history. The notion is so patently absurd that it doesn’t deserve much debate. I’ve taught history off an on for over a decade. I never took students to a statue. Never. History teachers aren’t panicking during the pandemic. They’ve restricted field trips. Oh no, how will our students learn about the leaders of the past if we can’t take them to statues?
This isn’t to completely pooh pooh the idea that monuments and statues can have an educational purpose. The family went to Washington D.C. a few summers ago and we were able to take our daughter to the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Memorial, Vietnam Wall, and World War II Memorial. I’m certain she learned a few things from the experience.
However, I’ve been to Washington several times. This past time was the first time the World War II Memorial was open for viewing. It’s not like World War II didn’t exist before that memorial. It’s not like World War I doesn’t exist because of the absence of a memorial. So, a statue or memorial is history in the sense that it was erected in the past. Otherwise, that’s not why we do it.
Statues and memorials are erected to honor those who are depicted in the memorial. It seems like a fairly simple concept. Yet, so many people get offended when you question whether a civil war officer should be memorialized. For heaven’s sake, we’ve named military bases after them. We’ve named schools after them. If you want to debate history you need consider why we are honoring such men.
This is usually when the slippery slope argument gets introduced. If you tear down a statue of Stonewall Jackson then why not Thomas Jefferson? Why not George Washington? Excellent questions. The answer is pretty simple. They didn’t wage war against the United States. All of those statues certainly have racist undertones attached to them. Part of that is that the Civil War was fought over slavery. Part of that stems from the time period and motives for erecting them. However, let’s leave that aside. The reasons for waging war against the U.S. is not important. Funny though, we don’t see statues of Benedict Arnold anywhere.
Washington and Jefferson were flawed men. We are all flawed men and women. Yet, they are known for helping build the country. Their indiscretions were relatively private. It is similar to the statue of Sam Houston near Huntsville. Houston was a raging alcoholic that had considerable personal problems. He also resigned rather than sign off on joining the Confederacy. Given the time period, that was a tremendous act of courage.
Statues and memorials have historical contexts just like the people they depict. The reasons behind erecting them are just as important as their mere presence. Having a founding father honored makes perfect sense even if we learn damaging personal information years after the fact. Erecting a statue of a traitor makes no sense at any point. Every person that has existed has had positive qualities. No one is 100 percent evil 100 percent of the time. So, to say that a Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson had good qualities is just an excuse. Of course they did. Ted Bundy had good qualities too and did some good things at some point. He also killed a bunch of people.. The question is what we remember most.
We don’t honor traitors. It’s fair to talk about all of the sides of a person for the purpose of understanding history. We don’t want to paint anyone as purely evil or purely good because that ignores the very reason why we learn history in the first place. Sometimes some very good people can do some very awful things. Sometimes it’s the reverse. If you find yourself standing up for a statue then you have to ask yourself why. Why do we want to continue to honor this man? It’s not about history. It’s about something else.