It is way past time to call a halt to the de-statue-ing of America. Over the past couple months, while most of us were preoccupied with lost jobs, a killer virus and a terrible case of police abuse of power, we have somehow stumbled into the middle of a raging stream of nihilistic destruction. (Nihilist: one who wants to sweep away everything in an existing society or system, leaving nihil — nothing — of the old ways in place.) Decades-old, graceful monuments to figures as varied as Theodore Roosevelt, Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and that dangerous rogue St. Junipero Serra have been threatened, defaced, toppled or removed from public places across the country. Enough.
Inventive rationales for the destruction have been put forward, in most cases involving some aspect of the subject’s life or words that now offends against current-day dogmas of inclusion, multicultural diversity and values-free tolerance. Looked at analytically, however, the individuals under threat all share only one common denominator: They are white males who, in the course of their lives, played some significant role in the history of America. And therein lies, I think, their true offense. The statue-topplers have come to see the pre-1960 history of the United States as so dominated by oppression, so tainted with evil that any reminder of it is an affront to consciences of the year 2020.
This, to put it bluntly, is errant nonsense, and dangerous to boot. In a perilous, hostile, irrational world, we NEED our history, and we need to be able to be proud of it. It tells us who we are and what our enduring values are. It gives us the self-confidence and courage to stand up to true evil and real threats to our nation and our way of life. The next big foreign or terrorist enemy won’t care how penitent we are over the past; in fact, from their perspective, the more introspective, enervated and paralyzed by self-doubt we are, the better. We need to put our game face back on.
We need to relearn, and re-embrace, the American history we learned in school: the story of a country that was founded with the ideal of liberty in mind, improbably enough won its independence, expanded across a continent, emerged from a terrible Civil War and went on to world leadership. Yes, injustices were done along the way, wrongs we continue to work on correcting. But that does not invalidate the worthiness of the whole.
We need to be mature enough to see each statue as honoring, not the worst but rather the best in its subject, and in particular as noting the significance he held in the overall story of America. Columbus is up there not because he mistreated native Americans but because his discovery of a new world was an event of epochal proportions. Washington, Jefferson and other founding fathers are up there not because they owned slaves but because they founded and defended our country, and pioneered concepts of liberty and limited government that literally changed the world. Teddy Roosevelt is there not because he was a hunter and a believer in a Big Stick, but because he led America into the modern world, quelling the power of robber barons and pioneering the preservation of nature. And so it goes. Not saints — heroes. Each one, however imperfect, has something to teach us, something to remind us of.
And all those Confederates? They are a special case. It is an odd happenstance of history that they are there at all. In an ideal world, the North’s postwar occupation of the South would have been longer and harsher. Reconstruction would have lasted 75 years rather than 15. And the wealthy slave owners who brought on a horrendous war, rather than see an evil system eroded, would have lost their land and never returned to power. In such a world, the war would never have achieved its Glorious Cause retrospective sheen. But that’s not what happened. I doubt any of us would be proposing new statues of Lee, Stonewall Jackson and their fellows now, but there they are. And in some cases — such as Lee — they are remembered for their postwar roles in reconciliation, as well as for their wartime performance. Each Southern town must decide for itself what to do about them. But it should be a real decision, based on real discussion, rather than a panicky city council vote in the evening, followed by a crane at midnight.
There is only one good reason for a society to devalue and sweep away its historical memory: revolution, a complete rejection of the present world, in favor of a radically new direction. Toppling a statue of George III made sense in 1776, as did sweeping away monuments to Lenin in Russia after 1990. But the vast majority of us don’t see the current moment that way and aren’t about to. We still believe in the fundamental values of America: freedom, justice, democracy, a pragmatic moderation in political and economic choices, and fairness and decency towards one another. It is time to speak up for the history that brought us those values, and for its memorializations in stone. Before we are left with nihil.
Joseph Kimpflen lives in Tupper Lake.
Washington Post, June 26, 2020, “Protesters denounce Abraham Lincoln statue in D.C., urge removal of Emancipation Memorial”
Washington Post, June 20, 2020, “While Confederate statues come down, other symbols targeted”