President Trump, a disrupter of norms, protocols and just about everything else, turns out to be firmly anti-iconoclast when it comes to statues of Confederate generals. “So this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” he said, in a combative and at times terrifying news conference Tuesday. “I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
Never mind the conflation of men like Washington and Jefferson — who were indeed slave owners, but also Founding Fathers of an imperfect union — with a man like Robert E. Lee, who betrayed his own country to preserve the evils of slavery. The darker and far more dangerous conflation in this series of rhetorical questions is the attempt to connect fears of the slippery slope — “Where does it stop?”—with the odious ideologies of white supremacism, Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan. It’s unsurprising that many people who live in a large, multicultural democracy will at some point fall prey to the fear that things are changing too quickly, because that’s what democracies do: They evolve, change, absorb new people, new ideas and new languages and, if stewarded by people of good will, emerge the stronger. What Trump is saying is powerful and cynical: If you’ve ever felt that fear, then spare some empathy for the men who gather with torches and wave the hated symbols of racism, anti-Semitism and nativism.
Statues are a clever way to animate the darkest fears that Trump seeks to inflame. Our statuary is largely derived from and better suited to authoritarian societies than democratic ones because monuments require assent to a common proposition: This man was great. They are meant to put historical truths into final form, beyond debate, literally etched in stone. They make definitive statements that are honorific, aesthetic and historical.
Democracies are easily flummoxed by all three kinds of argument, rarely coming to agreement about whom we should honor, what is beautiful and what the past means. In the early years of the republic, there was debate about whether even Washington should be honored with a memorial, and it was common, though not the prevailing, opinion that monuments and memorials were fundamentally aristocratic and thus un-American.
But we built them anyway, and by the first decades of the last century there was a powerful private industry devoted to making relatively generic statues, of World War I doughboys and common soldiers from both sides of the Civil War. A national industry served what became a proliferating local need for statues, and the establishment of new markers and memorials became a form of community bonding. Sometimes, when the subject matter touched on noncontroversial topics, this was innocuous and even a positive form of social cohesion; but in the case of Confederate memorials, it was a purposeful form of social exclusion and a none-too-subtle extension of racist terror into the aesthetic and symbolic life of the community.
The monument industry published monthly journals and lobbied political bodies, and among the things it feared most was the “living memorial,” which was the creation or the naming of useful things such as parks, schools and libraries in honor of someone or some group that deserved memorialization. Living memorials were dangerously ephemeral, they argued, without stressing the obvious: If Americans turned toward living memorials, they would stop paying for new statues of men on horses and soldiers and other figures in bronze and stone.
In one important way, the monument industry was correct: Living memorials could easily be renamed if historical consensus changed. The honorific function wasn’t bound up in the same way with a physical object carrying historic and aesthetic ideas. You could rename a school without removing it. But it is very difficult to retract the honorific function of a Robert E. Lee statue without moving or destroying it. If we had turned decisively to making living memorials, we might not be in the position we are in today, in which thousands of memorials are spread throughout the country, often embedded in communities that feel it is their right to determine the meaning and resonance of the object, including diverse communities that resent the presence of racist relics, and bigoted enclaves that want to preserve them. There would still be an argument about renaming Lee Park as Emancipation Park, but no focal point like a statue — a familiar and sentimentalized object — around which to gather, and no serious arguments about preservation or aesthetic value.
There is a reasonable, non-racist — but increasingly difficult to support — argument for keeping some of the statues devoted to people whose historical contribution is now clearly understood to be odious. It’s easiest to understand in a dialogue, perhaps with a child, that goes like this: Q: Who is that man on a horse? A: He was a man who did some terrible things. Q: Then why is there a statue of him? A: Because people need to remember that we once built statues of men who supported slavery, and we did it to maintain power over the people who were once enslaved.
Whatever wind was left in that argument died out in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. To maintain hated symbols as a teaching lesson and warning to future generations would be plausible if we were, as a society, fully and finally done with things like the myth of the Lost Cause. The embrace, by the president of the United States, of groups that support that idea, and his risible suggestion that there are many, many good people willing to march amid the swastika and Confederate flags just to preserve a statue of Lee proves that we have not and probably will never reach that point.
One might have thought we could disentangle history and hate, so that some of these statues persisted like the statues of the evil or wastrel or more psychotic emperors and kings are preserved as merely historic and aesthetic objects in Europe. But our own president is working hard to keep history and hate fully entangled, and his shameful moral example is likely to inspire a resurgence of the worst bigotry in America.
There was never an easy formula in America for balancing the honorific, aesthetic and historic claims made by our monuments, no easy way to answer the question “How imperfect is too imperfect when it comes to putting men on a pedestal?” The president has ensured that we are not likely to find answers to that anytime soon. These statues, markers and plaques and all the living memorials to the defeated South must go, and not a minute is to be lost.