To topple or not to topple, that is the question. Statues have become the latest battleground in America’s Third Civil War. At this point, it is impossible to determine which statue will be our Fort Sumter. It is reasonable to assume that just as one could not predict that it would the George Floyd murder as the straw the broke the camel’s back, one cannot know which attack on a statue will be the trigger for violence.
In the meantime, last month, Bret Stephens and Charles Blow, columnists for The New York Times, offered quite contrary views on the question of “to topple or not to topple.”
In his column “After the Statues Fall,” (June 27, 2020, print), Stephens posits four familiar words as a template for answering the topple question: A MORE PERFECT UNION.
Stephens suggests for any given individual, the question should be asked whether that person contributed to the effort to create a more perfect union in the United States. If the answer is “no,” and he includes all Confederate-related figures here, then the person fails the test. The statues should come down and the buildings and military installations should be renamed. Stephens mentions some other examples of non-Confederates who don’t deserve a public building and non-Confederates who do deserve honors on net because of what they contributed to making a more perfect union.
Then he turns the big two: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. These two slaveholders who were instrumental to the creation of the United States. He doesn’t mention it, but the latter provided the words or ideals upon which we declared our independence and the former made it possible for that declaration not to be stillborn or a dorm-room manifesto. Eliminate them and there is no country. Stephens writes:
If their fault lay in being creatures of their time, their greatness was in the ability to look past it. An unbroken moral thread connects the Declaration of Independence to the Gettysburg Address to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. An unbroken political thread connects the first president to the 16th to the 44th. It is impossible to imagine any union, much less the possibility of a more perfect one, without them.
Stephens contrasts thinking critically about the past for the sake of learning from it with behaving destructively toward the past with the aim of erasing it. He concludes in favor of debate on whether to topple or not to topple:
An intelligent society should be able to make intelligent distinctions, starting with the one between those who made our union more perfect and those who made it less.
By coincidence such an intelligent discussion was held a few days later. The American Historical Association (AHA) held an online presentation with David W. Blight and Annette Gordon-Reed entitled “Erasing History or Making History? Race, Racism, and the American Memorial Landscape” moderated by AHA Executive Director Jim Grossman, on Thursday, July 2. Whether or not they had read this column I don’t know. If not, then the discussion was even more fascinating. They expressed many of the same concepts that Stephens did. They used the term “criteria” instead for the judging of people on an individual basis with Confederates not passing muster. They even thought several hundred people listening to the online event would volunteer for a national commission.
There you see the problem. Stephens’s template for the evaluation of people works well in an academic setting. It is great for high school or college debates. It could work at some academic conferences. However, the evaluation process is bound to be subjective. There would be legitimate differences of opinions even if everyone agreed on the template. Obviously, it ignores the emotional component. Stephens proposes a solution for an intelligent society in a “come let us reason together” setting. That has nothing to do with where America is right now nor is there any political leader proposing a “come let us reason together” approach. This scenario is great on paper but is not possible in the real world as it exists now.
By coincidence, the next day, Charles Blow offered a significantly different perspective full of emotion. The title is:
Yes, Even George Washington: Slavery was a cruel institution that can’t be excused by its era (June 28, 2020, online).
In case there was any doubt, the opening line is:
On the issue of American slavery, I am an absolutist: enslavers were amoral monsters.
The very idea that one group of people believed that they had the right to own another human being is abhorrent and depraved. The fact that their control was enforced by violence was barbaric.
Blow’s template is a very direct one: if you owned people you were “abhorrent and depraved.” Period. There is no other evaluation needed. No netting of the good the people-owner might have done elsewhere. If you own people, then case closed.
There is no room for doubt. No uncertainty. And no exception.
Some people who are opposed to taking down monuments ask, “If we start, where will we stop?” It might begin with Confederate generals, but all slave owners could easily become targets. Even George Washington himself.
To that I say, “abso-fricking-lutely!”
Blow presents an all-or-nothing evaluation with removal as the one option.
I say that we need to reconsider public monuments in public spaces. No person’s honorifics can erase the horror he or she has inflicted on others.
Slave owners should not be honored with monuments in public spaces. We have museums for that, which also provide better context. This is not an erasure of history, but rather a better appreciation of the horrible truth of it.
Blow’s analysis is intensely emotional for him unlike the Stephens column. It also is easy to apply.
But Blow leaves many unanswered questions. If these people like George Washington are so horrific for what they did that they do not deserve public monuments in public spaces, what about the other ways in which such people are publicly honored. What about
The state of Washington
The city of Washington
The mountain of Washington
The university of Washington
The bridge of Washington
The parks of Washington
The dollar bill of Washington
The neighborhoods of Washington.
Dismantling the Washington Monument is challenge enough, but how do you get demolish half of Mount Rushmore?
And let’s not forget that without Washington there would be no United States of America?
Blow doesn’t address these issues. His end game remains undefined. He feels good about toppling the monuments and statues to George Washington but leaves all the other public expressions of him unmentioned.
In my blog Schuyler Owned People: Should Schuylerville Change Its Name? June 18, 2020, a lifetime ago), I raised a similar issue with the Mayor of Albany’s decision to remove the statue of Philip Schuyler. What about all the other public Schuyler examples from a state-owned house, federal owned house, municipality named after him, county named after him, and his role in American history at Saratoga? As a mayor, her jurisdiction is limited. I did note that one councilmen wanted the removed of all the people-owner names of streets and parks which in Albany means Washington Park. Blow had the option of going where the Mayor could not. As a columnist, he could have advocated for the full cleansing of Washington from the public arena. The logical extension of Blow’s argument means consign everything Washington to a museum, rename it, or demolish it.
WHAT DOES BLOW WANT?
Considered these toppling examples.
The toppling of the statue to Saddam Hussein signified the end of his rule.
The toppling of the statue of Lenin, founder of the Soviet Union, signified the end of the Soviet Union.
The toppling of the statue of King George III signified the declaration of independence from British rule, a declaration after a long war which proved successful.
Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that the toppling of the statue of George Washington, father of the country, signifies that the topplers are calling for the end of the United States, the end of a country based on the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that he won for us and he then held us together as a country.
Is that what Blow wants? While I don’t doubt that among the woke there are people desirous of exactly such an endgame. They reject not only the symbols of the founding of the country but the founding itself. Blow does not appear to one of them. His call to relocate statues from public spaces to museums (presumably private ones with no public funding), suggests he is not advocating for the overthrow of the United States. But his call for the removal not toppling of statues and monuments of people-owners is simply a feel-good baby step that ignores the larger issues. He has an obligation to explain to the American public what his end game is. He has an obligation to explain to We the People where he would draw the line and why on the issue of the public display of the name of Washington among others. He has an obligation to explain his end game because if he doesn’t, others will do it for him.
P.S. The damnatio memoriae (or “condemnation of the memory”) was tried in ancient Egypt on Queen Hatshepsut and King Akhnaton. Will we now have to erase the names of Pharaohs who had slave labor including Nubians and demolish their buildings or is that up to Egypt? What should we teach about these “abhorrent and depraved” people like Tut?