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?
9 thoughts on “To Topple or Not to Topple Statues: The Battle between “Come Let Us Reason Together” versus “Abso-fricking-lutely!””
Well done Peter!
Topple, topple, topple. if for NO other reason than we need to make room for the Marxist statues that will soon replace them !! Perfect justice. Then, I can get out and topple a few.
I think you are overstating the issue. There is little chance of Marxist statues being erected depending on who you define as a Marxist.
Peter — This is another excellent piece. Have Blow and the NYT seen this? Best, Ed
Thank you. I doubt Blow has seen it but it is possible. There are a couple of people at the NYT who opened the blog but that does not mean they read it.
Thanks for covering this important topic. I saw there was vandalism all over the Surrogate’s building and the Municipal Building downtown and I cannot accept that a revolution requires this destruction.
Alison G. Greenberg
Law Offices of
Alison Greenberg, LLC
116 West 23rd Street
New York, NY 10011
Good job on an important topic
I am sure its obvious – but this monument removal movement and the level of discussion its getting – is the biggest instance in my lifetime where History and humanities are front and center and a matter of presidential policy and action. If we don’t step up and make a difference, its hard to know when we ever would.
I am trying in my way by making a video “Reflections on Monuments & Statuary During the 2020 #MonumentRemovalMovement”
Monuments and statuary have been a pet passion for 30+ years. I may have the largest collection of photos of monuments outside te Smithsonian – North and South – oldest to newest. Hopefully I’ll have something coherent and compelling to say. The Schuyler thing seems sickening – yet another reason to loathe most pols
PS – I will post this on my Housing Our History FB site
I considered the most important statement in Dr. Feinman’s response the following:
“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.”
When I first observed the toppling of that first Confederate statue–seems like eons ago–I also thought of Lenin, Saddam Hussein, and George III. Then I asked myself, “So when does all this statue vandalism end? Which formerly admired American hero comes next? Where is the resistance by the citizens in each community who erected it–even if it had been centuries ago? Who owns the statues: the outsider-vandals or the people who reside today in each community? Where is the American legal and civil process established to discuss and debate the whereabouts or even the continued existence of these memorials?
However, there is a decided difference in Dr. Feinman’s first two statues compared to the third of George Washington. The statue toppling of the first two were due to years of absolute tyranny of that government leader against their people. By contrast, George III was less so — at least in the rate of that monarach’s violent sprees compared to other despots of totally statist dictatorial societies.
However, the result of III George’s “toppler dethroning” compels us to consider the final result of that act of vandalism by “fed up” colonist-citizens of the British Empire which was initially a bloody civil war finally won by the heroism of the common folks. Their newly-won liberty then provided an opportunity for the freed citizens to struggle, reset, and finally create a unique form of government: the Constitutional Republic. Since 1787 the Constitution has given We the People of each succeeding generation the motivation to attempt “to form a more perfect union.” In other words we are still “in process”.
However, the maddening mindset of the anarchist-vandals toppling any and all
monuments (without their even understanding the who/what/when/why-for) are acts of tyranny against local communities of We the People who had their reasons for erecting these monuments in the spirit of their place and times. Tyrannical (and totally lawless and ignorant) topplers are being steered and funded by largely unknown terrorist/anarchist elites still huddling “behind the curtain” until we can discover the identity and motivations of these despicable despots. I believe their identities will be more like the minds and motives of Lenin, Saddam Hussein, Stalin and all the other statist-terrorists of the past.
Allowing these ignorant and violent toadies to do their masters’ evil biddings without any citizens or governmental push based on America’s “rule of law” will only empower the mob mentality to further destroy buildings, homes and the lives themselves of decent law abiding Americans. Where are the courageous and righteous Minutemen and Minutewomen of our times? Like ancient Queen Esther, let us pray to raise up a renewed generation of heroes/heroines “for such a time as this”– before it is too late to save our nation.
While I think there is a growing consensus about Confederate statues, monuments, and memorials to remove them, the reverse is true for the Founding Fathers. The former sought to divide and therefore destroy the Union while the latter created it. I don’t doubt that there are woke people who want to topple the statues of the Founders as well as the country they created, I don’t see that view as gaining much traction now.
Comments are closed.