Checkpoint: The Pedestal of Scorn

In 2015 the New Orleans City Council voted to remove four Confederate statues. The statues are to be relocated, perhaps to a museum, after a tumultuous period of debate over the issue. Only one of the four statues currently remains, that of the Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. In Charlottesville, Virginia, another Lee statue is set to fall. However, in Richmond, Virginia, a city so cluttered with Confederate statues it could be confused for the scene of Medusa’s bachelorette party, no removals are yet planned. Nor will they be, according to Richmond journalist Mark Holmberg, who suggests the monuments are going nowhere as they are a main attraction in “Richmond’s $1.7 billion dollar tourism industry.”

These tourists are no doubt drawn to Monument Avenue, a grand boulevard of patrician mansions and mounted monoliths like Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson. Although, as Gary Shapiro argued in a recent op-ed in The New York Times, perhaps Memorial Avenue would be a more apposite name? After all, these are testaments to the morally and militarily defeated; the celebration of such is at the very least affectation, and more so a quite disturbing and macabre delusion. Indeed, the statues themselves were not built until decades after the Civil War, an obstinate and pitiful attempt to “legitimize and dignify the white supremacist regime that had taken hold in Virginia.” Dignity is, for such a regime, unattainable, but legitimacy it seems, was easily manipulated.

Those who wish to see the monuments fall contend that Confederate symbols glorify racial injustice and slavery. Those who wish to see the monuments remain argue that the landmarks are simply a part of their history. Because it is not a simple matter (intellectual matters are structured complexities after all), both sides have some claim to the truth - although those claims are not equal. 

In a speech to the National Press Club in 1986, James Baldwin identified himself as “someone who represents a very complex country which insists on being simple-minded. And simplicity, it occurs to me… is taken to be a great American virtue, along with sincerity.” It is not hyperbole to suggest that many of America’s problems are artificially maintained through adherence to these false virtues. To be clear, simplicity and sincerity are not inherently bad qualities; they’re merely a hindrance in the field of intellectual mentation and thus, policy and progress. Politics is not simple, to treat it so, as America’s idea of virtue demands, is to create a rod for the nation’s own back. Solutions to America’s problems can only be found by appreciating their innate complexity. 

There are two coherent, albeit complicated arguments that can be made on this case or any other: the rational ‘ought’ and the empirical ‘is’. Progress comes from, I think, the balanced coalescence of the two. Our philosophical, moral and intuitive investigations can suggest to us what ‘ought’ to be true-- this is the rational position. It ‘ought’ to be true that a society doesn’t make monumental their moral deficiencies and their superficial vanities. Confederate symbols ‘ought’ not to saturate the history of the South as they demonstrably do. Moreover, considering the Confederates had already lost the fight before the war, which is to say, the moral fight, ‘shouldn’t’ statues of abolitionists and brave and forgiving slaves tower over the shriveling figures of the defeated? 

When hearing the opinions of those of the white nationalist persuasion in the South, they suggest they’re not racist, that they only want to preserve their ‘white’ culture and identity. One has to ask then, what is this ‘white’ culture they’re proud of? And why? Are they proud of the pure chance of their birth? Are they proud of the land they stole? The labor they enslaved? The claw marks they’ve left on even the most modest and human of freedoms? The problem, and the question for those that think themselves ‘white’ is not ‘Why can’t we preserve our heritage?’ but rather, ‘Why when we look at ourselves, are we so murky that we cannot see below the surface?’

On the other side of the spectrum, empiricism doesn’t suggest what ought to happen, it merely observes what has happened and what is happening - drawing incontrovertible empirical conclusions. Time has not yet healed the American wound. That in the 21st century, people can still feel the need to congregate as a horde with lit torches suggests infection in the wound is still yet to be expunged, or that some spoiling or sabotage is taking place. Likely, it’s both. A wound ‘ought’ to heal, actually, a wound ‘ought’ not to have existed in the first place. However, this conflict in American society undoubtedly exists. What ‘ought’ cannot be simply enforced, because we know from what ‘is’, our context, that the underlying problem would not be addressed. For progress, we must take into account what ‘ought’ and what ‘is’.

Lord Byron once penned a vitriolic, albeit masterfully beautiful and witty satirical poem against the imperialistic, and seemingly disgraceful actions of Lord Elgin. Elgin had removed classical artifacts from Athens and sold them to the British Museum. Although Elgin’s concern about the continuing deterioration of the artifacts, and the likelihood of their destruction as collateral damage in war, was, in hindsight valid - the presumption of the theft itself drove Byron in The Curse of Minerva to make a very good point about how we should view historically suspect figures: 

“So let him stand through ages yet unborn,

Fixed statue on the pedestal of Scorn;”

The world produces multitudes of figures and ideas, historical and contemporary, deserving of praise and celebration, but also scorn and ridicule. All the Confederate statues should not fall, because if our public spaces are to reflect our history, they should reflect all of it. This argument does not necessitate all Confederate statues stay where they are; indeed they’re often in places designed to antagonize rather than instigate discussion, but they mustn’t be destroyed. The solution is not less history, but more history. Moreover, if we are to retroactively punish historical figures for their crimes and ideas, where will it stop? Even Lincoln was not infallible, sincere as he was, but we needn’t go that far; it’s not much further down the 'naughty list' past figures like Lee and Davies that names like Washington and Jefferson start to appear.

The present is the product of history, and the problems of the past were as complicated as those of the present. Thus, the arguments of history need to be pitted against each other in open debate. A figure like Lee in monumental debate with a figure like Douglass or Paine is a no contest. That these contests are not displayed in the open allows for the sorting hat of ignorance to choose sides for people. 

The present is much too important to risk by adhering to the mistakes of the past. The public, especially in the United States, ruled by infantilism as it is, needs to learn that ideas, be they contemporary, or from history, are only evaluable through argument and debate. If such debates are not writ large in our public spaces, then where else?

The rationally and empirically balanced approach will require cool heads; it will require historians, scholars, leaders and artists – but the result will be a society in which history is not for us to take sides, but to take lessons. After all, to employ Kurt Vonnegut's defense of humankind: "In no matter what era in history...everybody just got here."