A Questionnaire on Monuments
from October -- Summer, 2018

With rare exceptions, such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens's Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common, historical monuments are not generally evaluated according to aesthetic standards. Rather, they represent markers—perhaps one should say combatants—in ongoing culture wars over how history should be remembered and what historical figures are worthy of veneration. Mostly, they reflect who has had the power to shape public memory.

There is nothing unusual about recent debates in the United States over the fate of such artifacts. Since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the dismantling of public monuments has happened with increasing frequency. Many Americans applauded when Muscovites toppled the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, a founder of the Soviet secret police, Ukrainians took down statues of Lenin and Stalin, and Hungary removed communist-era statues to an open-air museum outside of Budapest. Other examples have nothing to do with the end of the Cold War. The government of Taiwan has been actively removing statues and busts of Chiang Kai-shek, who dominated the island's politics for decades after fleeing the Chinese mainland in 1949 but is now seen as a tyrant. Who can forget the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein by American troops in 2003? Throughout the world, as regimes change, so do monuments. The powerful resistance to removing Confederate statues might make us wonder how far change in our own racial regime has progressed since the civil-rightsera—or the Civil War.

Nietzsche once identified three approaches to history: the monumental (history that glorifies the nation-state), the antiquarian (people seeking to reconstruct their family trees), and the critical ("the history that judges and condemns"). It is no doubt asking too much to expect public monuments to be critical in Nietzsche's sense, although in modern-day Germany not only have statues of Hitler and celebrations of the Third Reich been removed, but the public presentation of the past explicitly condemns this part of the country's history rather than attempting to sugarcoat it. (There is a German word for this process -- Vergangenheitsbewältigung — meaning roughly, coming to terms with, or honestly facing, history.) But one can demand basic accuracy, and many of our own public monuments fail this test.

In 1931, W. E. B. Du Bois commented on the proliferation of monuments to Confederate soldiers with inscriptions such as "Died Fighting for Liberty." It would be more honest, he observed, to offer the plain truth—"Sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery." To be sure, a few monuments did not beat about the bush. One commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans, an attempted coup d'état against the state's biracial Reconstruction government, referred directly to the effort to restore "white supremacy" and regain control of "our state." Clearly, "our" history did not include black Louisianans.

Public monuments tell us more about the moment of their creation than about the history they commemorate. Most of those honoring the Confederacy were erected between the 1890s and the 1920s. It is not a coincidence that these were the years when a new system of white supremacy, grounded in segregation, the disfranchisement of black voters, and widespread lynching, took hold in the South. The erasure of slavery from the story of the Civil War and a portrait of Reconstruction as an era of misgovernment caused by granting black men the right to vote were part of the intellectual legitimation of this system. Nostalgia for the Confederacy has always served the needs of the present. The flying of the Confederate flag over public buildings in the South only became widespread in the 1950s, not because of a sudden wave of historical consciousness but as a direct message to the developing civil-rights movement about where power resided in the segregated South. In 1962, the statue of a Confederate soldier on the University of Mississippi campus became a rallying point for those violently opposed to the admission of James Meredith as the school's first black student. The neo-Nazis and white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville last year to protest the possible removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee had no doubt as to what it symbolized. It was not simply competent generalship.

In my view, there is a line, no doubt difficult to define with precision, that separates monuments so offensive that there should be no place for them in the public square and those that might remain as reminders of history. The Battle of Liberty Place monument (taken down not long ago) and the numerous statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest (a major slave trader, a commander of Confederate troops who massacred black soldiers after they surrendered, and a founder of the Ku Klux Klan) are on the wrong side of the line. But more important is diversifying the public presentation of history. Some progress has been made of late. A statue (admittedly not easy to locate) of Denmark Vesey, who plotted a slave insurrection, was erected in Charleston. The National Park Service has inserted discussions of slavery into its Civil War sites, including Gettysburg, where, for years, visitors could learn the details of the battle but not what the solders were fighting about. A memorial to the thousands of Southern lynching victims has recently been unveiled in Alabama. But where are the statues of the black leaders of Reconstruction, the white Southerners who remained loyal to the Union, or anti-lynching crusaders? The problem today is not simply the existence of monuments to slaveholders and Confederate generals, but that the public presentation of history in the South is entirely one-dimensional. Ironically, the American public seems more comfortable commemorating the civil-rights movement than the struggle to abolish slavery. The movement has been absorbed into a feel-good narrative of our past whereby it represents the inexorable triumph of the ideals of the American Revolution, rather than, as Martin Luther King Jr. called it, a direct challenge to American values. Civil-rights tourism is big business. Some of these museums and monuments offer a sanitized account of the movement and the white response; others are remarkably candid. Birmingham, Alabama, commissioned a series of sculptures commemorating events in the city in 1963, including a dramatic depiction of snarling dogs, giving the visitor a vivid sense of what the demonstrators faced. It wasn't all Rosa Parks quietly refusing to give up her seat on a bus. Here is a model of sober commemoration, coupled with a sense of how deep was the resistance to change, that might well be emulated elsewhere.