Not that anyone’s asked for it, but the Confederate and other allegedly racist monuments issue is back in the news, so here’s my handy dandy guide for figuring out which of these memorials should be taken down or removed, which should remain publicly displayed (and how), and which should be left alone. (This guide, which only covers the major controversies that have reappeared recently, will of course include naming decisions for public buildings and spaces like parks and squares and streets.)
Some major misconceptions need to be cleared up first. Right off the bat, everyone should agree that whatever actions are taken (removal or alteration), they must result from legal processes. Unauthorized teardowns and inflictions of damage are simple vandalism and should be punished as such. No private person or group has the right to take these matters into their own hands, precisely because no one’s voted for you. As for public officials, unless laws specifically empower them to act unilaterally, they should always work through legislation or established rule-making procedures.
In addition, let’s drop the dishonest nonsense about statues and plaques on public grounds, and choices of names for public buildings or military bases and spaces like parks and squares, being simple descriptions or illustrations of history. Nothing could be clearer than that they’re meant to express honor and pride.
Similarly, making changes (including removal) has nothing to do with “erasing history.” To take one example, if Robert E. Lee’s name is taken off a high school or highway or whatever, there’s no chance that Lee will be forgotten. Every American who takes a public school course in U.S. history will learn about his role as commander of the Confederate army during the Civil War. And if you happened to cut or sleep through that class, you can always access one of the upteen gazillion books about that conflict that have been written for the last roughly century-and-a-half since it ended.
It’s true that public school students may not encounter the names of lesser Confederate figures. To which the only adult reply is “Big deal.” The reason that folks like Generals A.P. Hill or even Stonewall Jackson may be overlooked is because, in the end, they weren’t such big deals.
Also a no-brainer: If Americans want to honor controversial or despicable figures or movements or ideas on their own property, that’s in virtually all cases their Constitutionally protected right. Ditto for private businesses. If your neighbor is flying a Confederate flag or has painted a swastika on his property, you’re free to shun him, and to urge others to do the same. If you’re offended by Aunt Jemima, switch your pancake syrup brand, ask the company to use a new image or character, or encourage boycotts and trust in the market and consumer choice to settle the issue. (Cross-burning on one’s own private property, a la the viciously racist and anti-semitic Ku Klux Klan, is legally treated somewhat – but only somewhat – differently.)
More complicated is the question of which level of government should be making which decisions where public property is concerned. For instance, should a federal ban be enacted on using Confederate names on any public grounds, including state and local? I can see an argument for that proposition (as indicated below, it provides encouragement for treason, a Constitutionally designated crime or, alternatively, creates a discriminatory environment). But I can also understand the case for leaving the decision to the states and localities – and ultimately letting the market decide (mainly in the form of privately organized boycotts of the type that has pushed several states to drop anti-LGBT measures).
So having cleared away this intellectual brush, here’s the guide – at least for some of the major cases:
>Confederate leaders – they’re the easiest call of all. They were traitors. They took up arms against the U.S. government. No decent American should want to honor them in any way. Yes, there’s an argument that some of these naming decisions (e.g., for U.S. miIitary bases) were made in order to promote reconciliation between North and South after the Civil War. Indeed, President Trump just made it.
But the U.S. decision not to prosecute the leaders of the Confederacy – and execute them if found guilty – was a strong enough gesture of reconciliation. In addition, nearly all Confederate veterans – including senior officers – were soon permitted to vote and hold public office once more. And the same states whose rebellion ignited the war were admitted back into the Union.
As a result, naming numerous U.S. military bases after Confederate generals represents a grossly mistaken (at best), and I would argue utterly perverse and continuing slap in the face to all American citizens and legal residents of the country, and especially to the soldiers who fought and died to preserve the Union and their families and descendents. There are plenty of other American military leaders who served their country in actually patriotic and genuinely heroic ways. Their names belong on these bases instead.
But what about the graves of Confederate veterans (including rebels from “ordinary” backgrounds who may not have been slave owners or even racists) currently lying in U.S. military or other national cemeteries, including Arlington? There’s no doubt, as made clear here, that a number wound up there because of mistakes in identifying very partial physical remains. But it’s also clear that many were placed in or actually moved to these plots and the graves specially marked as signs of respect – and that Congress approved.
Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren has recently introduced legislation to “remove all names, symbols, displays, monuments, and paraphernalia that honor or commemorate the Confederate States of America and anyone who voluntarily served it from all military bases and other assets of the Department of Defense.” Presumably (though I haven’t found the full text) this includes the markers.
Fox News talker Tucker Carlson (who I generally admire) condemned this measure as grave “desecration.” That’s reckless hyperbole, but if Warren would actually remove the markers, that looks excessive as well, since at least according to the official description in the National Parks Service post linked above, they simply identify the deceased as Confederates.
My bottom line: It’s not possible to figure out which of these veterans were bad guys and which were at least reasonably good guys, and the bodies are already interred. So I’d leave them be.
Not so, however, for the Confederate Memorial at Arlingon Cemetery – which even its official website says “offers a nostalgic, mythologized vision of the Confederacy, including highly sanitized depictions of slavery.” The Cemetery authorites go on to contend that “The Confederate Memorial offers an opportunity for visitors to reflect on the history and meanings of the Civil War, slavery, and the relationship between military service, citizenship and race in America.”
But given the monument’s clear glorification of the Confederate cause and its rose-colored view of slavery, and given that visitors have lots of other opportunities to reflect on the meaning of the Civil War and related issues, I’d ship this slab of stone out of there. It has no place on arguably the most sacred ground of this nation’s civic religion.
What to do with it, however, from that point – along with other Confederate monuments on federal grounds? Here I fully agree with those who would put them in museums instead of simply destroying them. Wouldn’t it be best to show them in a setting that could describe them fully and explain the context of their creation? And I’d deal with these statues and plaques on state and municipal lands in exactly the same way.
>Let’s move to American historical figures who didn’t revolt against their country, but nonetheless owned slaves and/or expressed racist views or supported racist policies. Here I’ll restate the argument I originally made in this post. If these figures were known only or best for racist views and positions – like former segregationist Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, or former (if you can believe it) even more racist Mississippi Governor and U.S. Senator Theodore G. Bilbo, I’d remove any statues etc from public grounds and stick them in museums, displayed as described above.
>The same would go, by the way, for Civil War leaders who for various reasons were widely seen after the conflict as personifications of honor or other military virtues, or who actually repented in word and/or deed after the war. Lee is the leading example of the former. However gentlemanly he might have been, or however well he may have treated his soldiers, and even however distinguished his record in the U.S. Army during the Mexican War (which, to complicate matters further, was in large measure a war of annexation), few would have paid much attention to him, or even known of him, if not for his Civil War role. So let’s get him and his name out of public spaces.
A prime example of the latter is Pierre Beauregard. This former Confederate general actually led the troops in South Carolina who fired on Fort Sumter and for all intents and purposes started Civil War. After the conflict, according to the official website of his hometown of New Orleans, he became “an early proponent of equal rights in Louisiana, serving as the outspoken leader of the short-lived and ultimately failed unification movement.”
Since I do believe in redemption (and hope everyone else does, too), I’d go along with a monument of some kind. But not the kind currently standing in the city – which depicts “the uniformed general astride his horse.” How about moving that statue to a museum, complete with a full bio, and putting up a new monument portraying him in civvies and celebrating his efforts to champion equality? Ditto for any similar cases.
As for those leaders with troublesome racial pasts and/or policy records who nonetheless are (rightly) known for much more (as I argued in the RealityChek post linked above) , I’d leave their monuments in place, too – but make the maximum feasible effort to add some explanations that mention these blemishes. By the way, such leaders include not only former slave-owning Presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and outspokenly racist former Presidents like Woodrow Wilson, but even former Presidents generally seen as race relations heroes – like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
A final point about dealing with the Confederate and especially other controversial monuments: If anything should be obvious about this discussion of the issue, it’s how complicated much of the history is, and therefore how complicated many of the monuments et al decisions are. Some are indeed easy calls and should be made promptly. But no one should favor anything resembling a rush to judgment on the others.