Writing a blog is not much fun these days. And so I haven’t been doing very much of it.
One day, we are heading toward nuclear war with North Korea. The next day, we are heading toward civil war over statues of southern-state generals who fought to preserve slavery a century-and-a-half ago. And every day, it seems, we are forced to watch as our so-called president stumbles dangerously close to the precipice 0f (or even precipitating) wars of both kinds.
What is more discouraging? The fact that the founders of our nation were slave-owners? Or the fact that the leader of our nation expresses more sympathy for slave-owners (and those who fetish-honor their defenders) than he does for the descendants of slaves? I can deal with the former — history was what it was. As to the latter, we should expect better.
Though he surely didn’t mean to, Donald Trump posed an intriguing question in his latest incoherent press conference. Trump asked a pool reporter (rhetorically, of course, as he was not interested in a response) whether removing statues of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee meant that statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson should be the next to go. (The reporter could not answer because Trump bully-talked over her.)
My first reaction — the reaction that Trump intended to elicit — was, of course, statues of Washington and Jefferson should not be removed. These men were Virginia slave-owners in the late 1700s-early 1800s, almost two generations before our inaptly-named Civil War. They lived in a far less-enlightened time and they were regarded as great men in their day. Do they not deserve a “Get Out of Being a Slave-Owner Free” card for their respective roles in founding our nation?
The way Trump formulated it, our choice is between flawed enlightenment (exemplified by Washington, Jefferson, Madison, et al) and flawed honor (Lee, Jackson, Davis, et al) — and since everyone has flaws, the right thing to do is pay tribute to the enlightened and respect the honorable. Liberty and statues for all.
But the “flaw” at the center of this issue is more odious than just having a bad set of teeth. It involves the inhumane treatment (and kidnapping and torture and killing) of humans for the benefit of richer and more powerful humans: our founding fathers and those who followed in their footsteps. American slavery was no less a crime against humanity than the Holocaust, and we do not tolerate statues of Hitler in our midst — so why have statues of slave-owners?
Statues and other public monuments serve to remind us of our role models and values. We do not need statues to tell us our history — books and museums are better suited to that purpose. So let’s donate the statues of our slave-owning presidents and genocidal generals to museums that want to preserve them, where they may be seen by those (and only those) who care to see them.
So my answer to Trump’s rhetorical question is yes — remove the statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis today, and the statues (and images on our money) of Andrew Jackson, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton next. We can’t change history but we can change who we honor and why.
What to do with all those empty pedestals? The people who are most deserving of statues are those who actively advanced the ideals our Founders expressed — but only selectively followed — in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. So we could use more statues of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Ida B. Wells (suffragist and co-founder of NAACP), Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, William Lloyd Garrison (abolitionist publisher), Roger Nash Baldwin and Crystal Eastman (co-founders of ACLU), Carrie Chapman Catt (founder of League of Women Voters) and Congressman John Lewis. More importantly, we need more people like them, and fewer like Trump.