In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, protests against racism sprung up around the world. One notable target of these protests has been monuments in major cities commemorating their often less-than-stellar history. Some even went so far as to suggest the renaming of military installations named for Confederate leaders in America. We will deal with Trump’s reaction to this below, but for now, I want to ask a question. What specifically is meant by ‘remove’ as The Guardian used in reference to these statues? One definition I can support, the other I oppose in the strongest possible terms.
Disclaimer: I am an historian by training, and this has influenced my take on this. I cannot abide the destruction of any form of historical documentation, no matter how it makes people feel or the contemporary climate. This includes the preservation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and statues of slaveholders. History is not just the good bits. There is a lot of savagery, barbarism, persecution and violence in human history. To destroy monuments to, and commemoration of, the unpleasant parts of history is to be a Ministry of Truth. It would be, if you will pardon the expression, a whitewashing of history. Over the next few paragraphs, I hope to make my position clear. You are free to disagree as always, but I ask that you hear me out.
Removing, Part One: Preservation away from Public View
As the title suggests, seeking to remove statues of Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Davis and others while preserving them is something I can support. If you do not wish for black people to have to look at statues of men who fought to preserve slavery, I understand. But put the monuments in a museum, please. Destroying statues does not show how ‘woke’ you are. Now here is where you might see some ‘preservation of arr heritage’ or similar argument. If your heritage is one of fighting to keep human beings as property, you need better heritage. But preservation serves history’s other main purpose: the warning sign.
Monuments commemorate individuals, achievements and past events. They do so with an agenda since many are propaganda, granted, but they commemorate never-the-less. Commemoration serves as a warning for future generations. The camps of the Holocaust were not destroyed, but rather became terra sacra (sacred ground) to ensure those atrocities are never forgotten and never repeated. Europe did not hide its anti-Semitic history but rather used the sites of its culmination to ensure the worst crimes were not repeated.
Monuments can serve the same purpose. When a child asks her mother ‘Who’s this Lee guy?’ she can tell her. Such a discussion cannot take place if the statue is in pieces in a landfill somewhere. As Churchill said, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Preservation of these statues outside public view is surely the best way to preserve the evidence of the past so future generations can learn history’s lessons.
Removing, Part Two: Destruction
What I have no time for is the wanton destruction of monuments. Not because I agree with the beliefs of the figures or any other Sally Strawman anyone might invent. As I said above, monuments are commemorations of the past: good and bad. The Res Gestae of Augustus is a brazen piece of political propaganda that tapers over some of the clears throat less savoury moments of his career. Some of these include taking over the state by force, proscribing his opponents and permanently exiling his daughter. Indeed, there is a famous bronze statue of Augustus (2.08m tall) in the Vatican Museum in Rome. Should this be destroyed because Augustus owned slaves, waged wars of conquest and ordered executions? Is he not ‘woke enough’ to survive in the Age of Black Lives Matter?
You might think the previous paragraph somewhat fallacious, but I ask you to consider why these statues are being targetted. These figures were racists, misogynists and all that. That is true. But so were figures from the much more distant past. Here comes the potentially fallacious argument: where would it stop? If statues of Lee and co can be potentially destroyed, what about Churchill? That man had myriad flaws yet his monuments are prominent. Before we get to Trump and his response to calls to rename military bases named after Confederate officers, a reiteration of my overall point seems appropriate. History is not merely the good bits. Indeed, history is, remarkably enough, the story of humans. Humans are flawed. To forget them is to forget their lessons.
Trump and the Confederate Bases
Calls have come forth, as I said above, calls to rename military bases named for Confederate officers. Trump’s response was, per The Guardian
These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a … history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom…The United States of America trained and deployed our HEROES on these Hallowed Grounds, and won two World Wars. Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations … Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!
That man is an idiot. Ok, in order. Great American Heritage? These are bases named after bigots and slaveholders! That is your ‘Great American Heritage’? A history of ‘Winning, Victory and Freedom’? They lost the war! Really! How can they be part of a history of winning when they lost the war? Also, freedom? Freedom for whom? To do what? The freedom for white people to own black people as property? Actually, do not answer that.
While it is true that many American heroes were trained on those bases and forts, changing the name attached to them has no consequences for the future or past heroes trained there. Further, changing the name of a base does not ‘tamper with history’ you wilfully ignorant simpleton. The history is still there even if you change the name. Finally, respect our military? You really do have the mentality of a child: changing anything, even a name, is to ‘disrespect’ the military. What an utter fetish patriot you are.
Conclusion: Addressing the Hypocrisy Charge
I want to end by addressing any potential charges of hypocrisy over my criticism of Trump in light of earlier paragraphs. There is no double standard here. The bases have monuments, plaques, signage and other ways of identifying them. We should put all of these things in the museum along with existing confederate monuments. I am also not suggesting that these bases be destroyed, merely renamed. It is surely the height of hubris and racial entitlement to expect black soldiers to train at Fort Lee, Fort Bragg (named for a terrible general by the way) or any other Confederate-named fort. Renaming them while preserving their history, rather than destroying them, is surely the compromise between doing nothing as the Idiot-in-Chief wishes to do and tearing them down.
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