So… at a news conference yesterday the president of the United States defended the Confederacy and said that “very fine people” attended the Charlottesville pro-white rally last weekend, earning praise from David Duke and other racist leaders. Media images showed crowds of torch-wielding Neo-Nazis shouting Nazi slogans (“blood and soil”) and anti-Semitic rants (“Jews will not replace us”), but Trump told us to “believe me” that the majority of attendees were there solely to express support for a statue of Robert E. Lee that was scheduled for removal. “There are two sides to a story,” Trump said, implying that the media narrative about white supremacy was liberal propaganda.
It’s hard to find anything else to talk about when Trump essentially hijacks everything to fume over his petty hatreds and to wallow in his own ignorance. At the news conference, Trump conflated the Confederacy—a declared enemy of the United States—with the American Revolution, and he argued that we should not remove statues of Confederate leaders from the public square.
Trump’s statements are so absurd in the face of facts that it left me speechless. I can’t begin to address the Nazi material, but I was interested in Trump’s historical view, which is entirely lacking in understanding and nuance but nonetheless raised an interesting question about history: When should a monument be altered or removed? This question has a close echo to the issue of whether H. P. Lovecraft’s image would remain on the World Fantasy Award, an issue that led to a similar conflict between traditionalists and progressives.
I must admit that my own feelings on the question of monuments are somewhat conflicted. On the one hand, there are real problems with having the state endorse intolerable ideologies by preserving and maintaining monuments to those who embraced and endorsed them. On the other hand, many of these monuments are more than a century old, and they are now themselves historic structures and historic artworks. Destroying them is to destroy a part of history, albeit not a part I would want to celebrate. The recent ones added in middle twentieth century in a fit of racist pique are new enough that their destruction is no loss.
Another thing that troubles me is judging the past by the standards of the present. Some college students, for example, called for the removal of a statue of Teddy Roosevelt from the American Museum of Natural History last year because he held eugenicist and racist views, and there are efforts to remove statues of Columbus and dozens of Victorian politicians. The problem is that no person is perfect, and no person is so uniformly excellent that his or her views will not run afoul of someone at some time. If we make it a habit of destroying monuments every four years when the political winds change, and every time a new issue rises to the fore of public discourse, it will be no long time before there are no monuments left. However, when the right tries to make this argument, they quickly reveal the underlying motives that make preserving these statues so disturbing. I do not agree with the National Review, which tried to defend Trump yesterday with a column arguing that jihadis and the “anti-fascist left” would happily blow up the Washington Monument in the name of ideology. Kyle Smith argued, inconsistently, that Confederate statues should stay because they are unimportant and ignored by all but a few and therefore are more important as history. But the underlying theme of his piece is that racist whites like them, and we shouldn’t upset them because of their historic role in American life.
But how much sin must we tolerate in those we place on display as implicit models of behavior? I don’t think there is a good answer here. The Confederate monuments exist as markers of anti-federal sentiment and racism, and that was true when they went up and remains true as they come down. To that end, they form almost a special case because they are monuments of spite, erected by the losers in a war in order to antagonize the victors and racial minorities, something that victors have rarely permitted, historically. Most times, tearing down statues occurs when a former power is destroyed and it monuments are trashed to symbolically destroy the regime. Pharaohs smashed the statues of disgraced kings; the Romans pronounced a damnatio memoriae on failed emperors; post-Soviet states beheaded bronze sculptures of Lenin. The Allies did something similar when they blew up Nazi symbols, and America thought dismantling Saddam Hussein’s statue would reenact this ritual of victory. But I wonder how old the symbols of a failed regime must be before they pass from potent ideological threats to historical relics. ISIS, for example, destroys ancient statues because they claim that they represent pagan faiths and threats to Islam, and the world condemns those actions because no one else sees ancient statues as a current ideological threat. I guess the question is when a statue loses its political power and becomes a work of art, largely devoid of contemporary impact and unmoored from its context.
As you can tell, I don’t have a good answer for this. I think back to an old Greek Revival mansion I knew as a child. It was old enough that it had slave quarters from the time when New York still had slaves. The main house was turned into a museum, but the slave quarters were not included. One of the two slave houses became an antique shop (more or less a gift shop for the museum), and the other was empty. It was a fun place to play as a kid when my father would take me out there—he was (and is) an antique dealer. But I can see now that this was the wrong solution. I believe that today the two buildings house an exhibit on slavery at the mansion, which is a better solution. Perhaps there is a creative way to repurpose these monuments to alter their context. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure that Kyle Smith’s solution is the wrong one: He said we should have separate but equal statues to racists and minorities standing near to one another, but segregated. It strikes me that going from a white supremacist statue policy to a Jim Crow statue policy is not exactly progress.
What I do know is that Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine, in a case of unfortunate timing, spent the same time Trump was pontificating on racism promoting his own new article chronicling his further rightward descent, driven by his myopic belief that college campuses are the driving force in American ideological life. Their ideology barely registers outside of college towns—or in many of them. College students, he alleged, are brainwashed by liberal professors into becoming irrational radicals:
Students are being taught by these postmodern professors that there is no truth, that science and empirical facts are tools of oppression by the white patriarchy, and that nearly everyone in America is racist and bigoted, including their own professors, most of whom are liberals or progressives devoted to fighting these social ills.
Shermer blamed postmodernism and liberal ideology for destroying faith in reason, and he then advocated for a specific ideology that would use scientific findings to support a social philosophy that we know from his other writings is essentially an idealized version of midcentury sitcom America. I think that both Shermer and the progressive professors have confused the issue overall. The problem is that everyone wants to impose ideology and to police political positions rather than to teach values and ideals that should help young adults to think about how to select political positions. Universities should be teaching students how to develop personal philosophies and advocating for universal values and commonly accepted social norms. “Liberal” and “conservative” ideologies are irrational, contradictory, and full of happenstance positions born of political expediency. They are inconsistent, and no one could reasonably hold all of the positions labeled as liberal or conservative and claim consistency. As a society, we have to break out of this idea that the current menu of random positions held by a political party must be defended to the death because of a tribal notion that everyone else is the enemy.
We literally have Nazis marching in the streets chanting “Jews will not replace us” while the president says that “very fine people” attend their rallies. Joining the right in policing whether college students are too zealous about social justice within the cloistered confines of their remote campuses is hardly an existential issue threatening our survival. To his credit, Shermer seemed to understand some of this, spending last night tweeting about white supremacy and comparing alt-right extremists to ISIS. If only he didn’t seem to act as though campus liberalism was a problem on the same level.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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