Taking down uncritical memorials to complex figures is actually a pretty good idea!
This morning, apparently no longer content to die on the “actually, white supremacists aren’t that bad” hill on which he’d stubbornly plopped himself for the past three days, Donald Trump decided to take to social media and plead the case of hideous Confederate statues everywhere by making an impassioned appeal to the history buff in all of us.
On Wednesday, former journalist and possible aspiring statues model Geraldo Rivera took this inspired line of reasoning even further.
Like all slippery-slope arguments, this is a particularly insidious bit of pseudologic because it implies that opponents are taking a position that they’re not. Statues of Washington or Jefferson or Columbus aren’t at issue in Charlottesville and Baltimore and Richmond. Instead, citizens are advocating for the removal of public monuments to a specific class of men who spearheaded an illegal rebellion against the United States, and who decided they’d rather wage a war that killed hundreds of thousands of their countrymen than live in a world in which they couldn’t own people. Statues of these men are not “memorials of our history.” They are symbols of terror installed for the specific purpose of intimidating people of color—notice anything interesting about when and where most of them were erected?—and every single one of them deserves to be dismantled with hacksaws and dragged to the scrapyard posthaste.
That said, the problem with relying heavily on outlandish-sounding, hyperbole-laden hypotheticals is that those who do so sometimes inadvertently discover…a pretty good idea! Maybe we should consider taking down grandiose statues of enlightened thinkers whose careful deliberative process resulted in the three-fifths compromise, and who, were they to meet the 44th president of the United States today, would likely initially assume him to be chattel. (Maybe we really should consider toppling monuments to the disease-spreading profiteer who murdered and enslaved untold numbers of innocent people, and who is somehow still lionized in this country today for “discovering” America despite never even fucking landing there.) Is your understanding of history so inexorably tied to the continued existence of a given heap of bronze that its disappearance would irrevocably wipe your brain of everything you learned in elementary school? Would you really miss them that much?
Yes, the Founding Fathers existed in a different era, and they did lots of genuinely visionary things, and social mores evolve, and so on and so forth. But building a statue of someone is an awfully shoddy method of purporting to recognize their noble accomplishments while simultaneously acknowledging their serious flaws. And as the always-excellent Jamil Smith sagely observed, the earnest hand-wringers frantically bemoaning the impending erasure of this country’s history will no doubt be “thrilled to learn about the existence of books.”
Want to do something that will actually teach future generations something useful about our collective complex past? Replace these statues with a library, or a mini-museum, or a dang Wi-Fi hotspot. Instead of using taxpayer dollars to pressure-wash bird poop every six months, we can present a more nuanced, more honest picture of this country’s history, and allow people to order Seamless afterwards. Everybody wins.
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