(Photo credit Scott Threlkeld/AP)
There is a lot of poor argumentation on the ‘don’t’ side of the debate about removing statues of and memorials to heroes of the confederacy. Two prominent types of this argument are the ‘slippery slope’ argument and the ‘but it’s history!’ argument. The ‘slippery slope’ argument holds that removing the first such memorial is like stepping onto a slippery slope: once we lose our footing on that slope, we’ll slide all the way to the bottom. So, to encapsulate President Trump’s sentiment from his twitter account, removing a stature of General Lee leads inexorably to the removal of statues of George Washington: History is lost. Civilization is destroyed. Sad. Ilya Somin (@IlyaSomin) provides devastating counterpoints to the Trumpian style ‘slippery slope’ argument in the NPR interview here. Really, nothing more needs be said.
In the rest of this post, I want to mention a couple few other things in response to the, ‘but it’s history!’ argument. Currently the ‘but it’s history’ argument is in favor among conservatives opposed to the relocation and contextualization of memorials to prominent leaders of the Confederacy. (Listen at 15:40 of this segment of On Point for an example.) The TL;DR version is: The ‘but it’s history’ argument is a thin veil behind which cultural prejudices run rampant.
There are several points regarding the ‘but it’s history’ argument that I address in rough order. First, I want an explanation of why being history matters: Does ‘being history’ make something sacrosanct? Can we NEVER get rid of ANYTHING that’s history? This is implicit in the argument because the argument stops there, as though being history was a sufficient explanation in and of itself. Further, the, ‘but it’s history’ argument assumes that the history in question is true or correct in some relevant fashion. There is an assumption that, for instance, whoever put up the stature got the history exactly right, and that other people’s understanding of the same history – people who don’t think it’s true or correct – are invalid. I use the term ‘relevant fashion’ above with the understandings that history isn’t just facts about the past (or that facts themselves are simple), that there can be differences among sincere people about what constitutes accuracy, and what the appropriate relevant fashion is.
I also understand that people will vary on which history we should just forget, which we should repudiate, which we should approach with solemn reflection, and which history we should celebrate. The facts – whatever they may be – may not change over time, but perspectives on any piece of history will change over time, and discussions about which history is which are useful to have.
Second, let’s not kid ourselves that these monuments are other than a celebration of the history they represent. Monuments don’t present bare facts. The ‘but it’s history’ pretends they do. The argument has the tacit assumption that these monuments are some sort of *neutral* history devoid of social, political, or cultural significance. This is why adherents to the argument can also pretend that the history is correct, the facts are simple and irrefutable, and removing a monument is an affront to Truth and History themselves.
Third, following in this regard, I’d like to hear as to what the ‘historical’ content of some of these monuments is. That is, in this neutral, bare facts view of history, what historical information does a statue of General Lee give us? Almost none at all. Birth and death dates, name and title, and a rough likeness of the person’s appearance (in a romanticized, celebratory, heroic pose). A statue or monument just doesn’t tell us that much about the past.
Note: this isn’t at all to say that monuments, museum exhibits, and cultural artifacts in general aren’t powerful entities or that visiting them isn’t a powerful experience. It is a powerful experience, largely because these artifacts project a perspective, an interpretation of history, a way of understanding the person being memorialized, and their actions, and the world they helped to shape. This power isn’t strictly speaking historical, though; it’s social and cultural. This, of course, is why museums provide contexts for their exhibits. Museum exhibits typically provide more information, varied interpretations and multiple perspectives of the sort that monuments – pointedly – don’t.
Monuments, it’s worth mentioning, do also tell us something about the people and the times when the monument was erected. This is worth remembering particularly if the monument was erected in a time of social unrest, in which case the monument is likely to endorse the perspective of the groups with social, political, economic, or governmental power at the time. For instance, many monuments to heroes of the Confederacy were conceived and executed as the civil rights movement was getting underway.
Fourth, as just a simple matter of course, we’re not in any real danger of forgetting Lee or Jackson. And, I don’t think too many of the people who want the monuments removed want to forget them. Removal proponents actually want what the ‘but it’s history’ proponents disingenuously claim to want. The question is, do we give these figures – or their heroic likenesses – a prominent and celebrated spot in our city centers and town squares. This is the real issue with these monuments: They don’t present the factual, neutral history that the ‘but it’s history’ argument asserts. Rather they idolize and fawn over the personages memorialized. One should ask if there is a better way and a better place to explore Lee’s unique contributions to American culture than with an honorific statue in a celebrated spot on the public commons? Again, how we want to remember and understand our historic figures is a social and cultural question and I think it’s good to have discussions about which figures and events we honor with our public spaces and public funding. Following this line of thought it’s also worth noting that many times when statues are removed from the town square they aren’t destroyed but are moved to another site that provides further information and interpretation or the relevant history. That is, history isn’t being destroyed; it’s being contextualized. I suggest that many of the people who trumpet the ‘but it’s history’ argument are upset by changing the venue for a stature because they have something at stake in the celebratory, honorific version of history promulgated by these memorials’ heroic likenesses being on prominent display in busy public areas.
One also hears or reads statements like, ‘if you take down the statue of Lee, then you should take down the stature of Martin Luther King.’ I think zero-sum versions of slippery slope arguments like this actually provide support for what I’m saying. For one thing, the ‘but it’s history’ argument falls apart here: If taking down one piece of history is bad, I don’t see how taking down two is any better, except in the eyes of those who enjoy the first and abhor the second. These statements attest that these monuments stare at each other in opposition across a great cultural divide. (Otherwise we might read statements like, ‘if you take down the monument to Lee, then you have to take down the monument to Benjamin Franklin.’) I can’t help but feel people who make the, ‘if you take down X then take down Y’ argument are aligning themselves on one end of this cultural divide, this because of the reasons I mention above – that these monuments are not just neutral history but a perspective on history and historic figures that some people still like and benefit from. I wonder if people who make these comments would support sentiments like, ‘if you keep the stature of Lee up, then you should erect a heroic statue of a noble looking General Sherman in downtown Savannah.’ Because of course Sherman is clearly, irrefutably, undeniably *history* and we don’t want to forget it.
I think moving beyond a sort of tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye, statue-for-a-statue, accusatory mindset is useful. I think abandoning the ‘but it’s history’ argument in favor of defensible positions on why we as a society want to venerate or repudiate any given historic figure is necessary for meaningful progress in this area. We ought to have thoughtful discussions about what we will celebrate in our public spaces, how we’ll remember historic figures, and how the ways we do these things represents us as a society is a much better option than hiding behind hopelessly flawed ‘but it’s history!’ arguments.