Question about the tearing down of Confederate monuments
August 16, 2017 8:28 AM   Subscribe

I've got a friend who, like me, fully supports the long overdue dismantling of Confederate mounments across the country - especially after we learned that many of those monuments seem to have a suspicious correlation with Supreme Court decisions that further oppressed black people. She believes that antifa and allied orgs should expand their targets to include Jefferson, Jackson, and the rest of the American Heroes crew that's got an awful lot of blood on their hands. How do I explain to her that this is going to send the wrong message, though?
posted by speedgraphic to Society & Culture (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite gets a lot of views, so adding links to support the SCOTUS correlation would be helpful. Not because I'm arguing, but for any onlookers who are unconvinced.

How to tell her she's wrong? I think broadening the focus would be ineffective at this time. There's a lot of Confederate statues; let's get rid of them 1st.
posted by theora55 at 8:37 AM on August 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

Send the wrong message to who, exactly? The descendants of enslaved people? The descendants of folks who survived the Trail of Tears? People who live every day with the history of American racism bearing down on them and limiting their lives?

I get what you're saying, but I think your only real argument is "it's not politically expedient because it calls too much into question the amount of blood the Founders had on their hands and too many white people can't handle it because it will demand that they confront the country's history of racism in a way they're not ready to do."
posted by bile and syntax at 8:38 AM on August 16, 2017 [25 favorites]

Here is a chart visualizing the timing of the erection of Confederate monuments that's been making the rounds.
posted by lalex at 8:42 AM on August 16, 2017 [6 favorites]

I don't think it' s any more complicated than this:

Monuments to Washington, Jefferson, and other flawed historic figures were erected to commemorate the good things they did, despite them absolutely being guilty of having done wrong to many.

Monuments to the confederacy were erected to for the express purpose of commemorating the awful things done by its leaders and in its name.

This doesn't mean you can't still think a monument to Washington is bad, but trying to draw an equivalence (which is where the instinct of "why not also these too, now?" comes from) is completely misunderstanding the ways these monuments differ.
posted by tocts at 8:47 AM on August 16, 2017 [59 favorites]

The way I'm approaching it right now is that the Confederate statues in question are specifically celebrated *because* of a, let's be honest, treasonous act against the US founded on their belief in the importance of an inherently racist and oppressive system. We would not know these people or have these monuments if not for that specific thing. The statues in question also, by and large, were mass-produced and put up during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras specifically to rally white support around racism and segregation with the myth of the South's "lost cause." So these statues are very specifically problematic and it's hard to find any good excuse to justify them, versus recognizing those people or events in a more critical museum setting.

The arguments about Washington, Jefferson, etc are also problematic - "but look at all the good they did despite owning slaves/overseeing the genocide of Native Americans/etc!" - but the fact remains that unlike the Confederate statues, they are celebrating people primarily known for reasons that are not treasonous or racist, who have been celebrated throughout our history and not just as a reactionary effort to social change. So while that doesn't excuse their problematic histories and actions, it does offer reasoning for why those are maybe worth a separate discussion on a separate timeline. (fwiw, I think places like Monticello that acknowledge both Jefferson's achievements and his problematic ownership and treatment of slaves are important - no need to sugarcoat our history, and I think that's critical to any recognition of our past)
posted by olinerd at 8:48 AM on August 16, 2017 [26 favorites]

The clearest distinction is "who were the enemies of America?" The founders did something positive for America, they founded it at great risk and at great sacrifice. The statues being torn down are of the leaders of a failed rebellion against the United States, and an evil, racist rebellion at that.

(They should be moved to museums or cemeteries, btw, not destroyed, which might help people deal with it. Or, and new statues of modern heroes should be put in their place.)

(Another btw, do we really need all these effigies in granite and bronze all over the place? We have the internet now. These heavy things make it way too difficult to modify the landscape to keep up with our current values.)
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:55 AM on August 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also, a second point:

If you want to argue against monuments to various founders of the U.S., that's fine -- make that argument. However, don't make it in the context of this move against Confederate monuments. Here's why:

When you try to tie monuments to Washington and such into the same discussion of monuments to Lee or Davis, you are vastly minimizing what it was that those latter men did. The argument that "Washington had slaves too" helps to propagate the idea that the only thing the leaders of the Confederacy did wrong was own slaves -- and more to the point, that they weren't in fact a group of people dedicated to enshrining and protecting the institution of slavery to the point where they would rise up against their country to do so.

"Washington had slaves too" obscures the vastly larger sins of the Confederate leaders by downplaying it as them having just been like every other rich guy who owned slaves back in the day.
posted by tocts at 8:58 AM on August 16, 2017 [23 favorites]

I think the important point is that what's important about a monument is not whether the person being honored was a good person by modern standards, but the meaning that the people who put up the monument and continue to honor place on that person.

Jackson would have been a dangerous crackpot even if he weren't also a genocidal racist, but the movement he lead was also critical in establishing the principle that democracy was for all the people, not the wealthy few (even if there was an asterisk on who counted as "all the people"). Jefferson was a hypocrite who kept a literal sex slave, but he was also the earliest, most prominent and most eloquent articulator of the fundamental values of American democracy, values that even lefties who think America has failed to live up to them more often than not still think are important. Monuments were put up to these men to honor their contributions (and sweep their failings under the rug).

On the other hand, Lee and Davis and the other Confederates are honored precisely for their violent defense of slavery. If it hadn't been for the Civil War, Lee's greatest monument would be an entry on the Wikipedia page "List of Commandants of West Point". There have been a lot of attempts to obfuscate this fact, but recent events have (again) made it impossible to deny that the most important function of these monuments was and is to memorialize the principles of and struggle for white supremacy.

So there's one argument you have to have to convince people that tearing down these monuments, but it's an argument that racists are making for us every time they march to defend them. There's a separate argument that you need to make to tear down a statue of Jefferson. Because the statue of Jefferson clearly represents more than Jefferson's hypocrisy, it also represents his ideals, ideals that people still find compelling. You need to argue that we can't possibly honor Jefferson's ideals and his role in our history without condoning his hypocrisy, which is an argument that even I, as an activist lefty, feel ambivalent about. And you have to deal with the fact that many will always see any attack on Jefferson the man as an attack on Jefferson's ideals and all of the people who have believed in them.

If you want to make that argument, more power to you, but as a matter of activist strategy, linking that argument to the argument against Confederate monuments is just likely to get a lot more people to implicitly support Confederate monuments because they disagree with your broader argument.
posted by firechicago at 9:16 AM on August 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented 1,503 Confederate place names and other symbols in public spaces, both in the South and across the nation. Focus on those, because as tocts pointed out, Confederate leaders have/had vastly larger sins.

(From there, my suggestion would be to update older monuments with more historical context and criticism, and increase the diversity of monuments and plaques.)
posted by filthy light thief at 9:17 AM on August 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Tell her that Trump made the exact same comparison (between statues of Washington/Jefferson and Confederate generals)-- and if she wants to validate him, and join him in minimizing the crimes of the Condederacy, she should go right ahead.
posted by Pallas Athena at 9:26 AM on August 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

The statue of Jefferson at the amazing National Museum of African American History and Culture (a place every American should visit) features him standing in front of a wall of bricks, each bearing the name of the many many slaves he owned. (the sign in front says unambiguously: the paradox of liberty).

There are opportunities to improve the context in which we represent the founders, but there are no excuses for glorifying traitors.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 9:38 AM on August 16, 2017 [10 favorites]

I think your friend is right. America was built on bloodshed and genocide. It's a colonial country, don't forget. How do the colonized feel about these statues?

"Sends the wrong message" sounds like 'concern trolling' to me. Like you agree with your friend, but you think people on the other side might disagree, and you are concerned about them. You can't legit take this position. You can say you agree with her, or that you actually like the statues and don't want them to go down and don't have a problem with the way the country was founded. The latter may put you on shaky moral ground which I am afraid you will have to either own or abandon if you want to do this with integrity.
posted by PercussivePaul at 9:41 AM on August 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

So, Yale recently went through an extended debate about whether it should rename Calhoun College, named for John Calhoun, an extremely prominent advocate of slavery. It finally reversed itself and (appropriately) decided to rename it (to Grace Hopper College, yay!). It articulated a set of principles to apply when considering removing an honor--which is what a monument is. One of them was the degree to which the person's historical prominence is due to the person's advocacy of morally repugnant principles, and another the degree to which those principles were contested in that person's lifetime. People like Lee owe their prominence to their violent defense of a genocidal institution that was so hotly contested in its day it led to the U.S.'s only civil war. Without excusing the slaveholding founding fathers, they made other major contributions to our democracy for which they are rightly remembered, and, while slaveholding was not universally considered morally unobjectionable at the end of the 18th century, the federal government had not yet lined itself up against it.
posted by praemunire at 9:51 AM on August 16, 2017 [18 favorites]

I think this'll help: "Fact Check: Whatabout Those Other Historical Figures?
posted by Miko at 1:26 PM on August 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

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