I’ve been asked to say some things about statues, and why, presumably, we should or shouldn’t topple them. In some ways, the answer is quite simple, but, as always, things are more complex than they seem. I’ll attempt to tease out some of that complexity here.
It is unquestionably clear that statues of evil people should be toppled. On this, I believe everyone agrees. For example, I clearly remember the conclusion of the Iraq war, when a generation of jubilant Iraqis gathered to topple the statue of Saddam Hussein, symbol of their oppression and despair. I remember the fall of Gaddafi and the destruction of images of his power, whose insane reign terrorized Libya for a generation. I even remember the tumultuous years from 1989-1991, with the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the fall of communism, and the undoing of those symbols of Soviet power and civic authority. I’ve seen my share of statues and symbols fall—and each time I agreed with those who wanted it toppled. In each of these cases, a visible symbol of oppression and terror—a manifestation of government control and power—was unmade as a new era came into being. Nobody in Iraq, Libya, or Berlin is longing for a return of these oppressive images. Nobody believes that their removal is an erasure of history.
What we must keep in mind, of course, is that every statue is a form of propaganda. Don’t hear ‘propaganda’ and automatically assume bad things—governments need to disseminate information, and they have a vested interest in forming the opinion of citizenry. World Wars I and II were heavily influenced by government propaganda which directly impacted the morale and hope of average Americans, Britons, and other allies. A modern statue, then, is a form of propaganda—it embodies a civic narrative. Its highly visible presence in a public square declares to all citizenry who view it that “this is good and worthy,” this person deserves to be memorialized by the state. He or she is axiomatic. Be like him or her.
The catch, of course, is that just because a government says something doesn’t mean that it’s true. Governments, of course, are not neutral producers of public art. Giant Soviet public sculptures were intended to say something about what it meant to be Russian, about the everlastingness of the United Soviet Socialists Republic. They remain now as ironic testaments to its failure and collapse. In America, it is the donations of individuals and foundations that often generate public art, rather than the impetus of a specific government narrative. Statues, in other words, often reveal their propagandic purpose by means of a money trail. Who paid for it tells us a great deal about why it’s there.Take, for example, the statue of Christopher Columbus in St. Paul, Minnesota, recently toppled by protestors.The protestors see in Columbus a figure of questionable historical value, an oppressor whose image reinforces a wicked American narrative. Ironically, the statue itself was designed by Italian-American immigrants, and represents the acceptance of Italians into the American mainstream. It is, in other words, highly pro-immigrant. The narrative of the protestors, in other words, is at odds with the narrative of why the statue exists.
On the other hand, I struggle to imagine why there should be a public statue of Jefferson Davis anywhere—least of all in the South. Davis, president of the Confederacy, was the emblem of the losing side. He, and his policies, were and are anathematic to modern American identity. States may not own slaves. States may not secede from the union (under the guise of States’ rights) so that they may continue to own slaves. To these basic considerations may be added the provenance of a given statue’s creation. The one made for the Jefferson Memorial in Louisiana was, apparently, erected in 1911, for a “whites only” audience, which sang Dixie, and commemorated the 50th anniversary of Davis’s inauguration as president of the Confederacy. Clearly, the provenance of this statue is problematic—not only is it anti-American (as in, anti-Union), its proponents were explicitly anti-Black. This seems to me plenty of warrant to see it removed—which it was, by protestors, in 2017. In this case, to remove the statue is not to remove ‘history,’ per se, but rather the removal of bad history. Those who argue that removing statues is to erase history might too quickly forget that the statues themselves have a history.
Assuming, then, that we all agree statues of evil people—public symbols of oppression—should be removed, what are we to do with the statues of figures like Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Cecil Rhodes, and Theodore Roosevelt? It would seem to be a simple solution (too simple, I am afraid), to address each statue in a case-by-case basis. We need to know who the person was, what he or she did, who built the statue and when, and, very importantly, who paid for it. Once we’ve gathered the relevant information, we can make an educated decision on the value of a given civic statue and its ongoing function as public propaganda.
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JUNE 10: A statue depicting Christopher Columbus is seen with its head removed at Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park on June 10, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts. The statue was beheaded overnight and is scheduled to be removed by the City of Boston. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)
But as I said, this solution might be too simple. Peter Drucker in his classic book The Effective Executive, writes about recognizing the difference between ad hoc decisions and generic decisions. Ad hoc decisions are those that are truly case by case, with no overarching implications, while generic decisions have to rely on an underlying principle or rule. A serious danger in executive decision making is the fact that “the incomplete explanation is often more dangerous than the totally wrong explanation.” In the case of statues, the individual character of the figure in question may be evaluated on a case-by-case basis; the real, underlying problem is one of a contest between civic narratives.
Let me try to make this clear: when it comes to statues, beneath the question of the individual who is represented there is a question of what narrative he represents. One narrative, the traditional one, regards these individuals as valuable, significant, and historically important. This is often why statues are defended on the grounds of ‘preserving history.’ The other narrative regards these figures as oppressors, wicked emblems of an ongoing plight. This, in turn, is why they consider them emblems of what is sometimes called ‘systemic racism.’ The conflicting narratives in turn produce conflicting accounts of morality. What is ‘good’ within one narrative may be ‘evil’ from within the new narrative. From one perspective, therefore, it is not at all clear that George Washington is as evil as Hitler, or that Christopher Columbus is as evil as Gaddafi. In brief, depending on our operative narrative, we likely don’t agree on what qualifies as ‘evil.’
The removal of the George Washington statue in Portland a few weeks ago makes this question of civic narrative explicit. Images of the statue, hurled to the ground, clearly display the spray-painted numbers 1619. If you don’t know, the “1619 Project” was a series produced by the New York Times which attempted to re-tell the narrative of American history with specific reference to the role of slavery in its foundation (1619 is the first year slaves arrived in Virginia). The narrative implications are fairly clear: to continue to lionize a figure like Washington is to perpetuate a civic narrative that is emblematic of an ideology of oppression. The problem isn’t Washington, it’s the American civic narrative itself. From within this new narrative, figures like Washington, Jefferson, and even U.S. Grant are objectively bad guys. If we accept this argument fully then it follows that they are as bad as the Nazis and the Communists—worthy of erasure from the historical record. It is important to hear that behind the argument that these statues represent “systemic racism” lies a counter-narrative to American identity, and that behind the argument to “protect history” lies a defense of the traditional civic narrative. What is really at stake is a question of what it means to be American.
Here things get really complex. Governments have the right to propagate narratives of identity, to lionize certain figures and to minimize others. States where the citizenry have the power to select these figures have no less narrative power. At the same time, in most modern states citizenry have the right to critique those narratives. That is, in fact, the very business of history. Where those figures show ugliness (e.g., Washington’s slave ownership, Grant’s alcoholism), we should mark that ugliness appropriately. But we must also weigh that ugliness against the person’s historic value, civic value, and in light of his or her own time. It is exceptionally ironic when a given critique criticizes the power that allows them to critique. In other words, it is absurd for Americans to utilize the American tradition which was founded by Washington, Jefferson, and other Enlightenment thinkers—a tradition that enshrined free speech and public assembly in its constitution—to attempt to undo the legacy of the very figures who guaranteed those rights. To describe this as short-sighted would be generous.
Many of the people toppling statues today, however, see themselves as revolutionaries, and it is worth remembering that revolutions feasts on symbols—they can gather, unite, and typify the message of the revolutionary. But revolutions rarely generate their own symbols—they leech, parasitically, power from existing symbols. They piggyback on existing power, attempting to hijack its prominence for their own message. Adherents to the French Revolution attempted to replace the church with the “cult of reason.” For this, they desecrated Notre Dame, and in its place elevated a local prostitute now dressed in the robes of reason. The new symbol sought to borrow from the significance and power of the old, while at the same time denigrating it.
Complicating this situation, mobs and revolutions thrive on black and white distinctions. We are all good while our enemies are all bad. Everything we want is right, while everything our enemies want is wrong. Our heroes are perfect, while the heroes of our opponents are literally Hitler. This absolutist approach to good and evil fuels situations like cancel culture, where a given public individual, found guilty of a thought-crime, finds himself or herself ‘cancelled’—Kevin Spacey, J.K. Rowling, Bill Cosby, etc. Their shows and books are removed because of the character flaws (real or perceived) in the person. It is, in its own way, another form of statue removal. Of course, the standards of judgment are erratic, and grace is rare. Martin Luther King Jr. keeps his statues despite being, in his private moral life, a pretty terrible person. His ‘goods’ are weighed against his ‘bads’ and he is allowed to remain. In brief, his goods match whatever is ‘good’ in the new narrative. No such evaluation—or grace—is extended to a George Washington.
But what is the ‘new narrative’ that powers these revolutionary impulses? What is to replace the traditional narrative? For some, there is no narrative but anarchy. A deep anger is manifesting itself in a hatred of all traditional sources of authority and power. At other times, the narrative looks a great deal like Marxism. To be clear, Marxism here means a way of interpreting the data of the world by means of certain ready-made categories. The Bourgeoisie against the Proletariat, the haves against the have-nots, the privileged against the oppressed. The problem isn’t in identifying disparity and saying that it exists and needs to be addressed. The problem, rather, is in the way that the disparity reduces complexity to simplicity. Individual cases don’t need to be addressed; if they fit the class, they are guilty by association. In turn—and this is a cruel feature of Marxist societies—a sense of shared victimhood provides identity for the oppressed class. (This is a process called ‘othering.’ I write about it more here.)
To make these matters worse, the Marxist narrative—in every place where it has been tried in the 20th century—has revealed a highly utilitarian approach to the truth. Words are tools to achieve ends, and promises are irrelevant—only the revolution matters. Action matters! Policy can be adjusted to match the truth later. Mao, Pol Pot, Stalin, Castro—each was a virtual case study in prevarication. P.D. Ouspensky, who witnessed the Russian Revolution of 1917, wrote of the Bolsheviks and their empty promises of peace. He diagnosed the hollowness of their words as follows: “They had no intention of meeting their promissory notes, therefore they could issue as many of them as they liked. This was their chief disadvantage and chief strength.” The revolutionary who does not care about the truth can say what he likes—it is the ends that matter, and only the ends that matter.
So, where does this leave us? Hopefully with one set of actions, and one real debate. The actions are to evaluate each statue by its own merits. This will take patience, investigation, a real commitment to history, and a commitment to honesty on both sides. If it can be shown that a statue was raised for wicked purposes, to reinforce bad narratives (i.e., to reinforce Jim Crow laws in the south), it seems to me that the statue should be removed. (And, for what it’s worth, I’d like to see cities put forth public hearings on a given statue, and then put it to the vote. That’s the most American response there is.)
And yet the deeper and more important debate is to query what is to happen to the tradition of the West. Will it survive, warts and all, with a fresh commitment to its core values of liberty and justice? Or will it be toppled by a mob that want something far more dangerous and destructive—either unbridled and undisciplined power, or an ideology inimical to the foundation of Western freedom. The choice, quite literally, is ours.