From Baghdad to Belgrade, statues have always come tumbling down. The epitaphs erased and the visages eviscerated. They disappeared to satisfy a new age, the end of a bygone era, often hiding a dark past. Their absence symbolized hope for a brighter future.
In an iconic moment in our own history, upon George Washington’s reading of the Declaration of Independence to his troops, then besieged by British warships on Manhattan, Americans of all colors and creeds joined together to tear down King George III’s statue at Bowling Green park.
The pieces were hacked up and melted down, according to legend, into bullets and cannon balls to use against their British antagonists.
Our forebears have always built up while generations later tore down such tangible and imposing objects, whether deliriously or deliberately erasing the history that came before to make room for the future.
As the great-great-grandson of Union soldiers, I harbor no love or affinity for the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. Its past is not mine, nor is it America’s. The souls that fought and perished in defense of slavery, bigotry, and treachery deserve no esteem. They sinned against God, against man, and against America.
Those that would ask for recognition and respect for their ancestors deserve that much for we all are imperfect, fallen angels – prone to err and arrogance.
I do not hold their sins against them or those that seek to honor them, I just refuse to accord them esteem and the power to shape our future through its past.
That is not to say that we should go around tearing down, uprooting, renaming, and erasing the past to suit our present. Quite the opposite, the slippery slope of judging our forbearers on our own terms – including their monuments – is “problematic.”
It is relativism run amok.
Andrew Jackson committed crimes against American Indians in our modern mind, so off the $20 bill he goes to salve our contemporary consciences. A few bigots turn long-forgotten sculptures into idols, so to the furnace with them all.
And now, in a fervor worthy of the French Revolution’s heyday, Christopher Columbus is himself discovered anew to be a genocidaire unworthy of his likeness appearing in public, let alone atop a platform in middle of the eponymous Columbus Circle in New York City.
Critics of such historical figures should be careful though, for the monuments of the past are not molded in a vacuum – they embody the heroes of our shared past, however cruel or impolitic they now appear. At the same time, we have every right to tear them down as our past is not our present and is certainly not our future.
But we must weigh carefully who we destroy and even more carefully who we build up in their places only to tear down again.
The churn of a free society requires we reflect critically on our past as well our present and decide what we wish to project on to the future generations who will likewise judge our missteps.
Furthermore, history is a winding path and has ways of sparking reaction and reassessment that the self-declared arbiters of the right and just today may find wholly unpalatable. For every radical Robespierre era, there often is a Thermidorian Reaction.
Statues are reflection of esteem and of our own era’s own heroes.
As the late author Joseph Campbell noted, “a hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” Many of those who demand the obliteration of the past’s symbols lack that context and rarely offer up a ready remedy or replacement [hero].
And remember, the story we ourselves are writing is America’s and without heroes, there are only villains.
That is not a past, present, or future we should desire – no matter how much we desire differently.