“It’s not a choice of who is telling one or the other. I don’t see them as separate stories. You can’t tell the story of civil rights without mentioning the tragedy of Reconstruction. This is our history. We just have to be honest.”
— Karlos Hill, chairman of the African and African-American Studies Department, University of Oklahoma
A couple of years ago, the president gave a speech in which he wondered out loud where the tearing down of statues would end. Washington and Jefferson were men of their times. Would their statues be torn down, too? Where would this end, the erasing of American history?
John Oliver, that card, jumped on the question. Where would it end? “Somewhere!” he shouted to his adoring audience. It would end (expletive deleted) somewhere, just as you allow your daughter to eat Twizzlers but you don’t let her have black tar heroin.
You see, not everything is a slippery slope.
Except it turns out the president was right.
Last week, a group of protesters in Portland, Ore., surrounded a statue of George Washington, lit a fire on its head, and then tore it down, Saddam Hussein-style. Somebody spray-painted “Genocidal Colonist” on it.
On the other side of the continent, the New York City Council is pushing to remove a statue of Thomas Jefferson from City Hall. Thus goes the father of the country — first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen — and the writer of the Declaration of Independence. The mob has demanded they be canceled.
Both men owned slaves. Both were men of their time, and certainly had different thoughts about race and paternalism and native Americans and even the pecking order between the sexes.
But what makes them, and all Founders, so special is that they were men of their time — used to being ruled by a monarch, used to being taxed without representation, used to having a standing army live among them, yet they decided to create an experiment in democracy. And also to create the U.S. Constitution — “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” (William Ewart Gladstone)
It’s history. And not like the kids use the phrase: that it’s finished or no longer useful. It’s history to see these statues, and talk about the greatness, and flaws, of those who are honored in marble.
And it’s not just men of the 18th and early 19th centuries who need to be canceled, according to the new Committee of Public Safety (with branches everywhere). Several officials, including the mayor of New York City, announced this week that they’ll remove a statue of Theodore Roosevelt from the American Museum of Natural History.
We can imagine what Teddy Roosevelt would say about that. He rarely admitted to being wrong in this life, and perhaps the afterlife. But he must’ve had thoughts about any number of things that wouldn’t be copacetic today, being born in 1858 and all. So off with his head. Or at least his statue.
There is a Change.org petition calling for the removal of another statue in the United Kingdom — this one of Mahatma Gandhi. The petition calls him a fascist.
(You know, when the term fascist is tossed around so loosely, it’s going to lose its sting. And that would very much put a dent in history.)
On these shores, this all started a few years back with statues of Confederate soldiers and generals. And we were all assured that there would be no slope to slip on. Because the national mood is turning. There is already a bipartisan effort in Washington to rename bases named after (sometimes weak and ineffective) Confederate generals. Polls show most Americans agree that Union bases and forts should be named after Union soldiers. But that doesn’t seem to be enough.
Sunday’s front-page story in the Democrat-Gazette quoted historians of many backgrounds on this subject, including Professor Hill above. Some made more sense (such as Professor Hill) than others. For example of the latter, we take a comment by Nina Silber, a professor of history at Boston University. She told our reporter that some people think monuments reflect different perspectives, sometimes black or white: “The problem, though, is that gives a certain legitimacy to the history behind the Confederate monuments which was, in fact, a totally false version of history.”
A false version of history.
We don’t know the false version of history to which she refers. History is based on facts. You may like or dislike facts, but nobody gets to choose their own. (Moynihan, D.P.) The fact is, people erected these statues at one point in our history. People can, and often do, draw their own conclusions from the fact that these statues exist.
But we can’t stop teaching history because somebody thinks one chapter isn’t legit. We can’t stop teaching the history of slavery, genocide across the globe, war and rumors of war, or much of what’s in the history books. If we did, there’d be little to teach in history classes. Mankind is a fallen creature.
But the march goes on, as the crowd signals its many virtues. And sometimes its stunning ignorance.
Late last week, protesters in Washington D.C., tore down a statue of Albert Pike, and set it on fire. We’ve mentioned Washington and Jefferson. But how explain people in San Francisco tearing down a statue of U.S. Grant?
Gen. Grant, for those who don’t study history, led the Union Army to victory during the Civil War, after a string of Union generals failed to do so. He hated the idea of slavery, even though he married into a family that owned slaves. He won the Civil War, became president, took on the KKK, pushed through the 15th Amendment, and appointed black and Jewish folks to federal offices, which was rare at the time. But for being a man of his time, he’s canceled.
In the last week, protesters tore down a statue of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And the mayor of Columbus, Ohio, has announced the state plans to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus.
For some reason, a carried-away crowd in Boston, where presumably some people take history at Boston U., swarmed Boston Common and damaged the 54th Regiment Memorial, which honors African American soldiers who fought during the Civil War. The mob has begun to eat its children.
What’s next on this slope? Tearing down a statue of Winston Churchill in London?
That story can be found here: arkansasonline.com/623statue/