Imagine an ancient culture steeped in the worship of false gods, slave labor, and even human sacrifice to appease those false gods. Would you build a monument to such people?…My rational guess is that you would not. Would you preserve (or at least tolerate) the monuments that such people built during their time?…My rational guess is that you probably would.
In Afghanistan the stately, ancient, irreplaceable statuary known as the Buddhas of Bamiyan was demolished by the Taliban (in 2001) for being “unislamic.” I grieved the senseless loss of world heritage. More recently ISIS gleefully laid waste to the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel in Palmyra, Syria. If we were like the Taliban or ISIS, it would be our duty to level the pyramids of Egypt and of the New World, all built by slave labor at the command of despots who worshipped false gods. Yet those ancient structures are largely intact and in no known danger of demolition. One obvious reason is that most of us (globally speaking) are more tolerant and less self-righteous than the Taliban or ISIS.
I’m compelled to consider Afghanistan and Syria when I see or hear of the purge of Confederate statuary from public grounds throughout the South.¹ Surely the Confederate monuments are revered by some and despised by others. Is this an occasion for the intervention of little “d” democracy and annual elections to decide the fate of all public monuments?…The answer is “certainly not.” Our monuments (or simply public art) in public spaces shouldn’t be left to the whim of the current values of political correctness or to the mob mentality of self-righteous vandals with a rope.
Are there statues of Napoleon in France?…Yes, many statues. Are there statues of Napoleon in Europe outside of France?…None that we know of, though maybe in Corsica. Should France be required to demolish its tributes to Napoleon to appease its offended neighbors?…No, I don’t think so. That is the first “Napoleonic” lesson. The second is how we habitually romanticize both war and lost causes (a/k/a heroic defeat). Consider Gone With The Wind in print and on film for an example of how we romanticize the Civil War even while recognizing its horrors. The two “Napoleonic” lessons amount to the reality that the local hero (who may be a villain to others) gets a statue on the local courthouse lawn.
Does the disgrace of slavery justify the current purge of Confederate monuments?…That’s a tough question. It should be remembered that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slaveholders, as was Robert E. Lee. Those who advocate for a purge of Confederate monuments seem (so far) to forgive the slaveholding Washington and Jefferson while condemning General Lee and his comrades in arms for the same conduct.
While slavery in America cannot be excused, it can be explained. A very small part of the explanation is that Washington, Jefferson and Lee (all Virginians) were men of their place and time and reflected some of the ills of their place and time. I remain astounded by the arrogant (but insouciant) hypocrisy of Jefferson penning “All men are created equal” while holding some of those “equals” in involuntary servitude. Washington, who magnanimously freed his slaves in his will (mighty white of him), had great achievements but was not a great man. Double that for Jefferson who was a known adulterer to boot. The same for Lee, who acquired his slaves by inheritance and by marriage but was known for his cruel treatment of them. History fails to give us enough great men (among the renown) to satisfy our appetite for memorial statues. Memorial statues are part of the residue of our history. The demolition of that residue is the denial of our history and the suppression of its lessons.
Now in Washington, D.C. there is a rather grandiose image of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerging in high relief from a massive block of granite.² Rev. King was certainly a talented orator and motivator. He is to be commended for his adherence to nonviolent protest/civil disobedience. He died a martyr’s death. On the other hand, he was a known serial adulterer who earned his doctorate in theology from Boston University with a substantially plagiarized thesis. These are facts beyond dispute. Some maintain (while others don’t) that the term “serial adulterer” is insufficient to describe Rev. King’s infidelity.
Rev. King likened himself to Moses, leading his people out of bondage, through the wilderness, and to the promised land. He spoke of having been to the mountaintop where he could see the promised land that he (like Moses) would never reach. On the other hand, Rev. King seemed oblivious to the very Law of Moses (Leviticus 20:10) declaring adultery (at least with another man’s wife) punishable by death. Did he repent? It is reported that he enjoyed the company of a woman (not his wife) on the day of his assassination.
While he had great achievements, he was not a great man. The official position of the CLB is that there never was nor ever will be a truly great man who was unfaithful in marriage. Men of renown who fail this test of greatness include FDR, Eisenhower, JFK, and Reagan.³
Would I demolish the MLK Memorial?…Of course not. I would not deface it or damage it, and I would defend it against the malice of others. Why would I do so?…Because Rev. King is revered by a substantial part of the population that I value and respect.
We have too many flawed heroes and too few mobs of the self-righteous to purge all our public spaces of monuments to the unworthy. If the purge is warranted, it can hardly end with agents of the Confederacy. Though it may not be a classic First Amendment issue, there is the Free Speech principle of respect for views that you hold repugnant. While some of the defenders of Confederate statuary hold despicable views, the erasure of part of our national history is a misdirected response.
¹The purge is a phenomenon of the South in that the South is where one may (still) find Confederate monuments.
²Also remarkable in the MLK Memorial is the edited “drum major” inscription which transformed a relatively obscure MLK quote with a dash (no more) of humility into pure braggadocio. I read that the inscription would be “fixed” somehow.
³I would add Bill Clinton to this list but for the fact that there are no known public monuments honoring him.