Statues and Monuments Don’t Celebrate History — They Idealize It
Calls and actions to remove various statues and monuments around the United States this year have sprung from increased protests and advocacy regarding racism and systems of oppression. By contrast, some like President Donald Trump, believe such symbols are sacred and are willing to go to great lengths to protect and preserve them — including recently dispatching National Guard troops to guard those in Washington, DC. This mindset is a fool’s errand, as statues and monuments don’t celebrate and honor history; they idealize it from the perspective of a select few, which is in turn projected on to everyone else.
The backlash against these hunks of shaped stone and metals is long overdue. Legacies fail to age well, particularly those of humans; the most fallible of all species. It’s true nobody is perfect but questioning the appropriateness of immortalizing those who whether in life or afterwards were known to be bad people is not a product of political correctness or “Cancel Culture.” It’s re-examining aspects of our society and determining if they still represent our values and how we want to shape the future.
Consider some of the most divisive of statue and monument subjects. Christopher Columbus (murder/genocide and torture — he literally had the hands cut off of indigenous peoples who did not meet his imposed gold quotas); George Washington (slave owner and all the atrocities that entailed — his famed false teeth may have been made in part by teeth forcibly removed from the mouths of his slaves); Civil War Confederate leaders (slave owners and all the atrocities that entailed, and treason). The list of the problematic canonized goes on and on.
Just because the celebration of these historic figures used to be accepted doesn’t mean they should be now. Just because our understanding of these historic figures has grown over time doesn’t mean that their place in history can’t be adjusted. Just because these historic figures may have accomplished impressive feats or even things that may have brought greater good doesn’t mean it cancels out their bad deeds.
People have railed against these public symbols for years; most typically instructed to not be so sensitive or being warned not to meddle with icons of culture. In a civilized society, things that are seen as so offensive and damaging to some should be seen the same by all. Given the horrible things that these statues and monuments represent, those who don’t see a problem with their continued reverence should take a good hard look at themselves and wonder how they might react if faced with something that was so affronting to themselves and the sphere of their life.
Accepting change is difficult for many of us. A significant number of historical figures and events have been sterilized and molded over the years to create a narrative that fits the “American ideal,” disregarding both the truth and the impact as needed. It is not overacting to want better or to correct the record.
This country has long been comprised of imbalance and inequity. In what is really a very small measure, the push to remove statues and monuments that celebrate those who should not be remembered so fondly, is long overdue. It’s not erasing the truth or the past; it’s illuminating both, which is all anyone who truly cares about history should be concerned about.