The Internet has suddenly become full of self-styled statue enthusiasts and historical preservationists. Their specific focus of interest are statues in the public square glorifying Confederates who took up arms against the United States. The flurry of slippery slope, whatabout, and bothsides arguments is almost blinding in its intensity. They conjure up dire images of an Orwellian world where history is erased, forgotten, and repeated.
Taking these arguments at face value, good-natured people seeking a reasonable compromise say, “how about a museum?” This suggestion is mostly ignored. It’s ignored because the wailing about history is a pretext. We have a million books about the Civil War. The statue of a noble-looking Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson in a public place of honor tells you nothing about the men or their times.
These statues are about marking territory. They are about demonstrating who is in control of the public square and promoting their values. These statues mostly cropped up in the Jim Crow South and during the height of the Civil Rights movement. That’s not a coincidence. The people in control were sending a message by venerating this very specific slice of American history; by venerating men whose only notable role in our history was committing treason in defense of slavery. That message will not be communicated if those statues are in a museum, surrounded by information and context that gives perspective to their place in history.
Does this mean we have to take down statues of George Washington? No. Because we still value his contributions to this country. Who is the “we” that gets to decide these things? That’s the real rub, and the real source of anxiety and concern. The “we” who are increasingly leaning toward tearing down monuments to treason are different than the “we” who decided to put them up in the first place. But, mostly the folks who were so powerful in the old “we” can’t say that out loud. So, we get a lot of hand-wringing about historical preservation.