The concept of equality is as important to America's self-conception as it is confusing. What sort of equality?
A large hunk of metal in the shape of a human occupies a public space—maybe a park.
Thousands of statues around the United States and world fit this description. Many depict people who have done hideously immoral things. Almost all depict morally imperfect people (with baby statues, perhaps, being the exception).
It’s intuitive, I think, that some statues should be left in place and some should be torn down. This statue of Victor Hugo should stay, in order to commemorate the man and his great works; the Hitler statue whose remains are captured here, however, deserved destruction.
But what principles determine which statues should be torn down? More specifically, what principles determine the morality of statue preservation?
The occasion for this blog is this past weekend’s events in Charlottesville, VA, along with its aftermath in public discourse. I can’t, of course, enumerate all principles pertinent to the preservation of public statues, but I want to make a point that might inject more clarity into our national polemic.
The outlines of the weekend’s events are well known but worth rehashing. White supremacists—white nationalists, neo-Nazis, alt-Right, and KKK—gathered Friday night and Saturday to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from what was Lee Park and is now Emancipation Park. The supposed rationale for the protests was the preservation of “heritage” and “history.” But swastikas and chants such as “Jews will not replace us!” revealed the protestors’ underlying racism.
Many counter-protestors gathered on Saturday to fight that racism. Sundry scuffles broke out. But the horrific violence was when one of the racists, James Fields, rammed a car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one, Heather Heyer, and seriously injuring nineteen others.
President* Trump’s responses were deplorable (* = lost the popular vote). On Saturday, he condemned violence “on many sides” without a mention of racism. On Monday, he finally condemned the racist elements of the protest in a wooden, scripted performance that left many questioning its sincerity.
Then, in a disorderly press conference in Trump Tower on Tuesday, he defended the preservation of the statues of Confederate leaders, such as the Lee statue.
For present purposes, one moment in that Tuesday press conference deserves intellectual scrutiny. In defending the “very fine people” who were protesting the removal of the “very important statue,” Trump argued:
George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So, will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down — excuse me — are we going to take down — are we going to take down statues to George Washington? (CROSSTALK) How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? (CROSSTALK) OK. Good. Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue?
Trump probably meant these questions rhetorically, as an attempted reductio of the removal of the Lee statue. His intended argument seems to go like this: Any reason to remove the Lee statue would also be a reason to remove statues of Washington or Jefferson. After all, Lee’s moral turpitude had to do with slavery, and Washington and Jefferson owned slaves. But removing statues of Washington and Jefferson would be absurd. So the supposed reasons for removing Lee can’t be any good. (Or something like that.)
The widespread reaction to this argument has been to loudly denounce the idea that there is a “moral equivalency” between, say, Jefferson and Lee—and then to move on. But I think we should do better. If the morality of preserving a statue were simply a function of whether the person portrayed had ever done morally despicable things, then the Jefferson statues probably should come down (regardless of whether or not his immoral deeds were “equivalent” to those of Lee). Jefferson did own slaves.
Furthermore, if we treat Trump’s question as genuine, as opposed rhetorical, it becomes a special case of the general question with which I started: which statues should be torn down? And how we answer this question has tremendous implications, since there are so many statues. Can we do better than just assigning degrees of moral turpitude, with Jefferson the man falling above some arbitrary threshold and Lee falling below?
I think we can. Public monuments don’t just commemorate people; they also commemorate actions. In contexts such as public parks, they symbolize approval either (i) of the action depicted by the statue or (ii) of the action or deeds for which the person is or was famous. This statue, to take an arbitrary example, doesn’t just commemorate B. B. King; it celebrates his guitar playing. Public monuments declare (albeit nebulously), “Yes, more stuff like that!”—where that is an action type.
Hence the difference between Lee and Jefferson statues is not merely a matter of moral degree but in moral kind. The action represented in the Lee statues, characteristically, is leading the Confederate Army, which existed to defend slavery. Jefferson statues commemorate the action of writing the Declaration of Independence, among other acts of statecraft. Only the Lee action in this case is morally base. Insofar as the statue commemorating that action declares more like that!, the statue should be removed.
We can make this point even clearer with a pair of hypotheticals.
Suppose we found somewhere a statue of Jefferson chaining one of his slaves. Should we remove it? Absolutely. Why? Because it would commemorate the wrong action.
On the hand, suppose the Charlottesville City Council decided to replace Lee on a horse with a different Lee statue: a grandiose rendering of Robert E. Lee, Confederate General, as he signs the surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Whether or not Lee was overall a bad person, the action depicted in a Lee statue like that would be worth celebrating.
Under that circumstance, I would even support keeping his name on the park.