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No, renaming schools and removing statues does not “erase history”

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By Michael d’Oliveira

When the news came out that a Virginia elementary school would be renamed after President Barack Obama and no longer after Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, a familiar argument re-emerged: the renaming was “erasing history.”

One Facebook user wrote, “At some point erasing the history and monuments is going to come back and bite you.”

It’s an argument that has been uttered time and time again, especially when local officials somewhere decide to remove Confederate statues or flags from public land or facilities. It’s also an argument that is wrong.

The purpose of statues and monuments is not to teach history. That’s what books, museums, and educational lectures, etc., are for. Pretty much anything teaches history better than a statue because history is often complicated and can’t be summed up with a few pounds of stone or marble. Not even ones with plaques on them tell the whole story. No one stumbles upon a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and suddenly learns everything about the Civil War. No one visits the Iwo Jima Memorial and suddenly learns everything about World War II.

If statues and monuments were imperative to learning about history, Benedict Arnold would be a forgotten figure. There are no monuments bearing his name or likeness. Everyone who knows about Arnold learned about him by reading a history book or some other kind of non-statue way.

Statues and monuments are not about teaching history. Statues and monuments are a direct reflection of the values and priorities of the people who erect them. Confederate statues and monuments were erected because the people who built them venerated the Confederates and the Confederacy. They saw the generals as heroic figures to be idolized. That’s why Abraham Lincoln has such a prominent and large memorial in a very prominent place in Washington, D.C. The Americans who built his memorial wanted to express to the world how much they respected and revered him.

You certainly wouldn’t put up a statue of someone you hate.

In at least one case (and probably many more) the New Orleans Liberty Place monument, before it was removed, had an inscription that read, “United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.”

Unlike many Civil War era statues, which just give a wink and a nod to white supremacy and violent insurrection and treason, the Liberty Place monument, which was erected shortly after the war, comes right out and declares it without leaving any doubt.

Which brings us to why (with few exceptions, such as historic battlefields), these Confederate statues don’t belong on public land: nothing that promotes the subjugation of fellow Americans or human beings in general should be given a place of prominence on public land. If someone wants to fly a Confederate flag or build a Confederate statue on their own property, that’s their right. But seeing Confederate symbols on public property is not a right.

Symbols have a certain amount of power. They can be used as something to rally around, just like all those neo-Nazis rallied around the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville last year. Removing these Confederate statues and monuments is not an effort to erase history. It’s an effort to erase some of the symbolic power of men who were on the wrong side of history.

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