Let’s erect monuments to the best among us
In the mid-’90s, after the Soviet Union collapsed, I went to an old park in Moscow where the Russians had deposited pieces of the monuments of the “great” communist leaders that had been knocked down.
I have pictures of myself mocking Lenin, questioning Karl Marx about economics and raising a pathetic little fist against Stalin!
But destruction of the past always goes many ways. When the great Buddha of Bamiyan in Afghanistan was blown up in 2001 by the Taliban, I was nearly moved to tears. And when ISIS destroyed part of beautiful Palmyra in Syria, a piece of my heart broke.
Of course, the communists were savages who destroyed millions of their people, while the Buddha was the vision of peacefulness in the world, and Palmyra was the center of a great and complicated empire. Nevertheless, destruction of the past is a tricky business.
So after the vicious street fights in Charlottesville, Virginia, when I delved into the newest national debate -- the question of whether Confederate monuments and statues should be taken down -- I was not surprised to find various strains of history that I, at least, had known little about.
Who knew that a great number of the statues of Confederate generals were put up not immediately after the Civil War, but between 1890 and 1920, and then again mid-20th century? Who knew that most of the Confederate statues were raised as a kind of appendage to Jim Crow and that they were meant to monumentalize the losses of the South until the day came when the Union would, yes indeed, be finally defeated? I certainly did not. “In the 1890s, as the Confederacy was coming to be idealized as the so-called Lost Cause and the Jim Crow system was being fastened upon the South, and in the 1920s, the height of black disenfranchisement, segregation and lynching,” Columbia University professor of history Eric Foner wrote recently in a New York Times editorial column, “the statues were part of the legitimation of this racist regime and of an exclusionary definition of America.”
But it becomes more tricky, as one digs deeper, to use the morals of our age to judge the men and women of an earlier and very different one.
In Baltimore, for instance, the statue of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney has come down after 144 years. Yet Taney, who wrote the hated pro-slavery Dred Scott decision in 1857, had personally freed all of his own slaves.
So we have to ask: Where in our parks and city halls are statues of the scores of brave black lawmakers who, during Reconstruction, were U.S. senators, civil servants and school board officials? Where are the white people of the South who worked with them, struggling to make Reconstruction work?
Thus, I come out tentatively as a supporter of the “build it up” side, which in effect is the idea of taking down statues memorializing utterly egregious individuals and moving others to museums, cemeteries and foundation grounds -- but also constructing new monuments to our best and most creative.
For I fear, as the wise writer Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal last week, that, “When a nation tears down its statues, it’s toppling more than brass and marble. It is in a way toppling itself -- tearing down all the things, good, bad and inadequate, that made it ...” She ends with: “More statues, not fewer; more honor, not more debris. More debris is the last thing we need.”
Meanwhile, I am hushed and amused by a story attendant upon these questions. Somewhere along the way, people realized that there was something namelessly similar, something jarring, about the Confederate soldier statues (“silent sentinels,” they called them) and the Union soldier statues -- depictions of foot soldiers, not the generals and captains who led them -- erected across both the South and the North.
And in fact, there was. In fact, they were identical! The Monumental Bronze Co. of Bridgeport, Connecticut, knew a good thing when they saw it. They sold their one statue of an American soldier -- no discrimination there, friends! -- to both North and South.
I found this rather comforting. Because, as in all wars, the poor average trooper, the poor Joe or Rhett or Willie on either side, is very much the same. So by all means, let their statues stand! They symbolize to us our common, suffering humanity.
Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.
Georgie Anne Geyer