Let’s erect mon­u­ments to the best among us

Walker County Messenger - - Front Page -

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

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