Guest Commentary: Removing Monuments — Where Does It End?

By Charlie Gerow

In the aftermath of the Charlottesville tragedy, the debate over monuments to persons in America’s past has elevated to a point where, too often, folks are afraid to discuss for fear that their words will be misunderstood, misconstrued or deliberately distorted.

There’s a legitimate discussion to be had, in civil tones and terms, over which monuments should stay and where they should best be placed.

But the politicization of the subject has caused serious angst. For example, neo-Nazi racists are frequently referred to as “right wingers.” How is it possible to, with a straight face, describe national socialists bent on genocide as “conservatives”?

The conservative movement has loudly denounced these kooks for decades. Racism has no place in conservative thought and socialism has always been the province of the other team.

Hysteria gets whipped up at times when more reflection would do us all better.

So what’s the answer to the emotionally overcharged debate over monuments?

Monuments to Confederate officers have been a difficult subject for a long time. Despite the historically accurate arguments that there were many factors that led to secession, at the core was the defense of chattel slavery of African-Americans.

You simply can’t read the historic documents justifying the birth of the Confederacy and reach a different conclusion.

Slavery was and is a moral blot on our history. The Confederacy fought to protect it and took hundreds of thousands of lives in doing so. Monuments to the leaders of an insurrection is curious.

Robert E. Lee himself didn’t want the monuments. “I think it wiser…not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife…”

Lee, although a slaveholder himself, was opposed to slavery, calling it a “moral and political evil.” He also opposed secession. After the war he did a lot to bring unity back to a fractured nation.

But it can’t be ignored or discounted that, once he chose sides (he was offered command of the Union Army) he chose the rebels.

What place in history, and in granite, marble and bronze, should he and his fellow Confederates be given?

There are four possibilities:

· Leave all the monuments standing where they are as legitimate reflections of our history

· Remove and destroy or warehouse them because they are inappropriate homage to individuals who fought for an evil institution and against the Union

· Remove the monuments from public areas and place them on battlefields or in museums

· Leave the monuments standing but add “context” about who these men were and what they did

The argument for the removal of monuments dedicated to Confederates is strongest. But how far should we go? Remove only those in public places?

The National Park Service has made it clear it intends to leave untouched all of the monuments in Gettysburg National Military Park. The agency’s logic was compelling.

If monuments dedicated to Confederate officers should be removed, relocated or have some “context” added, what’s next?

It’s pretty clear that those who want Confederate monuments removed aren’t going to stop there. They’re after the Founders, too.

Although it seemed far-fetched just a few days ago, there have been calls for the removal of monuments to George Washington, a slaveholder, or renaming sites named in his honor. Ditto with Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

In New York, radicals have demanded the removal of Teddy Roosevelt’s statue. In Philadelphia, they’re after the statue of former mayor Frank Rizzo. They’ve been after Christopher Columbus for a long time.

Where does it end?

What about Woodrow Wilson, who showed the first movie ever seen at The White House, a grotesquely racist film called “The Birth of a Nation.” Or Franklin D. Roosevelt who interred thousands of Japanese-Americans? Justice Hugo Black, a member of the KKK?

How about another Klansman, former Senate Democratic Leader Robert Byrd? There are at least 50 buildings, federal courthouses, hospitals and libraries named after him, in addition to a few statues.

Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has argued against removal. To her the key is to “…keep your history before you..” “When you start wiping out your history; sanitizing your history to make you feel better? It’s a bad thing.”

We should all ask what our true objective is and whether or not the actions we’re promoting will truly accomplish our goals. If monuments are removed, how will that change things?

Tearing apart our history won’t help. Seeking to marginalize the greatness of our Founders by focusing on their human facilities is misguided beyond belief.

We should all begin by listening to Mark Heyer, Heather Heyer’s father. “I include myself in forgiving the guy who did this,” he’s solemnly declared, “I just think about what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.'”

Charlie Gerow is the CEO of Quantum Communications which has a Maryland office in Annapolis. He can be reached at cgerow@quantumcomms.com.

11 comments

  • John Brown's Body

    Oh goodness gracious.

    A bunch of racist traitors tried to destroy the US in order to build a country based on slavery, and the author calls this “the greatness of our Founders.”

    I supposed I should give him full credit for not disguising his agenda.

  • What a nicely and thoughtfully written commentary. Thank you for striking such a balanced and sensitive analysis.

  • Most of the Confederate monuments were put up during the Jim Crow era. They were not monuments to the men involved in the war, they were a part of a historical moment that glorified the old south, defended slavery, and sought vigorously to terrorize blacks into accepting their inferior status.

    Today’s statue removal is part of a new historical movement that rejects the Jim Crow logic that put most of these statues up. How far it goes depends on the historical moment.

    As the commentary alludes to, the U.S. has been a profoundly racist nation until quite recently and we are not completely free of it. We must honestly admit our racist past while at the same time holding on to what was good much as the Germans have had to acknowledge their Nazi past while at the same time attempting to move into a better future.

    • Hi Tim. Do you have any factual basis for these claims you are making about the placement of the statues ? Regardless, is it right to attempt to eliminate a history that occurred ? Just as you cite Germany, so too will I remind you that Germany did not tear down the concentration camps which surely were far more evil than anything that has occurred in the United States. To destroy them would have been – rightfully – met with strong opposition and a chorus of ‘Holocaust denial’. So too, I think the case can be made with regard to any existing statues of historical figures from our past.

      • I favor option 3 which removes these statues from public places and moves them to battlefields and museums.

        The Confederates are part of our history but are not worthy of being honored with taxpayer funds in public places.

        Again they are part of the story and should be acknowledged as being who they were that resulted in more deaths by Americans than any other war in our history to preserve and protect slavery.

      • Hi Tim,
        I’m pretty sure the Civil War was a lot more complicated than just being about slavery, but that said, relocating the statues to a public place where they can remain as a teaching tool. However, if the statues are not being maintained by taxpayers dollars, but instead are maintained by private organizations such as DAR (I don’t know if they do; I’m just using them as an example) then it seems it would be violating their rights to force the removal.

      • Hi Bethesdagal. There’s a good article on the erection of statues here: http://www.npr.org/2017/08/20/544266880/confederate-statues-were-built-to-further-a-white-supremacist-future

        It says in part “The most recent comprehensive study of Confederate statues and monuments across the country was published by the Southern Poverty Law Center last year. A look at this chart shows huge spikes in construction twice during the 20th century: in the early 1900s, and then again in the 1950s and 60s. Both were times of extreme civil rights tension.”

        The defense of white supremacy was a driving force behind their erection.

        As to the concentration camps, the most notorious ones, the ones that have been preserved were in Poland. I don’t know of any in Germany that were presered. Germany did it’s best to erase that part of history.

      • Hi Tim,

        Actually, Germany absolutely DOES HAVE Nazi historical sites, including two of the most notorious – Dachau and Buchenwald – preserved for viewing. They know without learning from history, in its goriest and most horrific of details, it raises the chances of being repeated. The more painful the lesson is the less chance of doing it again.

        See this link: https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/read/articles/sobering-sites-of-nazi-europe

        Thank you for the civil war memorial information. I would need to read information generated by a much more independent source other than NPR or SPLC, both of which are exceedingly propagandist, to believe this interpretation. I’m not saying its categorically inaccurate. I would need to find it elsewhere to have confidence.

  • I think we should be mindful of George Santayana’s aphorism:
    “Those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But we should not honor traitors or anyone who espouses hatred, racial bigotry, ethnic cleansing or any crimes against humanity. It is essential that we educate all so that we never forget and are able to guard against and resist any resurgence of these evils.

  • Bethesdagal,

    I’m a little taken aback that you find NPR “propagandist.” This seems to say more about you than about NPR.

    The information about confederate statues is public knowledge. If you won’t accept any media accounts, here’s a comment by W. Fitzhugh Brundage, who is the William B. Umstead Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/8/18/16165160/confederate-monuments-history-charlottesville-white-supremacy

    Let us acknowledge that the architectural landscapes we have inherited are neither sacred nor unchanging. The timing of the proliferation of the monuments themselves illustrates this point. In the years immediately after the Civil War, North Carolina Confederates understandably mourned their dead, yet the state erected fewer than 30 memorials between 1865 and 1890. Then, during the next half century, they dedicated more than 130.

    It is hardly coincidence that the cluttering of the state’s landscape with Confederate monuments coincided with two major national cultural projects: first, the “reconciliation” of the North and the South, and second, the imposition of Jim Crow and white supremacy in the South. As part of the process of national reconciliation, white Northerners agreed to tolerate the commemoration of Confederates, and they contributed both moral support and funds to the veneration of a few Confederate figures in particular, especially Robert E. Lee.

    • Hi Tim. You’re welcome to your opinion, but I have to disagree. I have listened to NPR for many many years, and while I enjoy a lot of their content, I recognize it for what it is. If one listens to a wide variety of outlets, the spin from any one of them becomes readily apparent. Perhaps your conclusion that my opinion of NPR says more about me, says something about you.
      Regarding the timing of the proliferation of confederate monuments, do you think perhaps the eventual economic recovery after the decimation from the defeat of a war might have just as much, if not more to do with the timing of monument building, as does your theory of the timing coinciding with the “national cultural projects” ? I’m not a historian, by a long shot, but it is very easy to assume causative associations when things are simply correlative. Let’s be honest – this entire flashpoint is a manufactured rallying cry by the left. (as national polling confirms, where most Americans say leave the things alone)
      10 out of 10 people don’t even NOTICE monuments, who they are, or know who they are if they do happen to glance at them. It’s all political kabuki.

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