Someone at work asked me for my thoughts in response to a really good article by Joseph McGill entitled "We Must Teach Our Ugly Past, Not Erase It." In case you're interested, here's my response:
Thank you for sending me "We Must Teach Our Ugly Past, Not Erase It." You weren't expecting a short response, were you? I can't respond in short.
Lest I seem unwilling to take a side, though, my core reaction to the events taking place where communities or city or state governments are deciding to take down statues is that one should allow those local and state bodies to make these decisions. If the democratically-elected city council of Charlottesville decides that a statue of Robert E. Lee is no longer a fitting memorial in their town, those who don't live and vote there should respect their decision. I feel the same way with Baltimore, where four statues were taken down very quickly after the Charlottesville incident, but done so at the behest of a mayor and city council who had already voted to do so. There are many who argue that if these towns are allowed to do it, then statues will be coming down everywhere. I guess I just don't see it that way. What Charlottesville does has no bearing on the statues at the Gettysburg Battlefield.
Back to the article: It's hard not to think long and hard over the dilemma of taking down statues. I'm a history lover. I lived in Gettysburg for four years. I chose for a living a job that has me teaching our past and our present, topics filled with many ugly episodes. And then this summer I spent time looking deeply at how we and the others involved in World War II memorialized those who fought and died over there.
One thing that has struck me is how Americans have a great gift of land and space, and that allows us to, well, put up lots of statues. I know that may sound silly. But I must consider how in the summer of 1863 the residents of Gettysburg knew, immediately, that what had happened there was monumental and that at some point the land would have to be set aside and left sacred. How many farmers lost their farms as we did so? Quite a few. And I'm not suggesting that they were upset to do so. But there was always more land for them to farm, and for their kids to farm. So if thousands of acres are set aside, and if dozens upon dozens of states and regiments want to erect monuments, they can do so. We treated dozens of other battlefields this way. And we don't just do this with monuments to battle, but with monuments to great beauty (the National Parks) and many other spots we wish to sanctify. Quite simply, we have the land to conserve quite a bit. It's a real gift for us as a people.
I contrast this with Omaha Beach, where campers stay in RVs right atop the draw from which our soldiers exited, and where boaters put in their craft as the tide rises, using a tractor to drive their boat across the beach where our soldiers fought. The land there is more scarce, so how they use it to memorialize victims is a more precious decision.
The single most moving place I visited on that trip was a cemetery for German soldiers in France. It wasn't very big. Certainly wasn't very celebratory. But it honored young men who died in a horrific war. And it left me wondering what I would be thinking if I was a parent burying a son who had fought and died for a cause that all the world later considered evil. I don't know if there are words to comfort such a parent. In some ways, that German cemetery resonates with me more than does the nearby American cemetery, which is a much more celebratory space.
By the way, have you ever heard of the stumbling stones in Germany? They strike me as one of the most powerful ways to memorialize Holocaust victims. Oh, and did you know there have been attempts to do something similar with the victims of lynchings in the U.S.? It's for these reasons that I love Joseph McGill's work with the Slave Dwelling Project.
It seems like societies are on firmer footing when they honor the individuals lost rather than the individual who led.
The erection of statues is a significant act. They represent how we try to celebrate virtue from the past, and our definition of virtuous changes over time. The taking down of statues is also a significant act, at the same time celebratory for many but painful for others. That's true if it's of Lee, or Lenin, or Hussein, or Paterno.
At our first department meeting, I shared with the department a quotation that might help center conversations with students. It's from Tacitus, a Roman historian: “This I hold to be the chief office of history, to rescue virtuous actions from the oblivion to which a want of records would consign them, and that men should feel a dread of being considered infamous in the opinions of posterity, from their depraved expressions and base actions.” Whenever we are erecting or removing statues, we are engaging in the work of history. And when we see a community doing something we wish they weren't, or if a community isn't doing something we wish they were, it should force us to ask us what actions we want remembered and what we don't.
I warned you my response would be long. Thank you for giving me a chance to respond to McGill's article. It's a good read.