The world’s monumental problem
As long as people have carved likenesses in stone, they’ve occasionally done so to honor people they thought worth remembering.
As long as there have been people who disagreed with the people so honored, they have occasionally pulled the statues down.
This is a thing. People fall out of public favor and the public pulls down their monuments. This is not new.
The problem is, this is pretty much always a visceral response and little thought goes into visceral responses. Thus, you end up with the statue of King Robert the Bruce in Scotland defaced with grafitti proclaiming him a “racist king.” In truth, it’s an open question whether the 14th-century ruler ever saw a nonwhite person. On the other end of the island of Great Britain, the statues of Sir Winston Churchill and Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the worldwide Scouting movement, are in jeopardy.
As I said, the urge to pull down monuments is most-often visceral and has little to do with common sense. However, the same can be said with the urge to preserve them. Common sense should dictate a simple litmus test for whether a monument stays or goes.
The current iconoclastic push would extract a du jour moral purity from the person being honored. The problem with that is that standards of morality are in constant flux and often have little to do with any objective notion of “right” and “wrong.” But beyond that is the objective reality that all people are flawed. Indeed, if having monuments only to the morally pure would leave only Jesus Christ so depicted and, I dare say, there are a great many statue-pullers who would have a problem even with that.
So, recognizing that the morally pure person does not currently exist, what should be the standard, then? I say it’s simple: The person so honored has to have advanced and/or improved his or her society in some significant way. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and, indeed, likely raped at least one. However, he also wrote the founding document of American values, even penning the very words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” He also, as president, doubled the size of the United States with a shrewd land deal. George Washington owned slaves. However, he also led the fight for U.S. independence, presided over the drafting of the Constitution and laid the very foundation of the presidency.
Across the sea, Robert the Bruce freed his country from English rule; indeed, it would never be ruled from London again until a Scottish king sat on the English throne. Robert Baden-Powell, while he led troops in colonial wars of subjugation, also founded an international youth brotherhood with the creed “Do a good turn daily.” Sir Winston Churchill held (by contemporary standards) very cringeworthy views on nonwhite people. However, he also successfully defended his country from fascist tyranny.
Now, contrast this with Confederate monuments. The majority were not even erected to honor the southern dead but went up during Reconstruction and “Jim Crow” to intimidate black southerners. And rather than honoring the memory of someone who advanced or improved the society, they depict people who fought and killed to rip it apart.
The litmus test is very simple and there really shouldn’t be any controversy if we just employ our heads at least as frequently as we do our guts.