Updated: Jul 1, 2020
In recent “peaceful demonstrations” the memorial in Boston Commons to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment; a monument to Ulysses S. Grant in San Francisco’s Golden State Park; and a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in front of the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC were intentionally defaced. So, the man who faced down colonial rule, the man who was physically responsible for freeing nearly 4 million men, women and Children, and the man who fought for and led one the few African American regiments in the Civil War and died by their side at Fort Wagner have been assaulted in the latest effort to right the wrongs of history. I am sick and tired of morons, who failed grade school history, deciding what monuments to our past should be saved or destroyed.
Clearly, given the recent turn of events, it is time to review our public commemoratives, and I fully agree, there are many that need to come down. However, these decisions are not as clear-cut as the mob is making them out to be. Careful criteria needs to be developed by scholars, historians and political leaders, that fairly weigh the contributions of the individual to history, culture and society. Many did things which seem abhorrent in our 2020 hindsight, but in their time, they were held with great esteem. Judging history without having lived it is very subjective and often contradictory. Our history deserves to be judged in the context of their own time as well as ours – thoughtfully and dispassionately.
There are ten army bases in the United States named for Confederate Generals, and I certainly agree we need a careful reevaluation of those designations. The Confederacy is arguably the strongest symbol of racism there is in our society, and southern culture for over a century chose icons of the Confederacy to demonstrate their state and regional pride. White Supremacists and less organized but equally offensive racists of all varieties nationwide have also used these icons as symbols of their own twisted ideology. For me and a lot of people like me, we see the Confederate Flag as a universal symbol of evil – talk about a flag that needs to be burned.
That said, after the Civil War and Reconstruction, there was a nationwide effort to socially, culturally and spiritually extend an olive branch to the South. It was Abraham Lincoln’s plan from the beginning to not punish the South for their offenses. When the naming of these bases came up over the years, southern politicians picked names of Confederate generals to help instill a sense of regional pride. Few were thinking of slaves or racism – just a symbol of leadership and honor, and after their naming, these bases went on to make a great deal of history in their own right by preparing soldiers for combat around the world. For a lot of soldiers, these bases were the last American soil they ever saw, and most would not have been able to tell you anything about the men for which they were named. Personally, I don’t know what kind of men any of these Confederates were. I don’t know if they owned slaves or anything really about them, and very few do. Were any of these men racists? I can’t answer that, because I just don’t know.
My point is only this: Symbols and statues need to be weighed and debated thoughtfully by well-informed decision makers before action is taken. Historians, cultural and social experts need to be heard, as well as common citizens. But what we cannot do is allow mobs and anarchists to decide what icons are in the best interests of our society. They have no knowledge on which to base their decisions. They have no interest in our culture or our government. Their only real motivation is to destroy. By-in-large, they are white, over-educated, under-experienced fools who live in their parents’ basement, and know neither compassion nor understanding. They are simply unqualified to make these decisions.
Almost every statue and commemorative I can think of was put in place, because a collective decision was made to honor someone for their contribution to politics, culture, society, humanity or heroism. For the most part, they were given the honor in the context of their time, and by people who were impacted by their actions. No person is ever all good or all bad, and if we are going to second guess history, we need to make sure our ducks are in a row. Right now, no one seems to care about where our ducks are. They are making decisions out of fear or stupidity or both. It’s time that political leaders realize they ran for office, not for the sake of popularity or ego, but to lead in difficult times.
Photo courtesy of Friends of the Public Garden