Growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina, I took the monuments around the state capitol for granted. The first Confederate soldier killed in the Civil War, Henry Lawson Wyatt, has leaned into the wind on those grounds for 100 years. Atop a pedestal inscribed, ‘To North Carolina women of the Confederacy’, a mother in billowing skirts reads to her young boy, his hand on his scabbard. Only in adulthood have I done a double take. I was raised in a slightly weird place.
In an era of fungible Walmarts, regional distinction in the US is hard to come by, and I treasure Raleigh’s funk factor. Yet I didn’t grow up around folks who wished the South had won the Civil War and wanted to bring back slavery. For much of my lifetime (OK, NC isn’t in a salutary political place in Trump World), cities like Raleigh have had better race relations than many Northern ones.
Up against the movement to cleanse the American South of Civil War tributes, aesthetic attachment to regional oddity constitutes a weak argument. I’ll make it anyway. These sculptures are curious, interesting, specific to one part of the country and often better crafted than anything that would replace them. Some are defiant; many others have a mournful cast. They are sobering reminders of a dreadful juncture in American history, and you have to remember a war even to regret it. Junking all these memorials off in some cluttered museum would result in an ineffable atmospheric loss for my complicated home town.
Yet post-Charlottesville, any reflective discussion of the fate of these relics is regarded overnight as over. Mysteriously, after one unfortunate woman was murdered by a single right-wing malefactor with a driving licence, it’s a given that every Confederate monument must come down. Dissension, even ambivalence (like mine), means you’re a white supremacist.
Predictably, the push to politically sanitise public spaces isn’t stopping at Civil War monuments. In New York City, a mayoral commission will examine what iconography might get the axe. Under consideration for removal is the statue of Christopher Columbus towering over 59th Street, at an intersection perhaps soon to be called something other than ‘Columbus Circle’. In the past few weeks, a smaller Columbus statue has been defaced with red paint; another Central Park statue, of a renowned gynaecologist who experimented on slaves, was also vandalised.
Columbus cost indigenous peoples dear. Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. As Oxford University was recently reminded, Cecil Rhodes was an imperialist. Prior to 1960 or so, every celebrated man in the Western world would probably qualify in today’s terms as a ‘misogynist’ (a strong word thrown around with well too much abandon).
We now require those we admire for particular achievements to be blameless in every respect, while the very definition of blamelessness, ever more strict, is a moving target. Applying today’s demanding standards of rectitude to previous generations — requiring all past notables to have embraced racial equality, feminism, disability rights, anti-colonialism, non-smoking and gender fluidity — means pulling down virtually every statue standing. Named after the Duke of York, involved in the slave trade, New York could be in for rebranding.
This campaign is potentially limitless, not to mention anti-historical. More, any drive for ideological purity is flat-out creepy. Can we have a little more ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone’? This rampage against any regard for ancestors who didn’t tick every modern political box has a totalitarian texture, and would leave Americans a sterile public environment with only statues of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harriet Tubman — until, that is, some eager beaver unearths, say, their insensitive remarks about cross-dressers.
Aside from contributing to a general ambience — a sense of something having happened once, of someone having done, you know, whatever — most public statuary functions as outdoor furniture. It’s decorative. With signal exceptions (DC’s Vietnam memorial), most people ignore monuments, never reading the inscriptions — and the older the statuary, the more oblivious the public. They’ve no idea who’s up on that pedestal, and they don’t care; at best, little girls fancy the horses. (Don’t imagine that I recalled those two bronzes around Raleigh’s capitol. I had to look them up.) The only folks I see study big dated statues are bored foreign tourists. Consequently, the terrible injury these tributes ostensibly cause a range of minorities feels manufactured.
Thus, while I’m happy for statuary to be ‘recontextualised’ with a contemporary slant on subjects that can’t pass today’s purity test, the real effect would be negligible. No one to speak of would read the plaques.
In contrast to the spontaneous, celebrative destruction of homages to Stalin or Saddam in the heat of overthrow, this drive to politically decontaminate public memorials is a cool power contest. The social justice brigade is muscle-flexing. Yet their righteous efforts will have little palpable effect on people’s lives. Perhaps the most expedient solution is to ‘recontextualise’ what a monument is: a three-dimensional record of what and whom some predecessors wanted to remember at the time it was erected, rather than a lauding in the present of absolutely everything these figures ever said and did.
Symbolism is important, but purely symbolic gains belong low down the list of vital social reforms, when in the US, blacks’ median income is half that of Asians and two-thirds that of whites. Take a jackhammer to Jefferson’s visage on Mount Rushmore and what have you got? Gesture without substance. Do American progressives really want to confront, ‘Never mind that we let cops shoot whomever they like and never serve a day in jail, because we chucked that bronze of Robert E. Lee that you’d never even noticed before’?
Bulldozing statuary long part of a local landscape is gratuitously divisive (people do notice memorials when you smash them). We’ll have too little to show for these scuffles once the dust settles. Neither the UK nor the US needs more discord. This short-of-monumental matter is an elective conflict. Amid the Trump/Brexit turmoil, this is a time to pick battles with care.