Overview:

Sometimes, tearing a statue down conveys a more potent history lesson than leaving it in place.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

[See also: Down with Jefferson]

Everywhere you look, statues are toppling.

During the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, more than 130 monuments to Confederate traitors came down, either pulled down by protesters or removed by local governments. In the United Kingdom, crowds toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it in the River Avon. In Virginia and Boston, statues of the brutal tyrant Christopher Columbus were torn down and beheaded. In San Francisco, it was a statue of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the text of “The Star-Spangled Banner” but was also a slave owner.

In New York City, there was the removal of the Thomas Jefferson statue from City Hall and a statue of Theodore Roosevelt from the Museum of Natural History.

Legions of conservative white nationalists decry this as censorship of history. They’ve already had more than enough space to make this argument, and I won’t give them more. However, in the name of steelmanning the opposition, here’s a better articulation of the pro-statue case:

Removing statues from their pedestals or taking an ax to them are newsworthy images and make protesters feel like they’re winning, but the inevitable question is, “Then what?” When physical remnants of a difficult past are erased, it doesn’t make the underlying problem just go away. In fact, it’s often the opposite—erasure of such public reminders of repression makes it even more difficult to keep the discussion in the spotlight, scoring points for symbolic victory while preventing more lasting systemic change.

Tearing Down Statues Won’t Undo History.” Justin Jampol, Foreign Policy, June 2020.

It’s true, of course, that tearing down a statue is a symbolic gesture that doesn’t cure inequities of power. If we pull down an obelisk and convince ourselves we’ve triumphed over racism, we’re only fooling ourselves. However, it’s absurd to argue that removing statues makes it harder to bear in mind what we’re fighting against. On the contrary, it’s proof that those wrong-headed values no longer hold sway.

No one learns history from a statue

No one learns history from a statue. The only way you learn anything is through in-depth reading and study. Looking at a statue or reading a plaque isn’t a substitute for a course or a textbook.

The patently obvious fact is that statues aren’t meant to teach history lessons. Instead, they’re symbols of what we find praiseworthy. They signal society’s values as embodied by historical figures. It’s a message that says, “People like this should be in charge, respected, and emulated.”

The Confederate statues and memorials are a clear example. Many of them were installed decades after the Civil War, during periods of white backlash against civil rights. Some are in states that weren’t even part of the Confederacy!

It’s not plausible that these statues were meant as a neutral commemoration of “Southern heritage” or any such euphemism. They’re there because the builders wanted to intimidate civil rights campaigners, to send a message that the Confederacy’s ethic of white supremacy was still dominant.

Those cases are easily disposed of. However, some other examples of iconoclasm pose more of a challenge.

The full breadth of progress and struggle

During the 2020 protests in Portland, protesters tore down a statue of Abraham Lincoln during a “Day of Rage”. In Boston, another statue of Lincoln that’s stood since 1879 was dismantled and taken down.

I’ll admit, this made me feel queasy. I’m all in favor of pulling down statues of enslavers. But if that’s the standard we go by, who could be a worthier alternative than the Great Emancipator? Isn’t he the paradigm example of a historical figure who genuinely deserves our reverence?

However, rather than leap from my personal discomfort to an immediate conclusion that Political Correctness Has Gone Too Far, it’s good practice to sit with that feeling and to listen. The people who did this weren’t motivated by blind, directionless rage. Whether or not you agree with them, they have valid critiques that deserve our consideration.

In Portland, the protesters who pulled down Lincoln’s statue were Indigenous activists angry at his treatment of the Dakota 38. They were Native Americans who rose up in rebellion after the U.S. government reneged on treaties and forced them onto inhospitable land to starve. After a brief war, hundreds were captured and sentenced to death. Lincoln commuted some of the sentences, but allowed 38 men to be hanged the day after Christmas. It was the largest mass execution in American history.

The Boston statue, meanwhile, depicts Lincoln standing, holding out a hand like a saint granting a blessing, while a former slave in rags and shackles kneels at his feet. This is a demeaning portrayal. It gives the impression that emancipation was a gift that white people bestowed on Black people. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Black people were active participants in their own liberation. Many escaped slavery of their own accord. They gave speeches and swayed public opinion in favor of abolition. They enlisted in the Union army and fought to destroy slavery. (Have you heard of Robert Smalls, who stole a Confederate ship, impersonated its white captain, escaped to freedom with his family, served valiantly under fire in the Civil War, and ended up being elected to the House of Representatives? After years in obscurity, his story will finally be told in a forthcoming Amazon biopic.)

If we’re going to memorialize history, let’s do it with monuments that reflect the full breadth of progress and struggle, rather than portraying it as the benevolent decisions of a few white men. Frederick Douglass criticized the Boston statue for this even at the time:

“Admirable as is the monument by Mr. Ball in Lincoln park, it does not, as it seems to me, tell the whole truth,” Douglass wrote in a letter that came to light this summer. He continued, “and perhaps no one monument could be made to tell the whole truth of any subject which it might be designed to illustrate.”

… “The negro here, though rising, is still on his knees and nude,” Douglass wrote. “What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.”

Statue Of Lincoln With Formerly Enslaved Man At His Feet Is Removed In Boston.” Bill Chappell, NPR, December 2020.

When I think about the downfall of statues, I’m reminded of a Zen Buddhist saying: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

The meaning of this koan is that you shouldn’t turn any person into an idol, not even the founder of your religion. The Buddha, in this theology, didn’t claim to be a god, merely a person who discovered the path to enlightenment and wanted to share that knowledge. To treat him as a saint deserving of prayer and sacrifice is to badly misunderstand his message. Worshipping him will hold you back from nirvana, rather than bring you closer.

To learn about the past, in a sense we have to destroy it.

Maybe that’s the attitude we need to bring to these statues. To learn about the past, in a sense we have to destroy it. Take it apart. Deconstruct it.

It will always be worthwhile to study and learn from history. However, it’s up to us to decide which lessons to take from it. We don’t have to accept the hand-me-downs of previous generations. We don’t have to find the same things meaningful or inspiring that they did, and we don’t have to preserve the tangible expressions of interpretations we no longer agree with. When new views take over, we can and should junk the detritus of the old ones. History, after all, is a story we tell—and the stories we retell tend to come true.

What should we do with these fallen statues? Perhaps we can preserve some in museums, where they can be displayed in proper context, next to detailed evidence of the atrocities they were erected to commemorate. If we keep the empty pedestal where a statue was, with a plaque explaining what was there and why it was removed, even better.

Or, as some as ex-communist nations have done, we can put them all together in a walled park. They can remain as a reminder for those who come to see them, but no longer loom over us in a silent assertion of superiority.

Personally, I like the idea of putting them in a wild place and deliberately neglecting them, so that they grow choked with ivy, tarnish, and gradually crumble. Letting nature reclaim these monuments would send a strong message that we’ve changed. It would show that we remember the past, but no longer allow its dead hand to rule over us.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...