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On Removing Monuments to White Supremacists

Iconoclasm is as old as monuments

Eleanor Konik
Written by Eleanor Konik

I write stories & articles inspired by all eras of history & science... so I wind up putting notetaking software like Obsidian & Readwise thru their paces.

9 min read.
Lee Surrenders to Grant

Henry Olsen wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post about removing monuments, in which he claimed:

Knocking down or defacing statues of national founders or heroes not only displays ignorance of history but also assaults the principles of Western civilization that allow for racial progress to continue.

This is particularly ironic given that the people tearing down the statues typically have a better understanding of history than the average Westerner, because they’re actually aware of the racist history that is too often glossed over.  I certainly didn’t know that Teddy Roosevelt said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are… and I wouldn’t want to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth” and I’ve taught Roosevelt-era US History.

So to call these people “ignorant” is the worst sort of bad faith “well actually.” There may be an argument to some the protesters are overreacting (though I’m not certain that it’s the hill I’d want to die on), but “ignorant?” No.

Iconoclasm Isn’t Actually Unusual

The United States’ frenzy of statuary iconoclasm has taken a turn into the theater of the absurd.

According to Wikipedia, iconoclasm is the social belief in the importance of the destruction of icons and other images or monuments, most frequently for religious or political reasons. Olsen is trying to claim that there comes a point at which removing monuments goes too far, and before I delve into anything further, I want to point out that there are entire religions followed by literally billions of people that say it is outright heretical to display images of prominent historical figures from that religion.

The Islamic faith is the most well-known example of iconoclasm, but somehow people often forget that most of the Protestant religion is iconoclastic. There were whole swaths of Byzantine history where Iconoclasm was a Catholic dogma. If the majority religion in the United States feels that it is inappropriate to have statues of Jesus, why would a gross overstatement of what’s happening — removing monuments entirely, complete and total iconoclasm — itself even be that absurd?

The Difference Between the People and the Values

Protesters who tear down statues to brave warriors who fought to more fully implement [the principle that all men were created equal] mock and dishonor the idea that enables us to become a more perfect union.

The claim that removing monuments is itself a “mockery” of the principle that all men were created equal is far more hyperbolic than the claim that Theodore Roosevelt was racist. For one thing, it’s not what the word mockery means and for another, you could say that King George III enabled us to become a more perfect union by uniting people in their hatred of what his Parliament recommended, so Olsen’s point is worded poorly on both levels.

Of course, what he means is that we shouldn’t insult our forefathers by daring to question whether or not they were, in fact, the heroes they’re painted as by a historical canon created and people predominantly by old white men. The problem is that such hero-worshipping of our forefathers is dangerous and leads to a critical failure to examine who the people were in a realistic way. Aggrandizing our past without really investigating whether our forebears are good role models is a terrible plan.

Cherry-picking data is intellectually dishonest, and when we honor only the good parts of our history we create a world in which people get super defensive when we try to stop putting our predecessors onto a pedestal — literally

Maybe we should spend a little more time focusing on the fact that Adams nearly kicked off a civil war with the Alien & Sedition Acts because he was angry that Thomas Jefferson was daring to campaign against him in the papers. Maybe we could spend a little less time on Madison’s opposition to the Bill of Rights and a little more time on how his wife Dolly Madison started the tradition of first ladies taking on a public outreach project. Women did important things in history, too, you know?

Just because the Western canon was written by old white guys and aggrandizes primarily old white guys doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. History has always been biased. Maybe it is time to tilt it in favor of someone else for a change.

Where We Draw The Line

Toppling [the] statue [of Ulysses S. Grant] — as protesters did in San Francisco, citing a slave whom Grant was gifted and later freed before the war — is ahistorically ludicrous.

Is it, though? Is it really ludicrous to say “any man who owned a slave did something so wrong, so antithetical to what this country strives to be, that we should not build statues in their honor” and is it actually “ahistorical” to say that Grant was a slave owner? Whether he was “as bad as” other slave owner isn’t really the point, is it? He didn’t free the slave — who by the way, has a name: William Jones — immediately, did he?

The Desire to Ignore Wrongs

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s courage saved the world from Nazi barbarism, but his statue in London has also been vandalized for racist statements he once said.

It is here that sober minds must pause and reflect.

I’m sober. I’ve paused. I’ve reflected.

I’m fine with the vandalization and I’m fine with removing monuments even if it’s not approved by the government. If nothing else, such vandalism makes it more difficult for the world to sweep Churchill’s sins under the rug and ignore them. Sure, it sucks that tax dollars are going to go toward things like repairs, but maybe tax dollars don’t actually need to go to maintenance of such statues, anyway.

Maybe societies don’t need statues at all. Let’s get to removing monuments all over the place. Let’s go full Byzantine — it was one of the things that salvaged Rome, after all. Why is iconoclasm silly when taken too far, again?

Maybe Purity of Values is Worth Pursuing

There is no pure past to which one can turn for intellectual sustenance if one desires a political regime dedicated to freedom and equality.

This statement assumes that there are actually historic political regimes that were dedicated to freedom and equality. There aren’t. At best they claim to stand for freedom and equality and don’t say the quiet part out loud: for us. for some people. between the classes but not the genders. between the classes but not all ethnic groups. for a little while.

Athens had slaves and at best had a couple of decades here and there that tried to mitigate classism. I’ve written elsewhere about early democracies that weren’t Athens. Besides, whatever some people may desire, building memorials to imperfect pasts isn’t actually something we have to do.

Olsen also erroneously conflates intellectual sustenance with things that require monuments. Kant provides a lot of opportunity for intellectual discourse to young Philosophy students, but I never forget that Kant was really quite sexist and as a woman I would be pretty irritated to have to pass by a statue to him every day. Socrates was a terrible husband. Aristotle explicitly and purposefully went out of his way to justify slavery on the basis of eugenics.

I’d be fine with removing monuments to those thinkers, too.

Who exactly does it serve to say that doesn’t matter? Is it really possible to cherry-pick “the good parts” of Aristotle’s thoughts without taking them in what is a fundamentally racist context? Should that really be our goal?

Africa Is Not A Monolith

Many black Africans did not see other black Africans as fellow human beings to be protected against white slave traders; instead, they simply captured them and sold them to profit themselves.

You’d think that an author trying the whole I’m not racist, but tack would be a little more careful about setting themselves up for an accusation of racism. You’d especially think that someone yelling at other people for being ignorant and ahistorical would be a little more careful with their painting with a broad brush, but I really, really want to push back against this idea that “black Africans” were selling their own people into slavery, the implication being “black Africans were bad too” and “well they did it too so it can’t be that bad, right?”

The author is careful to say “Aztecs murdered their war captives as human sacrifices to their gods,” and not “Central Americans didn’t see their fellow Americans as human, so they sacrificed them,” making the context of war crimes clear. The author is careful to say “Mongol conquest of Russia and China was brutal and tyrannical as the warrior clan ruled on its own and for its own benefit.” not “Asians were brutal and selfish.” So why not frame slavery in Africa the same way?

Consider the differences between Olsen’s original phrasing and: “Some African regimes sold captives to European slavers” and “European slavers offered such wealth to slavers that some coastal Africans kidnapped people from neighboring tribes to sell.”

What Is Civilization?

Almost all civilization has been based on inequality and tyranny regardless of the color of the masters’ skin.

First, let’s briefly address ancient civilizations. I don’t think we should venerate the parts of historical civilizations we like and ignore the parts we don’t. Personally, I’m pretty comfortable saying things like “Rome isn’t great, let’s not celebrate Caesar.” Julius Caesar killed literal millions of Gauls in order to pay off some debts. The whole trend of history education in this country is explicitly designed toward questioning whether we should venerate ancient “heroes.” 6th graders in my county are required to write a document-based question response using inquiry based learning toward for the question “Was Alexander the Great really Great?”

Next, let’s address the actual claim here: all civilization is unequal and tyrannical.

This is true only if you define civilization very, very narrowly. If you define civilization as “societies that are enough like mine to have writing I recognize, an explicit social hierarchy like mine, and a government I recognize as governing in a way I feel is sufficiently complex,” then sure. If you define civilization as only societies that are explicitly unequal, then of course all societies are going to be unequal.

But this definition of civilization is increasingly controversial, and there are lots of societies in history that lacked tyranny and lauded democratic values. They just don’t tend to leave a large archaeological record because they don’t create huge empires with statues to their tyrannical leaders.

Maybe we should try to be more like those societies.

American Exceptionalism Is A Myth

Modern Western civilization and its revolutionary ideals, however, have allowed for the peaceful, pan-racial democracies protesters say they want.

The idea that the United States is uniquely virtuous is comforting to many Americans, but this is a myth. There is a laundry list of incidents from this year alone of peaceful, pan-racial protesters being attacked with chemical weapons and otherwise having their civil liberties infringed upon.

Besides which, peaceful protest isn’t somehow magically limited to Modern Western civilization, or even the Classical civilizations we modeled ourselves on.

The Chinese Mohist scholars were utilizing non-violent protest circa 400 BCE. The Moriori of New Zealand had a tradition of nonviolence — and were wiped out by the Māori in 1835.

It’s also frankly only been effective a handful of times, even here in America, as I’ve explained elsewhere. I genuinely do not believe that Gandhi would have been as effective without the context of rebellion and war in India. I do not think MLK would have been as effective without Black men willing to use guns to protect themselves.

The West’s ideals of universal freedom and human equality permit it to reform itself peacefully and extend the reality of freedom to fit the reality of human diversity.

I truly believe that JFK (hardly a flawless leader himself) said it best when he said:

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

If America was willing to reform itself peacefully, it would certainly be permitted to. But being able to do so isn’t enough. Peaceful protests are a warning and a statement of power, the same way a bunch of people sitting around an ancient council fire and expressing their grievances was. The same way farmers grumbling about potential rebellion to their lords was. If they are ignored, violence will happen.

In Sum

The argument in this article seems to be “wait, wait, you’re going to far when you make me think critically about the fact that so many of our founders were actually pretty terrible” combined with “well, none of our founders were decent, so if we get rid of our monuments to them, you erase our history pointlessly” when, frankly, we should be confronting the fact that a lot of our founders were terrible — especially because they didn’t have to be.

It’s a mistake and a lie to imply “but by the standards of their time, it was normal and they didn’t know any better.” You say something like that about lead paint, not slavery, not least of which because it’s not true. The Quakers were speaking out against slavery as early as 1688 and there were other significant initiatives in the American colonies that led to the abolitionist movement before the American Revolution.

Columbus was directly and personally responsible for the kidnapping of 9 year old girls to be sold into sex slavery, among other things. “But they did other great things that are more important” is just another way of saying “Eh, slavery wasn’t that big of a deal, really.”

We can make the decision as a society to put up monuments to people who weren’t white supremacists and slavers, even when those people were powerful and helped shape the direction of the country. We can follow in Germany’s footsteps by acknowledging that these horrible moments in our history shouldn’t be swept under the rug and shouldn’t be lauded, either. We can definitely choose to follow a path of removing monuments that venerate flawed figures.

Monuments aren’t history. They’re a statement of values. And many of the things that America has historically valued are, frankly, pretty racist.

Maybe we should stop that and keep on removing monuments, instead of complaining about how people are going “too far” when they force us to confront the problems inherent in our society’s aggrandizement of figures that should frankly be a lot more controversial than mainstream education and media makes them.

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