Erasing History vs. Just Smudging It — Part II

[Transcript of interior dialogue: “C’mon. Confederate statues? Again? It’s not 2017 and we’re not in Charlottesville.”/“True. But it’s on the front page of the Times and Facebook again, and I have some new things to say.”/“Are you sure?”/ “I said some. But they’re important.”/“If you insist. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”/ “Warning duly noted.”]

Bottom line: some matters are complicated and others simple. I’d like to explore both.

In addition to arguments about removing Confederate statues and other symbols like flags and names on armed forces bases, there’s been talk (to mention just a few examples) of eliminating others: Washington and Jefferson, who both were slave owners; Columbus Circle’s eponymous statue honoring a cruel colonizer; FDR’s face on the dime, because he turned back the St. Louis and refused to bomb Auschwitz. And a statue of Grant has been defaced in San Francisco. (Let’s leave Churchill, Gandhi, and King Leopold to the citizens of their countries.)

Should we remove any statues? See the “bottom line” above.

So let’s explore. One of the most popular objections to removing statues is the canard that it’s rewriting — or worse, erasing — history. Nonsense. The history of the South and the Civil War isn’t seriously taught by these park and courthouse statues. We learn it in schools and museums, from battlefields and other historical places, by reading James McPherson’s books, watching Ken Burns’ documentaries, and listening to Professor David Blight’s lectures. Public statues are, in the main, to honor and not teach (other than teaching what we honor). All the commemorative statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest (Confederate general and a KKK founder) in Tennessee’s state Capitol teaches is a history of falsehoods.

But there also are legitimate considerations with respect to some statues, such as the need to weigh the overall character and achievements of those being honored, and to distinguish between public sins and private flaws.

Among other major historic accomplishments, Washington led the army that won the American Revolution; presided over the Constitutional Convention, which wrote one of our nation’s two foundational documents; and served as our first president, whose wisdom and stature helped preserve the freedoms he had fought to attain. Jefferson was the author of Virginia’s statute of religious freedom (the forerunner of the First Amendment’s protection of that right) and our other foundational document, the Declaration of Independence. He was the country’s first secretary of state and its third president.

And both were slave owners — America’s original sin. How do we balance their positive national contributions against their personal moral shortcomings? If they are being honored for their triumphs — as Washington and Jefferson certainly are — was this personal failing significant enough to nullify those honors? While I think the answer to that last question clearly is “no,” I possibly can understand that others may come to a different conclusion — but only if they consider both accomplishments and failings. Unfortunately, recent discussions often omit one or the other.

More difficult and complex analyses need to be made when both positive and negative traits are reflected in an honoree’s public and official actions. Thus, I can respect (though strongly disagree with) the opinion that FDR’s face should be taken off the U.S. dime, but only if it considers not only the St. Louis and Auschwitz, but also his presidential successes, including social security, the TVA, the CCC, and the FDIC, as well as leading America into World War II to defeat the Axis and save millions of lives. The Facebook post I read arguing for removal did not.

Some things actually are quite simple, though. As Tevye said, sometimes there is no other hand. In that category, Grant’s statue should not be removed, and those of Confederate leaders should. Those who wore gray levied war against the United States and killed and maimed hundreds of thousands wearing blue. The Constitution has a name for this: treason, the only crime it defines specifically. In the United States we don’t have statues of Generals Howe, Santa Anna, Rommel, or Giap — to mention just a few who led our enemies in waging war against us. Al achat kamah v’kamah we should we not have statues glorifying those who turned their backs on, and their guns against, their country. And we should respect the statues honoring the man most responsible for defeating them and ending that horrible war.

Another factor adding to complexity is the intention of those erecting these statues. For example, the statute of Columbus at 59th Street was erected to honor not only Columbus, the great and heroic explorer who also had innocent blood on his hands, but also multitudes of Italian Americans who experienced rampant discrimination for decades and made significant contributions to New York City. The commission appointed to review the city’s statues therefore wisely considered the legitimate sensibilities of the Italian American community in recommending — correctly or not — not to remove the statue.

Such concerns are irrelevant, though, with respect to Confederate statues. If, as many claim, they were erected to honor “Southern heritage” – the alleged gallantry of the antebellum South — what truly is being “honored” is mainly, if not entirely, Southern support of slavery and starting and fighting a civil war to preserve that institution, the Colfax Massacre and black codes, the violent overturning of legitimate reconstruction governments, and 100 years of segregation, lynching, cross burning, and depriving African Americans of justice and their dignity, education, and constitutional right to vote. I would hope that wise, honest, good people might not want to remember fondly, much less honor, that part of their heritage. And those who do? Well, wise, honest, and good might not apply to them.

In any event, honoring Southern heritage is merely a revisionist cover story, as an examination of the statues’ time line demonstrates. Their first large wave began at the turn of the century in support of Southern states’ enactment of Jim Crow laws and the disenfranchisement of African Americans. It wasn’t a partner to true history but rather to the racist Dunning School of history, which supported the “Lost Cause” ideology and the falsification of the history and meaning of Reconstruction that infected the education of generations of school students, including me. And a second period began in the mid-1950s and lasted until the late 1960s, as a pushback against the modern civil rights movement. It wasn’t done to honor anything honorable; it was part and parcel of the knee the South kept on African Americans’ necks.

Another consideration is location. I am an American history buff, and my wife and I enjoy visiting historic battlefields to experience the shadow of history where it was made. A few years ago we took an American Revolution/Civil War vacation and toured, in addition to Mt. Vernon, Monticello, Gettysburg, and Antietam, the Bull Run/Manassas battlefield. There we saw the statue of General Thomas Jackson, who was dubbed Stonewall for his actions in that very battle on that very spot: “There stands Jackson like a stone wall.” That statue and plaque thus constituted an actual history lesson for us, as did the statues and busts we saw in Richmond’s American Civil War Museum, unlike those lining that city’s Monument Avenue, which merely lionize the undeserving.

[Continuation of the interior dialogue transcript: “Wait a sec; so you’re for nuance and against nuance? Are you sure you want to do this?”/“Yes; even nuance has nuance. I have real smart readers who’ll get it; even the many who disagree with me.”/“It’s your name and picture on the column so it’s your call.”/ “Just read to the end. And we can talk again after it’s published.”]

It’s too late for the band-aid of park and courthouse plaques explaining the statues. We need more serious education to teach our children that our heroes — all heroes — have flaws in addition to virtues, and what those flaws were. The first time I visited Monticello as a child, there was nothing there about the slaves who lived and worked there. In my more recent trip, there was a great deal. We need a lot more of that in all educational venues.

We also need to continue the removal of Confederate statues that began after the 2015 Charleston church massacre, and consign most of them to the scrap heap. Some, however, should be kept and moved to museums and other places of learning to sit alongside other materials explaining the more complete story of what they stood for. Those statues would therefore teach a very different lesson than they do today — a lesson of teshuvah.

In this setting, the statues can educate all, and our young people especially, that once our country made mistakes by honoring those who were undeserving; once we put up statues representing values that didn’t reflect those to which we aspire. But now we recognize and regret our errors; now we are correcting them; now we are undertaking a moral obligation not to repeat them. Now, for those in our community, we are following Maimonides’ steps of repentance while proclaiming Never Again, part of our secular liturgy.

That’s a history lesson worth teaching — and learning.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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