There isn’t much middle ground between progressives who want to uproot Confederate monuments and preservationists who feel their presence is vital to understanding the Civil War and its place in American history.
Maybe we can’t agree on the answer because we’re asking the wrong question.
Instead of which leaders deserve their likeness etched in stone on public property, let’s pause to consider whether building monuments to historical figures is a proper role for federal, state and local governments in the first place.
Statues commissioned or maintained on the taxpayers’ dime seem an odd cause for conservatives, who believe in limiting the size and scope of government. But a prominent liberal — none other than contrarian comic George Carlin — makes a compelling argument that will resonate with individualists on the left and right alike.
“I’m tired of being told who to admire in this country,” Carlin thunders in his 2008 stand-up special, “It’s Bad For Ya.” “Aren’t you sick of being told who your heroes ought to be?”
The remarks referenced pop culture icons who Carlin considered vapid. But the message can be applied to historical figures, too.
When cities and states commission public monuments, they’re essentially endorsing the statues’ subjects in our name. Elected officials are telling us, literally and figuratively, who to look up to.
That’s a dicey gambit in this day and age. Leaders can fall out of favor as citizens take a critical look at their legacies. The rose-colored glasses crack, and men with a visage of granite are often found to have feet of clay.
Robert E. Lee, a distinguished Confederate general, was widely seen as a Southern stalwart who fought to defend his home when a statue of his likeness was erected in Charlottesville, Virginia. Today, many see Lee as a slavery apologist unworthy of public praise.
City officials’ decision to remove the monument spurred a protest helmed by hate groups, including white nationalists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. They clashed with counter-demonstrators and tragedy struck Aug. 12 when an alleged white supremacist drove his car into a crowd, injuring 13 people and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
President Donald Trump denounced the violence, but expressed concern about the public campaign to cart off Confederate statues. Many on the right feel political correctness is steering us down a slippery slope.
“So, this week it’s Robert E. Lee,” Trump said. “I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You really do have to ask yourself: Where does it stop?”
Washington and Jefferson both owned slaves. While they’re still regarded as American heroes, no person who’s ever lived is squeaky clean; we’re all flawed, complicated human beings.
Today’s patriot may be tomorrow’s pariah.
Picking public figures to memorialize in common spaces requires consensus. We don’t have it. The public is too divided to agree on who deserves a statue, so why not end that collectivist custom altogether?
Americans are fiercely independent people who don’t all march to the same drumbeat, and that’s OK. Why should government presume to tell us who’s worthy of a bronze bust?
We’re perfectly capable of choosing our own role models — and honoring them without picking taxpayers’ pockets. If a politician reveres Robert E. Lee or admires Abraham Lincoln, let him hire a sculptor on his own dime and hoist the statue in his yard.
Grave markers and memorials for groups of fallen soldiers should be preserved. They are not totems constructed to pad personal legacies. Many are on private burial plots, cemetery grounds or pavilions intended for war memorials.
As for the statues of saber-gripping commanders, what’s so bad about moving them to private property where the First Amendment will protect their presence in perpetuity?
Honor whoever you like, whether or not your neighbor approves. Just don’t force your neighbor to help pay for your tribute or house the towering statue in a public space that belongs to him as much as it does to you.
Now, what could be more American than that?
The Civitas Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, 501(c)(3) educational organization and does not take partisan positions on any issues. The views expressed here are those of the author.
Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times, an award-winning editorial writer and a member of the North Carolina Press Association’s board of directors.