When Statue-Toppling Is Acceptable…

Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam has begun the process of removing Virginia’s statue of Robert E. Lee  from the U.S. Capitol, where each state has a statue of two state heroes. Ethics Alarms has been uncompromising in opposing the progressive movement to remove the statues of figures past generations admired and believed worthy of memorials and honors because of their achievements. The phenomenon is the essence of the deplorable “cancel culture,” where any transgression or past conduct viewed as repugnant in the light of “presentism” or political correctness is treated as justification to airbrush their lives out of our culture and history. Slaveholding has been the ultimate trigger for such airbrushing, even when the individuals being erased made crucial contributions to our nation. That criteria endangers our Founders like Washington, Jefferson and Madison, without whom our nation would not exist.

Lee, of course, is the fulcrum of this battle. The Confederate icon  has long been admired for his character, loyalty and courage, as well as his brilliance as a military strategist. As the Confederacy has increasingly been regarded as fighting for slavery by modern historians (though it’s more complicated than that), Lee’s own sin of owning slaves is increasingly see as being compounded by his role in fighting to preserve the process, and committing treason to do it.

Lee’s statues remind new generations of a remarkable, if flawed, man and great leader, who frequently exhibited admirable qualities in the midst of great conflict and stress. We are a stronger, smarter society by learning from Robert E. Lee rather than forgetting him.

Nonetheless, I believe it is not unreasonable for Virginia’s governor to exercise discretion over who Virginia officially represents to the nation as its two greatest heroes. I’m a Virginian who regards Lee as an important historical figure who deserves to be remembered, but despite individual heroic moments, he’s no hero to me. His statute was initially selected when Virginia was still nostalgic about “the land of cotton where old times were not forgotten.” I suspect that the vast majority of Virginians don’t consider him a hero any more, and that’s unlikely to change. Therefore, it is reasonable to find a better and less controversial figure for the special honor in the Capitol.

George Washington  holds down the state’s top slot in Capitol statuary, and if Northam, a progressive panderer par excellance, tries to remove his statue I’ll personally march on Richmond. (Yes, Lee is a slippery slope, but he doesn’t have to be.) Virginia has many good candidates to replace Lee. Jefferson is the obvious choice, but I assume that Northam won’t allow one slave-holder to replace another.  This also disqualifies a favorite of mine (for some reason), Chief Justice John Marshall, another Founder who pronounced slavery evil but continued to practice it. President Woodrow Wilson was a Virginian and didn’t own slaves, but only because it was illegal when by the time  he was alive: Wilson was a virulent racist.

Fortunately Virginia has a rich selection on non-politicians to choose from: Arthur Ashe, Ella Fizgerald, explorers Richard Byrd and Meriwether Lewis, Booker T. Washington (my choice), and Walter Reed among them.

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12 thoughts on “When Statue-Toppling Is Acceptable…

  1. Here is another example: a precedent?

    On July 9, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read for the first time in New York in front of George Washington and his troops. In reaction to what had been read, soldiers and citizens went to Bowling Green, a park in Manhattan, where a lead statue of King George III on horseback stood. The mob of people pulled down the statue, and later the lead was melted down to make musket balls, or bullets for use in the war for independence. Careful records were kept, and it is known that 42,088 bullets were made.

    July 9, 1776

    [Someone here recommended the PBS series “Liberty” which we have been watching and in it they described the topping of the statue of George lll].

  2. Booker T. Washington is the most obvious choice, but some progressives may not find him to have been progressive enough considering his views on blacks working to become an economically viable community to be a priority over being politically equal to whites.

  3. Jack wrote:

    Lee’s statues remind new generations of a remarkable, if flawed, man and great leader, who frequently exhibited admirable qualities in the midst of great conflict and stress. We are a stronger, smarter society by learning from Robert E. Lee rather than forgetting him.

    Nonetheless, I believe it is not unreasonable for Virginia’s governor to exercise discretion over who Virginia officially represents to the nation as its two greatest heroes. I’m a Virginian who regards Lee as an important historical figure who deserves to be remembered, but despite individual heroic moments, he’s no hero to me. His statute was initially selected when Virginia was still nostalgic about “the land of cotton where old times were not forgotten.” I suspect that the vast majority of Virginians don’t consider him a hero any more, and that’s unlikely to change. Therefore, it is reasonable to find a better and less controversial figure for the special honor in the Capitol.

    I find that I cannot distinguish the logic of this argument from the ‘mob’ argument and those people — usually progressive activists — who want to have certain monuments removed and those who just show up and do it.

    Lee was a remarkable figure for many different reasons. Since there is no human being who is not *flawed* it is somewhat meaningless to refer to him as such. But are you saying his choice to remain loyal to his State and region was his flaw? I think of Lee as the man who chose his State and his side out of a sense of duty and obligation. But it doesn’t matter how I construct my defense of him, or if I critique him. The *meaning* of Lee is that he made that choice. The meaning of our present is that people have *lost the ground under their feet* and serve abstractions, not tangibles.

    Yes, it is true, that in the present climate ‘it is not unreasonable’ for a governor, in a changing social situation, to apply discretion and to opt to replace Lee with someone else. But if that is so — if a governor should respond to his democratic base and do their will — then you have allowed the historical revisionism project to go forward.

    If you allow it in this instance effectively you have undermined the logic of maintaining the monuments to the American Founders. Because someone will come along who says ‘The Old America has passed away. It is now time to establish things on a different foundation’.

    This is the nature of the progressive beast. It rolls on, it lunges forward, until finally it consumes itself.

  4. Removing statues originally properly selected feels a great deal like revising or even erasing history. It is, however, just a symbol of history.

  5. How does one go about acquiring the removed statue? Seems to me that if it is no longer wanted, pulverizing it into small pieces and disposing of it makes no sense when it has value to others. I bet their might be a Virginian or two willing to take custody of such an artifact.

  6. To me, Lee was a very good, but flawed general, much beloved by his soldiers.

    But perhaps the greatest service he did for the United States was at Appomattox. What was left of the Army of Northern Virginia that spring were very serious, very determined men. If Lee had encouraged them, I have no doubt that thousands would have taken to the hills and continued to fight for years. It would have made knitting the country back together infinitely more difficult, if not impossible.

    But Lee, to his credit, made the decision (and made his staff accept it) that the war was over — they should go home and be civilians again (and be Americans again). Grant and Lincoln were resolved to be merciful, but they couldn’t have made it stick without Lee.

    • Absolutely. But those who want to get rid of all trace of Lee know nothing about his life or career, just that he owned slaves and fought for the evil Confederacy. They don’t know about that, they don’t know about Lee’s epic acceptance of accountability after Pickett’s charge (and example that Ike was ready to emulate in D-Day had failed. I hate ignorance, and I hate people taking obnoxious stands without knowing the facts.

      • We might do a little better if people put more of a premium on knowing the facts than on being obnoxious. However…

  7. I’m happy to pose to have a statue made of me.
    I was born in VA and I’ve never owned a single slave.

    Well . . . not unless Internet Domain Name Service (DNS) servers count.
    Okay, nevermind.

    –Dwayne

  8. If they are determined to do this, and I hope they don’t, I’d vote for Merriwether Lewis. He was an ancestor of mine.

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