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Black Lives Matter protests that started as a response to the police killing of George Floyd have sparked a much larger conversation about racism in America. One part of the discussion has focused on historical monuments that dot the landscape across the country and whether they should remain in place or be removed.
Recent weeks have seen the revival of an ongoing debate over symbols of the Confederacy. In several cities across the country, statues of Confederate figures have been taken down. Some were removed by local governments. Others were torn down by protesters. There have also been efforts to ban the Confederate flag and rename military bases named after Confederate generals.
It’s not only icons of the Civil War that are being targeted. Statues of some of the most important figures in American history have also been singled out. Protesters in Portland, Ore., tore down statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Monuments to Christopher Columbus have been defaced in several cities. The American Museum of Natural History in New York is planning to remove a statue of Theodore Roosevelt.
Other statues that have been removed represent people from a broad spectrum of American history, including Spanish missionary Junípero Serra, former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, “Star-Spangled Banner” lyricist Francis Scott Key and the former owners of two NFL teams.
Why there’s debate
The lines of argument about Confederate statues are familiar and relatively straightforward, though public support for removing them appears to be growing. The discussion becomes more complex when focus shifts to the Founding Fathers and other central figures in U.S. history.
At the core of the debate is whether the positive things those people did override their sins. Washington and Jefferson, for example, helped free the American colonies from British rule and establish a nation built on the ideals of liberty and equality. They were also slave owners, and they built a system of government that denied freedom and equality to anyone who wasn’t a white man.
To some critics, these offenses are so deeply immoral that they supersede anything else Washington and Jefferson did. Any monument to a slave owner, they argue, serves as an implicit endorsement of white supremacy and should be taken down. The same logic is applied to individuals who committed atrocities against native peoples, like Columbus and President Andrew Jackson.
Opponents of these arguments say that destroying monuments to complicated historical figures only serves to bury the realities of American history. The past should be remembered for both its triumphs and its ugliness, they argue. If given the proper context, the statues can provide an opportunity to discuss a more complete version of our nation’s past. Others say it’s good to reconsider which monuments should stand, but the decision should be made by governments, not mobs of protesters.
President Trump on Friday signed an executive order he said would lead to “long jail sentences” for demonstrators who tear down historical statues. The order strengthens existing laws that ban destruction of federal monuments and threatens to withhold funding from local governments that allow monuments to be destroyed.
The Founding Fathers should be remembered for both the good and the bad they did
“The fact that Washington, Jefferson and other early presidents owned slaves should temper our admiration for them but not erase it entirely. They gave us a nation grotesquely disfigured by slavery, but they also gave us the constitutional tools, and the high-minded ideals, with which to heal that original, near-fatal flaw.” — Eugene Robinson, Washington Post
All statues of slave owners should come down
“We need to call slave owners out for what they are, whether we think they were protecting American freedom or not. … So, to me, I don’t care if it’s a George Washington statue or a Thomas Jefferson statue or Robert E. Lee statue. They all need to come down.” — Angela Rye, CNN
We can chronicle history without building monuments to racists
“Needless to say, there are lots of ways to remember unpleasant history without erecting statues to the worst villains of it. The German government understands this, which is why they don’t have statues of Hitler astride a horse, and didn’t name the Munich airport after Joseph Goebbels.” — Amanda Marcotte, Salon
Expecting perfection from historical figures is foolish
“Every human being worth preserving in bronze or marble blends good and bad, since human beings are complex, imperfect sinners. The only way to present perfection on pedestals would be to sweep away today’s unfavored men and women and replace them with seamless spheres, cones and cylinders.” — Deroy Murdock, Fox News
There is a clear difference between American icons and Confederate generals
“If, in this moment of long-awaited change, we can’t distinguish between a statue of Abraham Lincoln and one of Jefferson Davis — let alone Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee — while debating the legacy of slavery, then we’re in real trouble.” — John Avlon, CNN
Statues should be reconsidered through a formal process, not torn down by mobs
“Irrespective of the nature of their grievance — or of the strength of the feeling undergirding it — violent mobs can’t make decisions on behalf of everyone else. If, as is occasionally the case, it is necessary for public monuments to be altered, updated, revisited, or removed, that work must be done within the democratic process and under the rule of law.” — Editorial, National Review
Tearing down statues gives the systems that put them up a free pass
“When a mob tears down a statue, it is almost always out of pure anger at honoring evil. But the evil and the fact that it was officially honored is lost. Better to have a formal apology and atonement for honoring racism, colonialism, subjugation, murder and exploitation by official government action.” — Arthur Caplan, New York Daily News
Historical figures rarely fall into clear categories of good and bad
“Yes, it is time, finally, to tear down the statues honoring those who perpetuated slavery, racism, and white supremacy. … But history is not uncomplicated, nor do its players exist in binary categories. This long overdue, and necessary, reexamination of our past needs to take place with an appreciation of the context and complexities of the era within [which] our forefathers lived.” — Steven K. Green, Oregonian
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