Monday, August 20, 2007
Tearing Down Statues
The following piece just appeared in the Baltimore Daily Examiner. Hope the essay is of some interest.
And, why stop at Abraham Lincoln? I say we take down the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial in D.C. because they OWNED slaves!!!
Professor Graber, After reading your post the old "no graven images" thing seems increasingly practical. ;) Thanks for the thought provoking read. Probably was never a cent spent on such that wouldn't have been better spent on better history books or critical thinking courses.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
What better reminder of the errors and hubris of our past, then the monuments of our leaders of the time, especially when surrounded by the mute testimony of their legacy.
Which is why I laugh when various leaders claim that history will vindicate them; history will make it's own judgement. It would be better for them to attempt a Toynbee Convector result.
"Tearing down statues is appropriate when we realize that the factual basis for the honor was mistaken." - Mark Graber
Who makes this decision? I can readily believe that the black citizens of Baltimore would be offended at a memorial to the man who prolonged their bondage and treated their race like chattel.
Perhaps akin to Southern Captitals that fly the confederate flag.
Perhaps akin to the American troops that hauled down Saddam's statue.
Perhaps akin to the Ten Commandments being offensive in a court house.
I would assume that the factual basis for Justice Taney's memorial would be justice?
Whereas memorials to Washington and Lincoln have to do with actions not directly related to slave holding.
I agree it's a slippery slope, but once you acknowledge some statues can come down you open the door to all statutes coming down.
The sad thing is, I will bet few people even know who Taney is or recognize the bust.
Some of the readers here might be interested in looking at david-sullivan.blogspot.com where I am fooling around with a new blog.
You mean statues should be treated differently than Constitutions? I'm not sure Prof. Levinson would be willing to apply your principle to, say, Article II, Sec. 1, cl. 2-3.
I agree that your essay serves a purpose, though I think you've exaggerated some facts to make it. Lincoln "endorsed slaveholding in the nation’s capital"? Endorsed? He advocated fugitive slave laws???? His only serious dispute with Taney involved slavery in the territories?
All those assertions are either plain wrong or highly misleading.
That said, I agree, in part, with your basic point that we need to be careful when we apply today's values to the past. The questions we should be asking are, "what was the purpose for honoring this person originally?", and "do we still honor this person for this purpose or some other?". If we don't have good answers to these questions, then we might well wonder whether a memorial serves any continuing purpose.
It's perfectly legitimate to honor flawed persons. There are, after all, no others. But if the flaws become the reason why some people continue to honor them (e.g., statues of Jefferson Davis), then we're at risk of honoring that which undermines our most important values.
Attempts to censor historical symbols impair objectivity in the interpretation of history and encourage distortions and fabrications of history by people on both sides of the issue.
Roger Taney's racism was fairly common among public officials of his day. For example, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas said in his first debate with Lincoln,
Do you desire to strike out of our State Constitution that clause which keeps slaves and free negroes out of the State, and allow the free negroes to flow in, ("never,") and cover your prairies with black settlements? Do you desire to turn this beautiful State into a free negro colony, ("no, no,") in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves into Illinois, to become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves? ("Never," "no.") . . . . . .For one, I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form. (Cheers.) I believe this Government was made on the white basis. ("Good.") I believe it was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity for ever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races. ("Good for you." "Douglas forever.")
-- from http://www.nps.gov/archive/liho/debate1.htm
The better argument is to tear down monuments to Confederate "heroes" like Lee and Davis. Those people were traitors who rebelled against their country to create a haven for slavery. The continued beatification of them is insulting and offensive to southern blacks and a celebration of the worst sort of bigotry.
Yeah, but nobody thinks Benedict Arnold is a hero, and nobody put up statues of Benedict Arnold and British flags to justify discrimination 100 years after the revolution.
The South lost the Civil War, and unfortunately, they were never Denazified. And we've seen the result.
Of course, this dialogue on our nation's earliest and their evils can only lead eventually to their contemporaries. So much for Lincoln freeing the slaves.
I agree that Mark's essay is unusually interesting. Where I disagree with some of the responses (and with Mark?) is that there is any general principle we can apply to deciding which past statues (or names of airports, etc.) to maintain. It is simply foolish to denounce all "remodeling" of the public square. Did Charles, for example, oppose tearing down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Bahgdad, or the renaming of Leningrad (for starters: there are literally hundreds of such examples). Concomitantly, I presume that no one supports tearing down the statues in Luxor that honor some really terrible tyrants. At some point in time, aesthetics trumps "meaning." We can, of course, also change public square by adding statutes, such as honoring the Sioux as well as Custer. Ultimately, we make all such decisions pragmatically.
Professor Graber's essay makes a point worth expanding on. The idea that human vision unalloyed by attitudes of the day can see through to the end of history, whether by divination, by superhuman ability, or by untainted simplicity, is dangerous. Preachers, pundits and jes' folks variously use it to key up crazed followings; all three types are doing so in our time.
But the sort of "gotcha" history that levels all past visionaries is dangerous in a different way. It crushes efforts to learn from history and draw the best possible trajectory we can into the future based on what that history shows. It condemns us to a solipsism of the moment. The "gotchas" help abate the first folly: if one can see old warts in a true light, one stands a better chance of seeing new warts for what they are. But we make "gotchas" our last word on giants from the past at our own peril.
Lincoln illustrates these points as well as any figure I could name, in or outside of American history. He had what we would now say are flaws, but he is certainly no Roger Taney.
No single speech of his better illustrates both points than his remarks on the Dred Scott decision, which, warts and all, can be read here:
I don't particularly care whether Taney's statue torn down, so long as it's understood full well why it deserves to be spat on.
I think I agree with much of what Sandy says, but I think there may be a principle operating here, not perfectly, but in a rough sort of pragmatic way. I would have no problem with the people of a liberated nation tearing down the statues put up by their former conquerors. The same would be true for statues put up by a deposed dictator. The principle involved may concern our relationship to the people who put up the statues (or chose to maintain them). To what extent do we regard those people as our ancestors, as people we identify with, even as we recognize their numerous warts.
An analogy. Most of us have pictures of various ancestors where we live. When new addition show up, we tend to add pictures (sometimes moving the new baby to the place of honor, but rarely removing entirely). Of course, as we grow older, we learn more of our ancestor's warts. What would cause us to replace the pictures?
What would cause us to replace the pictures?
Mark, with families, it is usually only a significant disgrace that will bring down the memorial. When the pain of that disgrace is stronger than the positive memories, it is easier to remove the person from the family history than to keep them there. From families I have experienced, those who hit that memory hole were those who unapologetically abandoned their parents or parents who abused their children.
Which is why it should be concerning that even the brutal, repressive, and sadistic Saddam is being looked at fondly by the Iraqis under our occupation. You tend to canonize the bad guys only when the current guys are worse.
This post is driven by a rather base elision. The elision runs in two dimensions. First, it's not mentioned that the quotation of Lincoln comes from a political debate with Douglas. Whereas the Dred Scott decision is a legal precedent issued from the nation's highest court. When Lincoln's words had relevantly similar legal or practical effect (e.g., in the Emancipation Proclamation), the differences between his and the words of the Dred Scott Court were rather less "trivial."
Second, even in the context of the Douglas debates, Lincoln expressed sentiments that differ from Taney's in very nontrivial ways.
In short, c'mon.
I don't think Q's "com'on" is strong enough. Graber wants us to believe that the differences between the Great Emancipator and Roger B. Taney were "almost trivial"; that Roger B. Taney was a "champion of slavery"; and that Mark Graber is an intelligent and thoughtful man.
I think one of those three must fail. They cannot all be true.
Brad DeLong has a post about the article here.
I don't remember having strong objections to tearing down the statue of Saddam Hussein either way, but that was different from "censoring history" -- maybe it would be better today for the people of Iraq to still see said statue and remember what he did to them -- I was too young to care about renaming Leningrad, but I think even "remodeling" as an affirmative effort to censor history is wrong. Why exactly is that not an acceptable "general principle we can apply to deciding which past statues (or names of airports, etc.) to maintain"?
Mark Graber is doing the exact same thing that Lincoln accused Stephen Douglas of doing:
"In his quotations from that speech, as he has made them upon former occasions, the extracts were taken in such a way as, I suppose, brings them within the definition of what is called garbling,—taking portions of a speech which, when taken by themselves, do not present the entire sense of the speaker as expressed at the time."
So from now on may he be known to the world as "Garbling Graber."
Taney was a scum sucking pig who should have been arrested and put on trial, along with Davis.
Taney teamed up with Davis to illegally and unconstitutionally use the Courts to do what no legislature, no law, no human could do --- force slavery down the throats of people in the territories.
You could say he sped up the timing of the civil war, he made things so bad, there had to be a war to resolve it. But that is no credit, that was a crim in itself. Literally a crime.
Even Justice Scalia of the USSC said the Taney "decision" was the single worst decision in US history. It was the most blantant example of legislating from the bench.
The legislation Taney forced upon the US was his declaration that blacks were, essentially, not even human. Blacks were property.
But even much worse, Taney decreed that blacks were SO inferior, that no one -- no congress -- no state -- no people -- could give blacks the status of human.
Blacks were not even HUMAN according to Taney.
Learn what the decision was about, not this BS about Taney saying blacks were not citizens. That's BS we tell our kids. He said they weren't HUMAN. And could not be made human by anyone.
Learn the truth about the decision.
Plus, instead of resigning, he stayed on in the Civil War and tried everything to destroy the USA.
Lincoln should have hung him. Really, this "man" caused more death and suffering than any other man in US history.
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