Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Public Monuments and Shared Meanings

Guest Blogger

Sanford Levinson

This post was prepared for a roundtable on Public Memory and Public Monuments, convened as part of LevinsonFest 2022.

First things first: I am extremely grateful to Richard Albert and Ashley Moran, the organizers of the entire “Levinsonfest” project, and to the participants in this particular session on public monuments.  My views on public monuments are decidedly not “written in stone,” as it were.  I find the issues presented by public memorialization and celebration to be genuinely complex, and the one thing I’m confident of is that there is no algorithm or its equivalent, an abstract political theory that can simply be applied to concrete examples, that will enable us to answer the questions posed.  After all, and crucially, it is not only a question of what particular historical figures or events “we,” as a very limited set of individuals, might wish to honor, but also a much different question of what “forbearance,” if any, we owe people and communities with whom we might heatedly disagree as to who is worthy of public honor.  We are not, after all, deciding what posters to put up in our private lawns.  We are arguing about who gets to control the use of public space, which almost by definition forces us to confront what we mean by “the public.”  Is it a unitary entity capable of speaking in one voice or, instead, a concatenation of often fractious sub-entities who are characterized by vigorous disagreement about what the Supreme Court has sometimes called “issues of public concern.”

I use the word “forbearance” quite self-consciously, for it is a central term in Steven Levitsky’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s book How Democracies Die.  If, as they argue, almost all countries are in fact significantly pluralistic and contentious, then a democratic system will be preserved only if winning political coalitions forbear from taking advantage of every last drop of what might be perfectly legal power.  One name for this is “compromise,” though the attractiveness of any such actual practice itself has in effect become part of the contemporary cultural and political wars.  Lawyers may be addicted to notions of “consistency” or even “coherence” that are in tension with the practical exigencies of maintaining public peace.  That might require the potential sacrifice of both of these otherwise attractive ideas.  “Blessed may be the peacemaker,” but not necessarily because the terms of the peace can necessarily pass muster in an academic seminar.

So I turn to the particular papers that Balkinization—another recipient of my gratitude—has been kind enough to publish.  To do full justice to the comments would require a far more substantial essay of my own than I (or my readers) have time for.  So I will offer some general comments, hoping that they, like all of the “Levinsonfest” events, generate conversation and argument, since I am fully confident that I have nothing to say that will achieve genuine “closure” with regard to the issues that are raised.

Jonathan Gienapp raises an interesting question at the outset:  Why do we honor individuals (or discrete collections of human beings) at all, rather than the abstract ideas that they are presumed to stand for?  If one simply memorializes “courage,” “justice,” “liberty,” or whatever we might wish to honor, rather than associating these abstract ideals with particular persons, then, at the very least, we are never at risk of being embarrassed by the actual complexity of those persons.  It is one thing to debate the presumed meaning of the Declaration of Independence, for example, a common interest of both Gienapp and Kermit Roosevelt (though Roosevelt in fact argues that we should liberate ourselves from our collective infatuation with the Declaration).  It is another thing to believe that one must honor Thomas Jefferson as the primary author of that document.  After all, that transforms the conversation from trying to figure out what “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” might actually mean to considering the fact that Jefferson was a devoted, even if a somewhat ambivalent, slaveholder who, notably, had several children with an enslaved person who was herself the enslaved half-sister of Jefferson’s wife (to whom he had apparently unwisely pledged, on her death bed, that he would never remarry).  Similarly, any public recognition of Bill Cosby, a noted philanthropist regarding the importance of education, today inevitably gets caught up in the fact that he was a systematic sexual predator.  And so on.  Might we not be better off if our national capital were, say, “Liberty,” rather than “Washington”?  I note that the most popular name for new schools in Florida, at least when I was writing Written in Stone back in the 1990s, was “Manatee”; it was no longer propitious to name schools after political figures given the polarization that was present even then.  I do not anticipate that there will be many schools named after any of our recent presidents.

I personally doubt that we could truly excise individuals from receiving public honor.  For one thing, inasmuch as many institutions, including state universities, depend on generous donors who quite obviously wish to be recognized by having buildings and entire schools named after them, it might be extremely costly to adopt such an austere Gienappian principle.  Ironically or not, Stanford University, where he teaches, recently renamed a principal thoroughfare named after Junipero Serra, one of the Catholic priests who colonized California and attempted to convert “heathen” Native Americans.  It is now named after Jane Stanford, the wife of Leland Stanford (and the mother of Leland Stanford, Jr., the actual honoree of his father’s decision to create Leland Stanford Jr. University, from which I’m happy to have received my law degree).  But, as with my own undergraduate university, Duke, there is certainly reason to raise some questions about the specific personae of the Stanford family or of Washington Duke, the founder of American Tobacco Co.  And Harvard is now wrestling with how much of its campus needs to be renamed following the disclosure that many of its honorees were altogether complicit in slavery. 

Randall Kennedy is fond of quoting Balzac’s statement, “Behind every great fortune lies a crime.”  That is, I suppose, an empirical question, but I suspect that it is substantially true.  And I contributed to our Zoom discussion one of my own favorite quotes, Brecht’s “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”  Even if that is true, can we really imagine any lands that in fact do not believe they need heroes to commemorate and memorialize?  Perhaps it is simply true that all lands are in some profound sense “unhappy,” representing, perhaps, the exile from Eden.

Roosevelt notes that “if we’re creating national narrative, we need something shared.”  And Deborah Gerhardt, too, is concerned about creating an American society that can truly share a narrative about, say, the American Civil War and its causes, let alone the aftermath of Reconstruction.  In my remarks, I borrowed some valuable slides from Prof. Zack Bray, who has done invaluable work on the legal regulation of public monuments, dealing with the landscape in particular at the Little Bighorn National Monument (nee the George Armstrong Custer National Monument).  There space is now shared by monuments not only to Custer and to the Lakota Sioux, defenders of their homeland, whom I had learned as a young lad sixty years ago had ”massacred” the brave American soldiers, but also to the Crow scouts who in fact collaborated with Custer against their own traditional enemies, the Sioux.  So, at the very least, one must learn to stop referring to Native Americans as themselves a single community; the more than 500 existing officially recognized tribes include many traditional enemies.  Fragmentation is everywhere, and students of monuments must take account of it.

The most volatile paragraph in all of the essays is surely contributed by Roosevelt:  “So the mistake is not saying that an American history centering on slavery is indoctrination.  It is indoctrination.  But all education is indoctrination.  The mistake is supposing that there is any version of American history that isn’t indoctrination.” (emphasis added).  I described this, not snarkily, as the triumph of a “post-modernist” view of epistemology and education that I myself substantially share.  It requires, quite obviously, the rejection of naïve “correspondence theories” of truth that allow us confidently to distinguish between “what really happened” and “indoctrination.”  Here, especially, a full discussion would take a book (or many books).  But, at the very least, one must recognize the implications for American education in general if its practitioners, including those protected by “academic freedom,” freely concede that all assertions about the American past are substantially ideological, i.e., at best distinctly partial truths in the service of what are political ends.  The Texas legislature, among others, strongly suspects this is true and, as a result, is trying to use its legal powers to rein in what teachers can teach their presumptively vulnerable students.

I am absolutely delighted to have both Anna Saunders and Aleksandra Kuczynska-Zonik, neither of whom I had previously known, as participants in this discussion.  They underscore the fact that monuments and memorialization is indeed a universal reality, whether or not there are universal answers.  Kuczynska-Zonik’s discussion is especially poignant at the present moment, when the human disaster that is the completely unjustified invasion of Ukraine by Russia is being used as an excuse/reason even further to forget the fact that “the West” was allied with the Soviet Union, at least after June 1941, against Nazi Germany and that, more to the point, the War would never have been won without the almost unimaginable sacrifices of the truly brave Soviet peoples.  I write these words during the week in which Russia commemorates the end of the Great Patriotic War and takes note of those sacrifices.  And, of course, the conclusion of the War was followed by Western-tolerated Soviet hegemony in what we might call the Warsaw Bloc countries, including Poland, the focus of Kuczynska-Zonik’s extremely interesting work.  It is overdetermined, perhaps, that the Polish landscape would have been dotted by monuments to a variety of Soviet heroes and their Polish allies, just as one can as easily understand the determination of many contemporary Poles to efface their landscape of such monuments.  I have reservations about excluding Russian athletes from various competitions.  Should we have similar reservations about encouraging an historical amnesia about what was in fact an alliance of world-historical importance with regard to overcoming the Nazi menace?

Anna Saunders offers valuable insights into the problems attached to German historical memory.  There are, for completely understandable (and altogether defensible) reasons, no monuments to overt Nazis.  (It might be worth noting, though, that The Foreword, a Jewish newspaper published in New York, has recently published an essay noting the presence of monuments in Denmark of minor figures who had collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.)  But what about systematic remembrance of the Allied demolition of Dresden in February 1945?  I strongly doubt that Dresden views that episode in saturation fire-bombing as “just punishment” for their complicity with Nazi leaders.  And I assume that many of do not view the episode as the Allies’ finest hour, even in a so-called “good war.”

One might even ask similar questions about the politics of the Japanese emphasis on the bombing of Hiroshima (or Nagasaki), even as that country continues quite systematically to avoid coming to terms with the “Rape of Nanking” in China.  One difference between Germany and Japan, as Ian Buruma noted in The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan, is precisely the greater willingness of Germany to confront their grim national past regarding the Nazi period.  I mentioned Susan Nieman’s surprisingly titled book Learning from the Germans, which explicitly compares, to our own disadvantage, the attempts of Germany and the United States to confront their problematic pasts.  But perhaps one reason that Germany has been so much better is that to some significant extent, Germans can focus on a relatively few years, say, 1923 (the date of the Beerhall Putsch)-1945, which can be read, by us today, with the knowledge that the country has in fact become perhaps the leading exemplar of liberal constitutionalism in the world today.  For the United States genuinely to confront its own grim past regarding especially race and Indigenous Nations requires going back at least to 1619 and foreword even into the American present. 


Consider in this context the sheer pathos of the recently amended Texas law regarding what students should be taught about American history in the Texas public schools.  At one and the same time, the state legislature requires that students be taught about slavery, white supremacy, and much else that political progressives might applaud.  But teachers are explicitly forbidden to suggest to their students that


“with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”


Moreover, teachers are expressly prohibited from “require[ing] an understanding of The 1619 Project.” 

Frankly, I can imagine a German patriot suggesting that the relatively few years of Nazi governance represent “deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to” the Germany heritage of the Enlightenment.  There are ways that one might dispute this, obviously, but it is more plausible than trying to explain to American students that literally centuries of systematic discrimination, including chattel slavery, can best be understood as “failures to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States.”  As Roosevelt argues, the most enduring “founding principle” might well be to do whatever is thought necessary to create “national unity,” at least among economic and political elites.  In any event, the United States has never come close, as a country, to confronting its past, whatever may be said of brilliant individual historians (such as Jonathan Gienapp).  Our national propensity, when offered a choice between “legend” (or self-serving ideology) and “truth” (whatever exactly that might mean) is to go with the legend. 

So let me conclude with Deborah’s own conclusion, in which she addresses the all-important problem captured in our national motto, E pluribus unum, out of pluralism, unity.  How do we do that in a country that is so fractionated, not least, of course, because the most commendable part of our national history over the past 75 years or so has been a move toward an inclusiveness. Whether measured by the Voting rights Act of 1965 or, indeed, the repeal that same year of the despicable Immigration Act of 1924 that attempted to make the United States a truly white, Christian nation by keeping out immigrants from countries viewed as “the Other,” the United States is today a far more truly diverse country than I think I found imaginable when growing up in North Carolina in the 1950s.  But that commendable diversity is not without a political price, for it means that many more groups, with their own political identities and agendas, now demand a place at bargaining tables—and in places of public commemoration and honor.

Deborah describes herself as “being wired for positivity,” and she offers several suggestions as to how “our nation can find a way to work together to slay this dragon” of antagonistic acrimony.  “If we can't agree on politics or even history,” she writes,

maybe our public planners can find ways for us to have more shared joy…  Perhaps we can start with cultural icons instead of politicians. Can we agree we feel proud to be a nation that raised Dolly Parton, Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, and Hank Aaron? I know I am not alone in feeling patriotic at the Lincoln Memorial, inspired by the Statue of Liberty, and deeply moved in shared loss at the Vietnam Veteran's memorial. Surely, our contemporary artists must be capable of forging from our melting pot more public spaces that bring us together to reflect on all that gives us joy and meaning. 

This is certainly interesting, though I wonder how many Republicans besides Chris Christie are so fond of Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics that serve as powerful critiques of important aspects of American ideology, including, of course, “Born in the U.S.A.”  The Trump Administration certainly taught us that there is no longer any shared interpretation about the meaning of the Statue of Liberty, especially for those who take seriously Emma Lazarus’s poem about welcoming the “wretched refuse” of the teeming shores far away.  I share her sense about the magnificence of Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial, but it was extremely controversial at the time,  ultimately accompanied (or desecrated) by a much more conventional war memorial that did not simply evoke the powerful sense for many of us, when viewing Lin’s creation, of so many American lives lost in vain (not to mention the many more lives lost by Vietnamese in what they call “the American war”).  But these questions are not meant to dismiss her plea to think about how we might in fact create some sense of a country that is united around things that might be capable of giving all of us “joy and meaning.”  H.W. Auden ultimately renounced his famous line, from “September 1939,” that “we must love one another or die” and requested that it not in fact be reprinted.  So be it.  But surely it is correct that we must achieve some sense of shared purpose and membership in a United States of America or drift every more definitely at best into a country full of alienated people who have engaged in their own version of “inner emigration” out of any notion of public life or, more ominously, into civil war.  To ask for “joy” may be too ambitious, but perhaps it will be possible to achieve a shared notion of citizenship in what the Constitution terms a “republican form of government.”  That would certainly be an achievement in itself.

Sanford Levinson holds the W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Centennial Chair in Law at the University of Texas Law School. He is also a Professor in UT’s Department of Government and a Visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. You can contact him at

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