Destroying Confederate Monuments Hurts Us All—and Accomplishes Nothing

Workers remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from the south mall of the University of Texas in Austin

Eternally vilifying the losers of some past conflict leads to eternal division.

As president of a cultural heritage organization, I feel obligated to weigh in on the current controversy over Confederate monuments. The semi-hysterical push to remove them is, I strongly believe, a mistake, a dangerous precedent, and an exercise in ignorance. Mobs pull statues down. ISIS destroys monuments. Fanatics rewrite history to edit out the bits they don’t like. Our country should not be walking down that road.

To the advocates of historic cleansing, this is about racism. Remove its reminders from public spaces, and you are helping to remove it from society. That is a bold assumption—in fact it’s many assumptions: that what a monument says to you is what it says to everyone. That negative periods of history should be erased. That the losing side in a conflict also loses, for all time, the right to honor or mourn its dead. That driving an opposing sentiment underground will make it go away.    

My nonprofit helps people in conflict zones protect their endangered heritage sites or rebuild them if they were damaged by war or terrorism. For example, we are working to restore the last remaining Judaeo-Christian pilgrimage site in the vicinity of Mosul, the only one that was missed by ISIS in its rampage. From my vantage point, the idea that the way to deal with history is to destroy any relics that remind you of something you don’t like, is highly alarming. It’s bad enough when some insane bunch of fanatics has this idea. When it happens in a supposedly rational, knowledge-based society, it sets a terrible precedent. And by the way it doesn’t even accomplish its aim—quite often, a destroyed monument thereby gains in power and resonance. There are much better ways to process the past.    

The first problem with projects of cultural cleansing is that they must always, inevitably, be subjective. The people behind the destruction of a statue or an edifice or a monument of course believe themselves to be justified. They see Object X as offensive to their beliefs and values. Others may argue for its survival by pointing out that it does no harm, or that it is art, or that they are sentimentally attached to it, or that they want it to remain for any number of other reasons. But even if everyone agrees that Object X should go, later generations may find that decision appalling, a loss to culture, to art, to science, to knowledge and to the historic integrity of the urban landscape.

To the Taliban, the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan were impious remnants of a pre-Islamic age, idols that deserved to be blown up. Now these irreplaceable, priceless and beautiful statues are gone, lost to the world. ISIS dynamited Palmyra (“a heathen site”) and many other beautiful and valuable places in Syria and Iraq, including the tombs of the Biblical prophets Jonah and Daniel and countless other historic treasures. And they can make a case for so doing—not a case you and I might agree with, but a case nonetheless. They disapprove of monuments altogether—a sort of radical “thou shalt make no graven images” argument, and they especially disapprove of monuments honoring anything that is not Islamic, or not Islamic in line with their own particular vision, which is why they also destroy historic mosques and Muslim shrines. They feel virtuous and justified in targeting something they despise and turning it to rubble. The rest of us ought to beware of that feeling.

The second problem with this method is that it doesn’t work. Object X will just become one more martyr. Fifteen years after their obliteration, the Bamiyan Buddhas are arguably the most vivid Buddha figures in the minds of millions of people. There are other colossal Buddha statues in the world—but how many can the average nonarchaeologists, non-Buddhist name? The Buddha of Hyderabad anyone? Of Kamakura? Similarly, can we seriously expect that removing Robert E. Lee from perches in parks will contribute to the elimination of racism in America? Taking a statue away is not a social reform action, it is a pseudo-action to make people feel they are accomplishing something when in fact they are not.

Another thing to consider, and perhaps be healthily humbled by, is the temporal nature of our societies, their accomplishments, their battles. Tour the archaeological ruins of any formerly great civilization, and you will invariably encounter inscriptions that have been chiseled away, faces that have been obliterated, heads that have been struck off the rumps of their statues. Someone overthrows or assassinates a predecessor and orders his or her name and image removed. Often, the relevant dynasties have been lost to historic memory, and no one has any clue what their bitterly monumental conflicts were about, who won, who lost, who got slaughtered, what they believed in. What could have remained is their story, and any lessons later humans might draw from it. Erase your story and you erase yourself.

And on the subject of stories: a monument does not impose a story. A monument is just a piece of stone or metal. The “get Robert E. Lee out of here” contingent assumes that anyone who stands before his statue will be thinking, “how noble it was to own a plantation and have slaves, I wish the South had won.” A reasonable viewer, however, is more likely to think: “How sad that so many thousands of young men had to die for this lost cause. Too bad that Robert E. Lee, by all accounts a brilliant man, made the wrong call. We should all learn to subject our loyalties to very careful moral scrutiny.” Instead of removing the object, it’s much better to try and shape what lesson it conveys.