The conservative case for toppling statues: Why ‘bad men’ shouldn’t be revered in the public square

Interesting categorization of monuments of historical figures:

It may have been the easiest political no-brainer of the year when Conservative leader Erin O’Toole rushed to condemn the unruly mob that brought Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue tumbling down in Montreal last month.

Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has won elections by outflanking the NDP to the left, thought about it for a day or two and then denounced the “vandalism” that has “no place in a society that abides by the rule of law.”

For support and to help convince conservatives, Levy points to the words of 18th century Scottish economist Adam Smith, who gave the world “the invisible hand” of the free market and whose classical liberal economics were vital to 20th century conservatism.Smith believed we are hard-wired to venerate powerful people, whether they are morally upright or not, and that this is an impulse we should fight back against.

“Even when the order of society seems to require that we should oppose them, we can hardly bring ourselves to do it,” wrote Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. We look at political leaders in “delusive colours in which the imagination is apt to paint in,” creating a “peculiar sympathy.”

Levy also points to the words of Lord Acton, who famously said that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Levy argues that if Smith and Acton are right, then we are honouring the wrong people almost across the board. And that extends to people like Macdonald, whose triumphs in government are marked in equal measure by outrages, said Levy in an interview with the National Post.

“There’s no doing without Macdonald in Canadian political history. But that doesn’t mean that celebration has to be a uncritical or has to conceal what is actually a very complicated institutional legacy,” said Levy.

In an article for the Niskanen Center in the United States, Levy divides these historical leaders into three categories. The first are people who committed dishonourable acts and are celebrated precisely for those acts, like Jefferson Davis, who is remembered as the president of the confederacy during the U.S. civil war and a defender of slavery.There are also people who lived unimpeachable public lives, like George Washington, who also owned slaves in his private life. When Washington is publicly revered, it’s for his role as a founding father rather than his private sins.

In Levy’s view, Macdonald represents a middle-ground because he is venerated for a record that has troubling moments along with the great triumphs.

“His wrongs were official wrongs. The head tax and the treatment of First Nations, those are as much a part of his legacy as building Confederation in a way that differs from the private slave-owning of American founders,” said Levy. “That means that his legacy is contested in the same way that the moral character of Canadian Confederation is contested. And I don’t think there’s any way to set aside either part of that.”

Smith believed that we sympathize with the dead and pile on affection, especially “when they are in danger of being forgot by everybody.” Because the dead can’t defend themselves people are moved to do it for them or to hold off on criticism.

Levy’s response to that is simple: Sir John A. could handle criticism when he was alive and he can surely handle it now.

“We not only overestimate the moral standing of rulers, we overestimate the harm in moral criticism of the dead,” wrote Levy.

Although conservatives are more likely to defend statues and monuments, progressives are not immune from the phenomenon that Smith describes. The death of United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg provoked a massive wave of grief, even beyond the borders of the U.S.

“I absolutely think we’re seeing that Smithian dynamic at work,” said Levy. “There’s been 15 years worth of half tongue-in-cheek idolatry about her. There’s a wildly excessive personalization of the relationship to her.”

It’s not just world leaders either. We venerate celebrities and athletes, no matter how many times they disappoint us.

The polling on these monuments suggests that many people are more disturbed by the mob action than the actual removal of the statues. When Trudeau gave his comments about the incident in Montreal he singled out the lawlessness for criticism and almost nothing else.

Levy believes, though, at the heart of it is our out-sized and often irrational affection for the people who lead us.

“There is widespread and justifiable aversion to the sight and the phenomenon of people no one elected taking matters into their own hands,” said Levy. “But the politics of taking statues down through lawful procedures gets so controversial that I’m inclined to doubt that the mob scene is really what’s doing most of the emotional work.”

Source: The conservative case for toppling statues: Why ‘bad men’ shouldn’t be revered in the public square

Royson James: Be careful who gets the honour of a memorial

Good reflections by Royson James on the need for reflection before erecting or removing monuments:

Be slow to tear down; slower to erect.

Heroes and villains are too often aligned — in the same body. So beware the memorials and monuments we construct.

That should be a direct lesson from the mound of past sins now being excavated and tossed on the sculpted images of our once shining heroes.

Once a hero, always a hero — in somebody’s mind. But the conquering coloniser is a miserable picture of pain and suffering to the victims of imperial conquests.

So, rip ‘em down. Tear down that statue. Remove the monument. Behead that statue that causes us so much pain. But be willing to square off against a phalanx of counter-protesters brandishing “Hands off our heritage” placards. America is Exhibit A — raw, extreme, seemingly irreconcilable, attempting to confront the past and a study in how not to get there in the first place.

It doesn’t have to be so, of course. Reasonable human beings can study the lives and contributions of the people our forebears honoured with monuments and memorials and reconsider their place of honour in light of modern norms and practices.

We learn. We grow. We listen to our neighbour. We may have to change our minds.

A tear-down doesn’t have to be a whitewash or a blackout. It can be an opportunity to present an era or person or people in wider context. Still, in real life, on the street, it doesn’t play out that neatly.

Toronto is not a city of statues and monuments. There are a few at Queen’s Park and along University Avenue and on university campuses, but nothing like the affinity found in Europe or the American south.

Maybe it’s because we are so young, compared to ancient cities. Maybe the paucity of public statues serve as a natural inhibitor to erecting new ones. After all, who are you to tower over us when so many before you have not been awarded that honour? Why this hero when we can name another 10 or 20 worthy competitors?

Count me among those who have advocated for more piazzas, grand boulevards, fountains and statues. Maybe we are fortunate not to have a proliferation because it is so difficult to install perfect human beings. Prime Ministers and presidents owned slaves. The British monarchy sponsored slave-ship expeditions. The Anglican Church owned slaves and branded them on the Codrington estate in Barbados.

In the midst of this tangled time stamp, affirming the victims, confronting the ugly truths and moving towards reconciliation and reparations is no easy feat. Denial is the worst option. So is a blanket erasure of evidence of the past.

We could be Richmond, Virginia, where the mother of all statues — the 21-foot high horse and rider General Robert E. Lee, head of the pro-slavery Southern Confederate states in the U.S. civil war — is coming down after years of protest that it is a symbol of white supremacy and racism. Opponents see it as symbol of southern heritage. The work, completed in Paris in 1890 is considered an artistic “masterpiece.” It took 10,000 people to transport the pieces from port to platform. Dismantling it and its granite base that’s almost twice as high as the stature itself, is a feat.

Here, we worry about spray paint on the King Edward VII statue at Queen’s Park.

Here, the city of Vaughan is embarrassed when a citizen pointed out that by changing the name of its August civic holiday in 2013 to Benjamin Vaughan Day, the city was celebrating a man of who not only owned hundreds of slaves in Jamaica but fought against the abolition of slavery. (Educated, Vaughan city council dropped the holiday name this year, returning to Simcoe Day.) There’s no word on the fate of the city’s name itself, cut from the same cloth.

Clearly, we pay scant attention to the names we give our streets. So many streets to name in so many subdivisions. Developers name your street address after their girlfriends. Architects throw in ninny names to satisfy whatever fantasy overcame them. Who’s to know?

Maybe Toronto city planners were a bit more fastidious when they laid out the old city by name. You can’t go wrong with Front or Lakeshore, er Lake Shore, or King, Queen, Princess, John and Jane. Who would suspect Mr. Bathurst or Mrs. Dufferin of having damaging secrets that might render them unfit to adorn our boulevards? Dundas? Harmless.

Oops. Apparently, only as harmless as Ryerson and Macdonald — names and esteemed people now under scrutiny for questionable racial history.

Toronto’s city manager has issued a brief committing to “broadly understand and respond to how systematic racism and discrimination are embedded in city assets, commemorative programs and naming policies.”

Chris Murray says “this might ultimately touch all named city streets, parks and facilities, public monuments, and civic awards and honours, potentially leading to a variety of actions (e.g., renaming streets, removing monuments, revoking awards or reinterpreting any of these).

“Addressing the historical legacy of Dundas Street is one of these steps” necessary in challenging systemic institutionalized racism and build a more inclusive Toronto,” Murray writes.

If these are more than just words — and if city council next month adopts the philosophy and true intent — we are in for a turbulent period that will test our maturity as a city. If the effort doesn’t get messy, it’s a sure sign it isn’t real.

We honour people who touch us and move us to dream and aspire to greatness. When the very visage of our “heroes” evoke the image of “villains” in our neighbour, this clash of vision can only crash at our feet — assuming we are equally invested and rooted and valued.

How we clean up the mess will define our future. It will also remind us: Be slow to tear down; slower to erect.

We Don’t Have to Like Them. We Just Need to Understand Them.

Good commentary on historic statues in a way that understands the differences between historical figures, their contexts, and the need for case-by-case consideration of whether to remove or relocate:

Some sights are so searing that you can’t unsee them. And, like it or not, you end up seeing the world through them. Reality hasn’t changed; you have, which makes you want to change reality. Right now.

That pretty much describes the cause-and-effect physics surrounding the release, on May 25, of the cellphone video of George Floyd pinned to the ground and having the life squeezed out of him, second by second, by a Minneapolis policeman.

In the protests that followed, white supremacist images of all kinds — Confederate memorials, statues of slave-owners, tributes to colonizers — have come under attack. Some have been destroyed; others forklifted into storage; still others left in place to await an uncertain fate.

More recently, the anti-monument movement appears to be spreading beyond a focused demand for racial justice. Earlier this week in Madison, Wis., protesters toppled a statue of Hans Christian Heg, an abolitionist who died trying to end slavery.

Among a number of racially charged images in New York City, one of the most contested, the equestrian statue of Theodore Rooseveltat the entrance the American Museum of Natural History, has finally had its day of reckoning. Last week the museum itself asked the city for permission to remove the statue, and got the O.K.

In a press statement, the museum was careful to explain the reason behind its request for removal. Roosevelt himself — whose father was a founder of the museum — was not the main problem. The monument’s optics were.

Roosevelt is a complicated historical figure, an unstable ethical compound of bad and good. As an ardent conservationist, he put vast stretches of American land under federal protection, but took much of that land from Native Americans. He was internationalist in his thinking, but largely because he considered the resources of the world, particularly parts of the world with dark-skinned populations, to be ripe for the taking.

A Smithsonian Institution website describes him bluntly as “a racist whose beliefs reflected those of the elite of his day. Roosevelt thought African Americans to be inferior to white citizens.”

But even if you didn’t know any of this, one look at the monument tells you that it’s a problem, one that no extenuating information can make right.

Twenty-four feet tall, including an eight-foot high base, the 1940 sculpture by James Earle Fraser depicts Roosevelt, armed with pistols and perched on a spirited charger. Below him, walking on either side of the horse, their heads reaching barely higher than its back, are two other male figures, one Native American, one African, both in “native” attire. Each carries a rifle. Are they meant to be Roosevelt’s gun-bearers? His guides? His security detail? Whatever, he doesn’t look like he needs them. His face is alert, resolute, forward-directed; theirs, passive, withdrawn, cast down.

The image is, of course, a fantasy, one that can, and has been, interpreted in varying ways. One historian reads the standing figures as allegorical embodiments of Africa and America. To Fraser himself they represented “Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” But to contemporary eyes, the white supremacist import of its composition is unmistakable, and unacceptable: heroic white man on top of the world. No question, the thing has to go. And in the vaunted “great awakening” to racial injustice underway in the country now (how long will it last? How deep does it run?) the museum, and the city, figured that out.

But here comes a question. What do we do with other monuments that have similar compositions but more complex images and histories, and are, in addition, works of aesthetic distinction (a claim rarely made for the Roosevelt statue)? I’m thinking of the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment in Boston — a monument that got graffiti-tagged during protests in May.

This bronze bas-relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, installed on the Boston Common in 1897, also centers on a dominant white equestrian figure, in this case surrounded by black men in military uniforms. It commemorates Shaw as the leader of the first all-black volunteer Union army brigade that formed in Boston in 1863, and marched to a battle in South Carolina, where many soldiers, including Shaw, died, and where they were all buried together.

The visuals here say “white supremacist,” too: the racially hierarchical composition, the single-name dedication, the suggestion of the Union army’s enforced segregation.

At the same time, does a narrative of interracial loyalties between leader and troops add a mitigating factor to a judgment of the work? Or the fact that Frederick Douglass came to Boston to attend the 1897 unveiling? (Two of his sons were in the 54th Regiment.) Or even the fact that the Saint-Gaudens relief is widely regarded as a masterpiece of American public art?

To fully weigh such factors requires some knowledge of history, a discipline that has long been shunted aside in education. The story of Shaw and the 54th Regiment, or at least a highly romanticized version of it, has had the advantage of popular exposure: It was the subject of the 1989 film, “Glory. ” But even so, the monument was targeted by protesters. And the real question is, what’s the correct — meaning useful — response to the monument’s image of an egregious racial power dynamic? Eliminate or obscure it, or explain it?

All to say that the disposal of monuments should be approached case by case. Public political images are never innocent. But some are complex, with questions to ask and lessons to teach, while others — so-called “Lost Cause” Confederate monuments, created long after the Civil War to reassert white power — are, and were intended to be, racist assault weapons, plain and simple. In the current, healthy drive to neutralize assaultive images, it’s necessary, for history’s sake, that we first stand back, look hard, sort them out.

As for the disposition of the Roosevelt monument, which has not been officially announced, I have an idea. Clearly a racist artifact, the work cannot continue to serve as the visual introduction to an institution that, through its modern department of ethnology, is deeply devoted to the study of human culture.

I suggest that the museum retain the sculpture but display it for what it is: an outsize ethnological specimen, the product of a specific era and culture (the piece was unveiled in 1940, a year after the release of the “Lost Cause” film “Gone With the Wind”), now subject to critical evaluation in a different, Black Lives Matter era and culture. This conceptual change in use and value would require moving it, minus its base, into a gallery — and an apt context for display already exists.

In 2019, in response to earlier protests around the sculpture, the museum organized a small, ongoing documentary show called “Addressing the Statue,” which details the work’s history and includes commentary by contemporary ethnologists, social historians, art historians and artists.

Almost everyone says, in different ways, that the monument’s not a good thing and never was. And it would be useful for present and future audiences to be able to learn why it’s not a good thing, and why this not-good-thing — as big and bullying as a Tyrannosaurus — stood where it stood in this city for so long.

As for what might replace it out front, at the entrance: Something should. Why let an empty stone base the size of a small stage go to waste when we have so many politically savvy artists, young and old, who need a platform for their ideas?

As least one has already had a say about the Roosevelt monument: David Hammons, in a 1991 group show called “Dislocations” at the Museum of Modern Art. For his installation there, titled “Public Enemy,” he surrounded photomurals of the sculpture with sandbags and, police barriers. Who was being protected? It — or us? Way back then he wanted it gone, and now the deal’s done. The museum should ask him over for a victory lap.

And the museum could commission new work, keep it impermanent and have it change often, even daily. Mr. Hammons’s “Public Enemy” was ephemeral. When the MoMA show ended, his installation disappeared, perhaps into closets, studios, dumpsters; I don’t know where. More and more right now, impermanence makes sense. Losses from Covid-19, the flood of violent deaths and a new political art that seems to exist entirely on plywood and pavement contribute to this perception.

We’re at an inflection point in this country, potentially the most significant one in generations. Black Lives Matter brought us here. Now it’s everyone’s job to sustain the momentum. New art certainly has a contribution to make. So do our historical public images.

Some examples, like the Roosevelt and Shaw monuments, are eye-and-mind grabbers, dense packages of information and emotion. We should study them as closely and critically as we do the monuments of any age and culture. We don’t have to like them; we just need to understand them, examine their mechanics, what made them persuasive in their time, and how that persuasion works, or doesn’t, now.

By comparison, most of the commemorative statues now under attack across the land — and there are more and more each day — have little visual charisma. They’re generic period images of white male power. You’re tempted to think: If they go, small loss. Let’s move on.

Then you remember that each of those images comes with a name and a history, and some of those names belong to murderers, enslavers and genocidists. And their history is our history. It’s good to keep reminders of that visible, somewhere. Sometimes the most effective way to push yourself into the future is by reviewing the record of how bad the past has been.

Holland Cotter is the co-chief art critic. He writes on a wide range of art, old and new, and he has made extended trips to Africa and China. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2009.

Atlanta Will Add Context About Racism to Historic Monuments

I have always preferred this approach, providing context and using monuments as a means to increase understanding, rather than tearing them down or renaming:

Atlanta will soon add some lessons about the South’s racist history on markers placed next to four historic monuments amid the ongoing national debate over Confederate statues.

The first of the panels could be installed as early as Friday, officials said.

In Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, the 1911 Peace Monument commemorating post-Civil War reconciliation will get context noting that its inscription promotes a narrative centered on white veterans, while ignoring African Americans.

Many white Southerners viewed the American Civil War through “the lens of Lost Cause mythology” following the defeat of Confederate forces.

“That mythology claimed that despite defeat, the Confederate cause was morally just,” states the marker to be placed near the Peace Monument.

“This monument should no longer stand as a memorial to white brotherhood; rather, it should be seen as an artifact representing a shared history in which millions of Americans were denied civil and human rights,” it states.

Georgia law bars the removal of such monuments. Other states with laws protecting Confederate monuments include Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

The project puts the city ahead of other communities grappling with what to do about their monuments, Atlanta History Center President and CEO Sheffield Hale says.

“It’s telling the truth, and it’s also giving people an opportunity to have a discussion around facts,” Hale said. “The goal is to start a community discussion.”

States, cities and universities across the country began debating whether to remove Confederate statues after self-avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, during the summer of 2015. Roof had posted pictures of himself with a Confederate battle flag on social media.

A violent rally involving white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 added more fuel to the nationwide examination of Confederate monuments.

A few days after the Charlottesville rally, protesters sprayed red paint on Atlanta’s Peace Monument. Statues in other cities have also been vandalized in recent years.

One hope in Atlanta is that adding context in the form of the markers “will take some of the oxygen — the accelerant — out of the room” and make it less likely that statues will be vandalized, Hale said.

Another of the new Atlanta markers will be placed near a monument erected in 1935 to commemorate the Battle of Peachtree Creek. It notes that the statue’s inscription describes the U.S. after the Civil War as “a perfected nation.”

“This ignores the segregation and disenfranchisement of African Americans and others that still existed in 1935,” the marker states.

Other Atlanta markers will be placed near two monuments in the city’s historic Oakland Cemetery: The “Lion of Atlanta” monument and the Confederate Obelisk.

The Atlanta History Center has developed a Confederate Monument Interpretation Guide to add historical perspective to such statues, Hale said. He’s hoping Atlanta’s efforts to add context can be used to guide other communities as they decide whether what to do with their own monuments.

“I think in a lot of cases once people see the power of contextualization, some people might decide they’d like to keep them there as a way to show how far we’ve come, or the journey that we’ve had, and explain what was going on at the time they were erected,” Hale said.

Source: Atlanta Will Add Context About Racism to Historic Monuments

Historians say removal not the only way to deal with racist relics

Thoughtful commentary by Granatstein, Stagg and Blackstock on Canadian monuments on alternatives to removal.

Not convinced that moving controversial monuments to museums, as Gabaccia suggests, is preferred approach as it removes and isolates history, rather than exposing history to the broader public:

The trend to remove those memorials — many of which are displayed in prominent public places featuring figures in heroic poses, such as riding on horseback — has provoked strong emotions and violent clashes.

But leading historian and author Jack Granatstein said that rather than allowing these sites to become flashpoints for racial divisions, they should be displayed with contextual information to help people understand, interpret and learn from the past.

“It’s probably inflaming the situation,” Granatstein said of the push to eliminate memorials. “I think we need to remember that history happened, and you don’t simply change it by taking a name off a building or taking down a statue.

“I think what is better than that is to have an explanation for why someone is being honoured for what he or she did in that time, and that explanation can go in to context of what they did.”

Granatstein said taking down monuments allows the wrong people to seize control over the interpretation of history, referring to those who have staged demonstrations protesting their removal, including white supremacists.

“In the American context and to some extent the Canadian context, you give an opportunity to people whose views we don’t particularly enjoy: fascists, Nazis, racists,” he said. “I don’t want them pretending to defend history. The history they are trying to create is not the history I would prefer to see memorialized, or honoured or understood by the public.”

String of controversies

White nationalists protesting the planned removal of a statue memorializing Robert E. Lee, a Confederate top general, clashed violently with counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend. One woman was killed and another 20 people were injured.

It was the latest in a growing number of controversies that have erupted over plans to take down Confederate symbols in the U.S. and to change names of sites offensive to Indigenous people in Canada.

With a growing push to remove historical memorials and monikers, Granatstein asked where it would stop.

He noted that in Canada, CBC listeners called Tommy Douglas the greatest Canadian of all time, yet in the 1930s the former premier of Saskatchewan and father of medicare held a then popular belief in eugenics and wanted to sterilize people with mental impairments.

“Attitudes change, and it seems to me that one of the tasks of historians and politicians is to remind people that today’s values are different than past values, and the future’s values will probably be different than ours,” Granatstein said.

Trump emboldens protesters

Ron Stagg, a history professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University, said removing statues of Confederate heroes, which are now interpreted as symbols of slavery and oppression, draws the ire of a certain segment of the white population who see it as an erosion of their rights. Provocative statements from U.S. President Donald Trump have served to embolden these people, who may not have spoken out in the past.

Stagg sees the situation unfolding in the U.S. as different from that in Canada, where most disputes are not fraught with such deep divisions and “intense feelings” on both sides.

Halifax Cornwallis Statue 20151213

A statue of Edward Cornwallis stands facing England – with his back to Halifax – in Cornwallis Park. (Canadian Press)

In Canada, most of the controversies have been around Indigenous people in the context of reconciliation.

Conflict recently erupted in Nova Scotia over a plan to take down a statue of Edward Cornwallis, a British military officer and one of the founders of Halifax, who in his day had offered a bounty for the scalps of Mi’kmaq.

The federal government also recently removed the name of Hector Langevin from a government building, after Indigenous groups complained that it paid tribute to a man who played a role in the residential schools program.

Stagg called that name removal a “token” gesture by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and said it may open the floodgates to other requests for change.

langevin block ottawa parliament hill june 21 2017

The Langevin Block in Ottawa is seen on June 21, 2017 — the same day that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced it would be renamed because Hector-Louis Langevin, a father of Confederation, proposed the creation of the residential school system. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

“I think we’re going to try and be politically correct in terms of trying to erase aspects of the past that we find offensive,” he said. “I think that’s wrong in the broad sense. I think it’s going to continue to happen and there’s going to be a backlash just as there has been in the States.”

Indigenous child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock has successfully fought for revised wording on plaques commemorating certain people who had a role in the residential schools program. She said while in some cases symbols such as swastikas must be eliminated, she said most memorials should remain up in order to teach visitors about the past, provided they tell the full story.

“By erasing the monument you can erase the historical lessons, contributing even more to the rampant historical amnesia that feeds discrimination and immorality,” said Blackstock, who is also a professor of social work at McGill University.

Museums as mediators

Donna Gabaccia, a history professor at the University of Toronto who organized a weekend demonstration in Toronto to protest white nationalism and the violence in Charlottesville, said memorials could be taken down and moved to museums where they could be understood in proper context.

“I see museums as important mediators of cultural controversies, where many voices can be and must be heard if the controversies are to be resolved,” she said. “Monuments become controversial when public opinion and historical context changes around them, which is inevitable. Contestation over the meaning of museums can only be resolved when all sides begin to understand the differences between the past that created the monuments and the present that inevitably seeks new meaning in them.”

Granatstein said context about the people being memorialized — including polarizing figures deemed by some to have been heroes in their day — is critical to understanding history.

“Every country has its heroes and most of those heroes have feet of clay or maybe a toe or two of clay. A country without heroes is a country without a past. I’d prefer to have heroes and a past,” he said.

Source: Historians say removal not the only way to deal with racist relics – Politics – CBC News