The statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville should not be pulled down. Or rather, I should prefer that it not be pulled down. There’s a difference.
To eradicate every symbol of every political or cultural wrong in this or any other country would accomplish nothing. The urge to destroy symbols as a means of righting wrongs is widespread and understandable. Pulling down statues of Lenin and Stalin was satisfying, not just for Russians and their fellow sufferers under communism but for admirers of justice worldwide.
But what did it accomplish? Now we have Putin, who struts bare-chested but (so far as I am aware) has not had his statue erected in every village square. Mao’s statue still presides over Tienanmen Square, and we have had diplomatic relations with Beijing since Nixon, which were established before Mao’s successor rejected almost everything he stood for. (Which seems not to have placed his statues at risk.)
In the South there are proposals to remove not just statues and flags but the colonnaded mansions that presided over slave plantations. In Rhode Island there have been cries to demolish Bristol’s Linden Place, built with the profits of the slave trade. Must we then pull down Bristol itself brick by compromised brick? The effort to delegitimize founding fathers who held slaves has been afoot for years. Was their effort to enshrine freedom in principle of no extenuating value? Should the perfect be the enemy of the good? In principle I am no more against pulling down Lee and Jackson than I am against pulling down Washington (whether the monument or the city).
But to what end?
In a society that abjures slavery and hates its presence in our history, is one allowed to suspect that the motivation for the animus against statues of famous Confederates is as much – or maybe a lot more – political than philosophical? More left versus right than good versus evil? Such an admixture would tend to undermine the validity of the aspiration to rid the South of its statuary.
Again, to what end? The end of purging racism from our culture? Yes! But has not our progress toward that laudable end been made alongside the existence of Confederate statuary? Can the effect on the public mind of statuary be described with any accuracy? Does Lee on a horse give comfort to racists? Or does it remind us of the need to persist in our struggle to reach for our ideals? How much the former? How much the latter? Will pulling down Lee make further progress against racism more or less difficult? To the extent that these demands spring from partisan motivations that do not arise from this nation’s widespread and nonpartisan rejection of slavery and racism, progress obviously becomes more difficult. Or so it seems to me.
I am a reluctant participant in this discussion because my motives here are aesthetic rather than philosophical. The statues under assault are classical in style. Defending them is part of a wider defense of the classical style. Attacks on classicism as a style go back at least to the absurd argument that Hitler’s preference for classicism condemns all future design in that mode. Does it condemn all previous classical design? To answer yes is to argue for the destruction of all past architecture – starting yesterday, because all styles have housed people of good and evil motives, and stretching to who knows how many tomorrows. Buildings are not to blame for what goes on inside them, and a style – the reflection of an aesthetic tendency – is not to blame for symbolism misapplied to it for ideological purposes.
And yet while buildings, arguably, are ideologically mute, monuments, including statues, certainly are not. Still, the survival of a Lee on horseback, or even a house with a porch reminiscent of a plantation mansion, should be a matter for local sentiment to decide. It may not be possible to ensure that such local decisions will be philosophical rather than political. The line between the two is not necessarily crisp, and judgments of its placement may not necessarily be honest. There may be no answer to this difficulty except to assume that the decision is probably more likely to be honest if locally rather than nationally based.
Is that possible? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. But it should be a matter for citizens directly involved to decide, not a matter of “The whole world is watching!”
I am tired of this subject and I may decide not to post these ruminations. I am supposed to be relaxing in the Adirondacks, assisted so far by my inability to figure out how to post from my new iPod. [But I am making progress.]
The bottom line of my case here is that pulling down classical statues strengthens the case for pulling down all classical art and architecture. This is how I see it as I sit in my Adirondack chair.
The proper strategy is to work toward the obvious goal in the most effective manner. Perhaps that means pulling down Lee and his horse, but I suspect not. Better off trying less emotional and more practical steps toward racial equity and comity in this country. The good, the true and the beautiful all argue in that direction.