What next? Jefferson? D.C.?

National-Mall_for-web-650x429

The National Mall, in Washington.

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 the greatest progress toward that laudable end been made during the heyday of Confederate statuary? Can the effect on the public mind of statuary be described with any accuracy? Does Lee on a horse remind us of the need to persist in our struggle to reach for our ideals, or does it give comfort to racists? How much the former? How much the latter? Will pulling down Lee make further progress against it 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.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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29 Responses to What next? Jefferson? D.C.?

  1. petervanerp says:

    I look forward to your advocacy for the erection of a statue of Iva Toguri in Los Angeles, and of William Brooke Joyce in Brooklyn.
    Lee broke his oath to defend the Constitution, and waged war against the US, leading to the deaths of thousands. He should be remembered, and his memory be accursed.

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  2. shedguy says:

    While touring the Baltics, when queried as to why they didn’t pull down the statues of the socialist heroes installed during the Russian occupation, the Estonians were puzzled. “Why should we try to obliterate our history?” Hopelessly non courant, the Estonians.
    As one determined to be politically correct in all things I wholeheartedly support any and all efforts to…er, whitewash the unfortunate reminders of the late great unpleasantness between the states. Nothing ever happened, nothing to see, move along folks. Amirite?

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  3. Justin Lee Miller says:

    I usually agree with everything on this blog. In this case, I think you’re dead wrong. One can debate if Greek and Roman architecture stands for Philosophy, Democracy, and culture or it stands for Imperialism. Confederate monuments only venerate men who fought to defend the right to enslave people, including my ancestors. The idea that they were merely fighting for States Rights is revisionist, naive, and cruel. I don’t see any “widespread and nonpartisan rejection of slavery and racism”. The Mississippi state flag still carries the Confederate Battle flag. Can you imagine being a black child going to school every day and seeing that? Native Americans are still begging to have sports teams drop racist names and mascots.

    Civic art is great! How about elegant and dignified statues of Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Marie Curie, John Glenn, Einstein, Faulkner, Twain? How about Frank L. Baum? He wrote a story about a brave girl who helped strangers to be their best selves, a story about cooperation and kindness. Shouldn’t we be teaching our children those values?

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    • Justin, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree, if that’s still allowed. It is clear, if not obvious to all, that the statues are ambiguous in their genesis, and it is clear and obvious that racism, not to mention slavery, is abhorred by most Americans. Have you ever been to a mall? It is heartening how mixed the groups of kids there are. Have you noticed how many mixed marriages (or at least mixed couples, since you can’t always tell) there are? To me that says something. Granted, I’m in New England, but I would not be surprised if it were the same in Mississippi or Texas, perhaps more so. And I’m sure most black children in a schoolroom as you describe will come through it fine, if a little less respectful of their school, if not egged on by adults to feel insulted. As an effective strategy in bringing justice and comity, removing statues probably does more harm than good.

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  4. ethananthony says:

    Charlottesville is geographically southern but demographically global and American. The people want the statue removed and they sold it. They are not “pulling it down” They are letting it go to someone else who values it. They have a right to an environment that expresses their values.
    The Neo-nazi demonstrators were outsiders from outside the community and do not hold the same values as the residents. They have should have no say in what the residents of Charlottesville must look at every day. Its not about revising history in this case. Its about allowing the present to celebrate the values of the present.
    On a recent visit to Berlin I was able to visit many buildings that were erected by the Third Reich. They have been repurposed and remain in the environment, Today we will visit a ghost village in France that remains although the SS murdered all of the residents in a horrific killing spree that defies imagination for its horror and brutality. Yet Charles DeGaulle chose to leave the village in its ruined state as a reminder of the horror of the dark passions of the soul unleashed on the innocent. We need to keep monuments to horror but they should be horrible not glorified. This is the problem of the Lee statue. It glorifies the man when his history is anything but glorious. Worse it has become a symbol for the worst elements in our society.
    After WWII Germany outlawed the use of Nazi images. I now understand why. They serve as a rallying point for those people who would destroy civilization out of fear and envy. There is nothing to be gained from allowing destructive elements to run free. That is not free speech it is terrorism.

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    • Interesting thoughts, Ethan, and among the replies to my post probably the strongest case against the Lee statue in Charlottesville. Still, the motives of those who want to pull it down (for sale or destruction) are as important as those who put it up or seek its retention. Many opponents may be as sincerely and innocently against the statue as many supporters are sincere and innocent. Still, it seems to me that tearing the statues down will not be an effective strategy to bring about what all (besides a fringe on either side) seek in justice and race relations.

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  5. William says:

    Eric… I don’t know you, so I won’t make a personal comment, but you really don’t know much about Robert E. Lee if you think that is what he was fighting for. Furthermore, despite his military achievements during the war, he was one of the primary public figures that helped mend the country’s wounds in the years following it. I have to admit to not being a fan of Jefferson Davis, but there is a reason why he and many other Confederate were not strung up on the gallows. With “malice toward none, and charity toward all” seems to be in short supply nowadays. The civil war is not a simple subject, as books are still being written. And we’re still discussing it. Like most things about history, it has complexities. I’m a distant relation (9th cousin LOL) to Mr. Lee, and as a result have read a ton on him. If you read any of his writings both before, during and after the civil war, you would likely note that he was significantly more enlightened than many of his time, including many on the Northern side. It’s not about our side good, their side bad. If only it were so simple. These men are products of their time, not of ours. Memorials are to the past, not the future. They’re good if nothing else to help us to remember it.

    PS. Thank you Mr. Stokes for your observations. Very well stated as always.

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    • Again, very well said, William. I suspect that the last thing most of the antifas (oops, I mean anti-statues) want is a clear explication of the issues involved. They not only cannot grasp nuance, they don’t want to. I’m no fan of Lee, but I don’t think stamping out his memory will solve any problems. Your thoughts represent the Lincolnesque sentiments of today; Eric, though he is a brilliant classicist, represents the Johnsonian sentiments – the sentiments that propelled such a horrifying botch of the Reconstruction period. From the opposite side, of course, but probably with a similar result – extending the distance to that time when we will have far greater egality and comity.

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  6. William says:

    I wholeheartedly agree, Dave. There is a difference between recontextualising a memorial to a past event or to a person and destroying evidence of the past. Thats the kind of stuff ISIS did to Buddha statues, and not for terribly different reasons… they saw no value in what others thought of them. I think the current mayor of Richmond, VA is on the right track about how to respond. I’d rather preserve a less than ideal past, and use it as a learning opportunity, as opposed to whitewashing and sanitizing it, and eventually forgetting it. History isn’t taught well anymore, and statues and such help serve as prompts, even after events are long forgotten. There problem with this current climate is that it has no rationale endgame until every remnant of the past, warts and all, is obliterated.

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  7. Keith Stokes says:

    I own many heirlooms from 19th century America that includes Confederate relics and items that reflect the most painful chapter in American history; slavery. It has been my experience the topic of human bondage in the building of America continues to be the source of racial tension and emotional debate to this very day. Possibly at the very center of the Confederate memorial debate is people talking amicably and rationally about slavery, race and public memory. I can only suggest that we must learn, as best we can, the often painful history of America, warts and all. Simply removing statues offers no foreseeable end to what I see is the most important issue to address, the lack of public spaces and established education curriculum of African heritage people and their history in America.

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    • Whenever a confederate statue is pulled down, it could be replaced by one that honors an African-American. That would be a small start toward telling their stories and reminding us all of their role in the creation and building of the United States of America. Charlottesville could certainly start with a statue to a black man named Fountain Hughes who was born enslaved (his great-great grandmother was Betty Hemmings, enslaved by Thomas Jefferson) and told his story to a WPA interviewer in 1949. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/afcesn:@field%28DOCID+afc9999001t9990a%29

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    • Many thanks, Keith, for this broadly spiritual and insightful take on events from a fellow Rhode Islander. I hope (there’s that word again!) that you will not be called upon to allow the fad of the moment to ransack your most cherished personal belongings!

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    • Many thanks, Keith, for this broadly spiritual and insightful take on events from a fellow Rhode Islander. I hope (there’s that word again!) that you will not be called upon to allow the fad of the moment to ransack your most cherished personal belongings!

      (I tried but failed to correct the confused placement of this reply to your post, Keith. Mystifying are the ways of WordPress!)

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  8. Eric Daum says:

    We should not erase history. But there is a significant difference in the symbolism between naming a city after a man judged to be flawed by the standards of our time and celebrating a man who betrayed his oath to the United States in order to fight for a cause which explicitly proclaimed that one race was inferior to another and deserved bondage and oppression Statues in public parks, places meant to convey the civic aspirations of ALL citizens, cannot celebrate the crushing hatred of one part of the citizenry for another. Quite simply, Lee, Jackson et al were traitors who fought against the constitutional government of the United States because they believed in their “right” to hold another man in bondage. The myth of the Lost Cause has perpetuated the belief that there was nobility at the root of Sputhern Culture. It was nothing more than hate, stubbornness and ignorance and it deserves no place of honor in our civic realm.

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  9. Anonymous says:

    Dear “subscriber” — talk about animosity — feel free to Google “Finding Phebe” and Warren Middle Passage Project and you will find out our group exists and we have been doing research on the slave trade and the enslaved for a year and a half. If you would like to argue my comment feel free. “Full of baloney” is pretty weak.

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  10. A Subscriber says:

    Dave, you’re not gonna have much of a vacation if you keep thinking about stuff – so stop it and relax. There will be plenty of time for that when you get home.

    And allow me to also add that the anonymous ‘co-chair’ of the ‘Warren Middle Passage Project’ is full of baloney.

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  11. Anonymous says:

    I am the co-chair of the Warren Middle Passage Project and have been doing research on slavery in Rhode Island for the past year and a half. As a white woman, I would say you, as a white man, should be left out of the discussion on whether Confederate War memorial should be saved or taken down. I would leave that decision to those who live in its vicinity. In fact, I would give the final decision to those blacks who walk by it every day. You are, if nothing else, tone deaf on this one but that is the least of it.

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    • Ah! Very totalitarian, Anonymous. You may have noted that I too think the decision should be local, but that doesn’t mean nobody but locals can or should opine on what it should be. That is our constitutional right, if that means anything to you. It is best decided locally, but it is a national issue.

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  12. Quarkybirdy says:

    Your words are well taken and should be considered by all sides.

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