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Smashing American idols

The statue of Thomas Jefferson on the Hofstra

The statue of Thomas Jefferson on the Hofstra University campus. There must be a deliberative process and a teaching moment that explains why these statues are being removed. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Through statues we are conducting a deep national debate about American history.

See it in the planned removal of Theodore Roosevelt from the front of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and Nassau County Executive Laura Curran’s swift defense of local son Roosevelt’s perch in Mineola. See it at Hofstra University, which is relocating a statue of Thomas Jefferson. See it in emotional arguments for and against master builder Robert Moses’ Babylon Village bronze, and a Shirley statue of Declaration-signer William Floyd, who owned enslaved people.

These are local versions of the debates taking place around the country. Confederate memorials, Columbus statues, and monuments to previously unassailable Great Men of history are being revisited with the kind of fervor usually reserved for the fate of flesh and blood figures.

In recent days, the monument debate has in certain places boiled over into vandalism, with some hotheaded protesters pulling down statues by force. This isn’t the best way to settle conflicts, and a democratic society must have a more delineated and measured process for public disagreements of this kind. The destruction of property is a crime with consequences, but heavy prison sentences for vandalism, as President Donald Trump demands, are not a good broad-brush solution either.

There must be, however, a healthy way to engage each other about the people remembered in our public places.

Roles of statues

Statues have always been about power. Sometimes their construction has more to do with the people who put them up than the figures being memorialized. Manhattan’s Christopher Columbus statue, honoring a 15th-century Genoan explorer who was financed by Spain, was erected with the help of Italian Americans flexing newfound political muscles. Confederates largely didn’t get statues immediately after their wartime acts. Robert E. Lee and the rest began going up along with the cementing of Jim Crow segregation decades later, deliberate messages to Black citizens about the racist hierarchy the statue-unveilers hoped to keep.

Power puts statues up, and power takes them down. This is hardly newsworthy in places like Europe, where statues rise and fall and rise with the changing fortunes of empires, nations and ideologies. That’s what happened with many monuments to Marxist leader Vladimir Lenin as Communism crumbled.

Sometimes, there’s little debate necessary for why memorials are removed. Official Nazi imagery is nowhere to be found in Germany, which goes a step further: Nazi symbols are essentially banned.

No reasonable person thinks a Nazi flag needs to be flown to “remember German heritage” or “avoid the erasure of history.” History must always exist in books and museums and exhibits, many of which live on in Germany. But memorials are often used to justify or glorify moments of now-discredited forces of history that have no place in the present.

A way forward

Here in America, there should be some similarly easy calls. The Confederacy lost the Civil War, which was fought over the despicable practice of slavery. If society wasn’t ready to expurgate or avoid Confederate flags, symbols and statues after the civil rights movement of the 1960s, we should be ready now, given widespread protests and reckonings after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. When white supremacists openly defend Confederate statues like the one in Charlottesville, Virginia, it should be pretty clear what that statue really signifies. Put them in storage, or display them in a context where their racist symbolism is fully explained.

More complicated, of course, are the thousands of statues from coast to coast memorializing people whose American contributions were real, but whose American failures were real, too. These include men like Jefferson and Roosevelt, who made profound marks on American history despite actions and statements that should be considered racist. Consider that Roosevelt shamefully referred to the lynchings of Italians in America as “rather a good thing” around the same time that Italian Americans were marshaling what power they had to erect the Columbus statue in Manhattan. The controversial statues include those of the nation’s founders, presidents like Jefferson, who fathered children with Sally Hemings, a woman he did not free.

Here is where the country needs a better process and more options than the binary “leave ’em up” or “tear ‘em down.” Sometimes that might mean the unsatisfyingly bureaucratic but necessary work of commissions that can take testimony, consult documents and historians, look at the statues themselves, and try to examine people in the context of their times. History is complicated, and not painted in black and white.

A careful process might mean some statues remain where they are given their historic significance. It might mean explanatory historical material like plaques. It might be new statues along with old ones — including statues of sorely underrepresented women.

Some statues, surely, will come down. But there must be a deliberative process and a teaching moment that explains why it is being done. There is much about the way American history is remembered in public that should change. 

— The editorial board

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