There is a bewildering confusion plaguing my social media and news streams. It’s a perplexity of mistaken ideas about what constitutes history, legacy, and the difference between a person and a cause. In short, there seem to be a lot of people – far too many people – who cannot tell the difference between a human being and a statue.
As a public service, I will attempt to clarify this issue, explain the difference between a person and a public monument. The example of Robert E. Lee is timely – let’s take a look at this historical person who is also depicted in statues. Now, Robert E. lee was a real person who lived and died. Like all human beings he had characteristics that were both worthy and unworthy, lovable and disgraceful. I am sure he loved his children. He also owned human beings as property, like many other people in his time and place.
There are statues of Robert E. Lee throughout the United States, not just in the South. They depict the man, but (and this is a key point) they are NOT the man. These statues are public monuments placed in carefully selected sites to make a public statement. The purpose of statues of Robert E. Lee is to honor and represent not merely the individual portrayed, it is to hold up the cause and values for which that person stood.
A statue of Robert E. Lee is a public monument to the cause in which he was a leader – the Confederate States of America – and the values of that cause, two of which are separation from the United States of America and protection of the institution of slavery. In other words, public monuments to the Confederacy honor treason and racism.
This point seems achingly obvious to most people, but completely opaque to far too many. “The statues are historical markers,” they claim, “if we don’t have them we will forget our history.” Or, “if we get rid of Lee statues because he owned slaves where will it end?! Will we have to tear down statues of all slaveholders?”
If you understand a public monument as a tribute to a cause and to shared values, these questions are irrelevant. For clarity, look to the purpose that public monuments serve in the life of a community or nation. For instance, most Confederate monuments were erected well after the Civil War and many in locations and at points in time that reinforced racist ideology. For instance, the statue of Lee in Lexington, Ky is located in a former slave auction site. The location of the statue sends a clear message to the community that the Confederate cause has more value than the lives bought and sold there.
When New Orleans began removing public monuments to the Confederacy, Mayor Landrieu give an succinct and eloquent explanation of why it was the right and patriotic thing to do. About the statues he said,
“They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for,” he said. “They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.”