One of the key features of Buddhism is its emphasis on the impermanence of all things and the consequent undesirability of having too great an attachment to material things. I was reminded of this while I was following the current debates raging about the removal of statues and other icons honoring Confederate leaders and others who supported and perpetuated slavery.
Many of these statues and monuments were put up in the early 20th century, after Reconstruction, when there was a resurgence of white supremacist ideas and a desire by many, especially southern whites, to make sure that blacks did not get ideas above their station but knew their proper inferior position in society. Introducing segregationist Jim Crow laws were one method. Putting up monuments of people who fought against emancipation was another. As Joshua F. J. Inwood and Derek H. Alderman write:
We are scholars of memory and cultural landscape. Our work shows that challenging Confederate symbols that legitimize white supremacy is certainly the right thing to do because of the historic legacies of racism they represent.
In this respect, the monuments to the Confederacy in New Orleans and many other cities are doubly problematic. They not only publicly honor the Confederacy, but also are a symbol of an era that saw the continuation of institutionalized racism and black disenfranchisement. During the era of segregation white elites employed these statues to take advantage of the racial anxieties of poor whites and to remind civil rights-seeking black communities of who really mattered and belonged (and who did not) in the city.
The idea that statues, once erected, should never be removed is nonsense. Statues are not put up for people we despise. They were erected to honor people and what they represented. These statues have no utility value. Many have no artistic merit either. If a community ceases to feel that they represent honorable people, they should come down. After all, buildings are far more massive and permanent but they too come down when they cease to be of value, so why not statues?
Donald Trump made what he must have thought was a killer argument during his disastrous press conference last Tuesday when he expressed some support for those who marched in Charlottesville to oppose the removal of the statues of Robert E. Lee, by asking where this process would lead. He pointed out that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and asked whether their monuments should also be removed. I personally do not see why, if at some point in the future people feel that these individuals are unworthy of being honored, that should not happen. After all, people in the US cheered when Russians removed statues of Lenin and Stalin and the US even orchestrated the removal of an iconic statue of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. If it is considered acceptable, even admirable, for Russians to remove statues of their founding figures because they no longer wished to honor them, why not the same for the founding figures of the US?
Tufts University political scientist James Glaser looks to Russia for answers. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many Russians wondered what to do with all the symbols associated with the old order. It wouldn’t make sense to knock down buildings – like the seven skyscrapers Stalin constructed in Moscow – that were still in use.
Statues, however, served no practical purpose. Moving them from public spaces, Glaser writes, “was one of the first impulses the Russian people had after the fall of the Soviet Union.”
It’s important to note that the statues weren’t all destroyed. Instead, many were relocated to a sculpture garden.
“It’s our past and we embrace it,” one Moscow resident told Glaser, “We lived it. We can’t just wish it away.”
Those who oppose removal argue that by removing the statues, we are seeking to erase history because these statues are of important historical figures. This is nonsense. What is being fought is the idea that what those people fought for were noble goals. No one is suggesting that those people be erase from history books or never mentioned in history classes. In fact to erase them from history would be a disservice. I believe that in Germany, Hitler and the role of Nazism in that country’s history is taught in great detail as a warning of how dangerous ideas can come to dominate a nation, but I doubt that there is a single statue or other monument to him anywhere in the country. Those who know more about this will I am sure add information.
Ironically, what the Charlottesville marchers who fought to retain the Lee statue did was actually accelerate the process of removing these statues as local governments and institutions realize that they are indeed a problem. Statues of Christopher Columbus are now being included in the list of undesirable monuments that should come down.
I have long argued that when the only argument that you have for retaining some symbol or action is that it is ‘tradition’ or ‘history’, then you are tacitly admitting that you are defending the indefensible.