Why should statues be permanent?

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.


  1. kestrel says

    I have to agree with you.

    In my state there is great controversy about some of these, because they are statues of people who treated the native people like dirt. In one case, there is a statue of a man who ordered the right foot chopped off 24 warriors who had defied him. On the night of the 400th anniversary of this guy (Juan de Oñate) the people from Acoma (the tribe who had been assaulted in this way) chopped the right foot off the statue of Oñate. Of course the foot was replaced, and a lot of people thought it was wrong to do it… but I disagree. Why should we continue to honor these people? In these days I hope we can consider Native Americans as human beings. I hope we can now look at what these supposed heroes did -- some good, but some horrifically bad -- learn from it and stop honoring the idea of the person. It’s the idea of the person that we find so “holy”, I think.

  2. cartomancer says

    Once the Roman Principate had had time to settle in, Rome’s monumental masons tended to produce statues of Emperors and important dignitaries in several pieces. With detachable heads and hands so that a statue of the old Emperor, who had just been murdered by his successor and was thus not the kind of man the new regime wanted to honour, could quickly be turned into a statue of the new Emperor by swapping in a new head. Many of the monumental heads even show signs of having been re-carved into new faces so as not to waste the marble. The impermanence of the statue was build in to its very structure, because it was well known how quickly the political climate could change.

  3. Mano Singham says


    We could learn a lot from those Romans! That seems like an excellent idea to prevent waste and save money.

  4. says

    Perhaps we should have statues to ideas that failed. Like, maybe a statue to Supply Side Economics or The War on Drugs. In a sense many statues, like the Vietnam War memorial, celebrate how people responded to bad ideas: nobly or otherwise.

    I’m afraid I tend to see statues as people patting themselves on the back: “look, my family was involved in this!” it’s really kind of odd to me.

  5. springa73 says

    I suspect that most of the people who want to keep the Confederate statues really do think that the people being commemorated by the statues are admirable. Why? That was what was taught in schools and in the wider culture for a long time. The idea that slavery wasn’t central to the US Civil War is entirely right-wing today, but for much of the 20th century it was the mainstream consensus among the majority of historians, including those whose politics were progressive or left-wing. Almost all Americans have been exposed to these ideas --

    -- differences over economic policy were the main cause of the civil war
    -- differences over the relative power of the federal government and state governments were the main cause of the civil war
    -- slavery was a smokescreen meant to make the Union look morally superior when it was really just fighting for economic and political domination
    -- slavery wasn’t even that big of a deal in the south since the majority of southerners didn’t own slaves
    -- the Reconstruction governments set up after the Civil War were designed to maintain northern control of the south, and former slaves were used as naive dupes to help support these governments

    As far as I know, these ideas were widely held by historians until the 70’s, and were taught in schools a lot longer. I absorbed aspects of them up until my brief, unsuccessful try at graduate school, when I was at least exposed to more contemporary scholarship. My point is that most people in the US have been exposed to versions of events that downplay slavery and make the Confederacy look better. Lots of people -- mostly white, but even some non-white -- still turn to them as their default version of what really happened, and dismiss narratives that emphasize slavery as “politically correct” and “revisionist”.

  6. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    A true neoliberal would privatize the unwanted statues. Who pays most for a Robert E. Lee can carry it to his backyard. Just make sure it stays out of the public eye.

  7. smrnda says


    I wonder where such ideas were standard? I lived on the east coast and the idea that the souther states formed the confederacy to preserve slavery was clearly what older people had been taught in school. If anything, it was too simplistic and perhaps heroic (yay! slavery abolished! type thinking, rather than a picture of how reconstruction went and then the emergence of Jim Crow) Though I also realize that in the south the narrative was much different.

    On the whole ‘erasing history’ deal -- last I checked the absence of a statue didn’t erase history, and statues are kind of a poor substitute for books.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *