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Monumental Change

Max Stearns

I’ve changed my mind. A younger me was somehow persuaded that removing monuments celebrating those who played major roles in our nation’s most unfortunate historical chapters risked, counterintuitively, compromising recollection, inhibiting curiosity, and cleansing history. I never said it in writing; I’m honestly not sure I ever said it aloud. But the position now seems so stunningly wrong that I thought it worth acknowledging, and also explaining why.

As with most clichés, observing that victors write the history books contains far more than a kernel of truth. Sure, poetry and movies depict great monuments in decay, exposing the irony of failed acclaim worn down by time. The perhaps odd pairing of Ozymandias with Planet of the Apes illustrates the point. Literary irony is powerful. We imagine lessons learned by visualizing depictions of past leaders, once hailed as victors, with sullied reputations, earning modern disrepute, even condemnation. This argument for retaining statues of those we disdain would hold great force if society had a habit of erecting monuments not to its great leaders, but to those powerfully vanquished and rightly condemned. But that’s virtually never how past glory, taking the form of an eroded monument, gives rise to present irony. Instead irony comes slowly, through desuetude, not some careful plan to lavish the present by prominently displaying the worst of our past.

Monuments are celebratory. The phrase “monumental failure” captivates precisely as an oxymoron, a two-word contradiction, pitting that which we celebrate against its opposite. Despots erect monuments of themselves to aggrandize power, to instill awe or fear, and to convey greatness beyond mere mortals. Democratic societies erect monuments to capture great minds, inspiring leaders, or momentous events.

Consider the great Washington, DC Mall trilogy—the Washington Monument, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial. The triangle is powerful. We celebrate the founding, with Thomas Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence, which he gave primacy, disregarding his Presidency, on his tombstone; the nation’s First President, George Washington, who also played a pivotal role as General in the American Revolution; and our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, whose leadership saved the Union and ended slavery. Together, these monuments are not simply tributes to those historically regarded as great leaders, but rather, they convey a story of progression from the tragically thwarted ideal that Jefferson articulated All men are created equal," even as his personal life stood in stark contrast, to a President who ensured stability and modeled the radical notion of a peaceful transition of power, especially in a fledgling nation; to the President who led a brutal war that finally, well at least formally, moved toward ending our nation’s greatest founding lie, the promise of equality.

Compare Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue, with statues celebrating five Confederate Generals and veterans, including Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy. Since 1996, the Avenue, after much controversy, also displays Richmond native, African American tennis great, Arthur Ashe, as if this somehow makes up for the offense. The juxtaposition is reminiscent of Donald Trump perhaps imagining that his posthumous pardon of Muhammad Ali compensates for demanding the death penalty during the trials of the innocent Central Park Five, his refusal to apologize even upon their exoneration, his Birtherism, or his dog whistles that led white supremacists to support his 2016 campaign and administration.

When I think of the DC monuments, I am able to construct a benign story even knowing that following Lincoln, our nation continued to endure Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, redlining, racial gerrymanders, disenfranchisement, anti-miscegenation laws, and more. The benign story includes juxtaposing the three original statues with others commemorating the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King, Jr., thereby demonstrating an ongoing struggle to reconcile past mistakes with our highest, still unrealized, ideals. But that’s my story, not the story of individual African Americans visiting our nation’s capital. To them, the monuments might tell a very different story, with two of the most prominent monuments celebrating former slaveowners, with the President residing in a home constructed with the labor of slaves, and with a Senate Office Building named for a racist. (Claims that efforts to remove Lafayette Square’s Emancipation Statute, with its complex history, insults Abraham Lincoln are patently disingenuous; the depiction of an emancipated slave kneeling before Lincoln offends, with Lincoln wonderfully celebrated elsewhere, in his own Memorial).

I have no more right to tell African Americans which stories to construct from their experience in viewing these monuments than anyone has a right to tell me how to construe Nazi symbolism or anti-Semitic tropes. I certainly don’t need a statue of Adolph Hitler or Joseph Mengele to be reminded of Nazi atrocities that murdered one third of the world’s Jewish population. It is beyond hubris to imagine that without such visual displays, African Americans or any of the rest of us, will ignore the most tragic parts of America’s history.

The “educating monument” narrative falsely imagines history as a straight line. It might even remind us of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous quote, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The quote must be read as aspirational. Moral arcs cycle; progress, certainly moral progress, is virtually never unidirectional. One step forward too often brings two steps back. Taking history seriously demands acknowledging that despite its great promise, the story of the United States is littered with oppression. The story is not of universal progress, sprinkled with gentle physical reminders that we are wise to recollect our past mistakes. And past mistakes too often are not so viewed by everyone. Some regard symbols of past oppression as rallying cries for some mythic conception of the past, not unlike “Make America Great Again.”

When loud voices cry out, pleading to remove past symbols of oppression that risk being deployed not to teach, but to inspire, those listening should think long and hard before claiming to know better.

I welcome your comments.

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