Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby wrote a column last month entitled “Statue-toppling, right and wrong,” in which he gave his opinions on how to determine which statues deserve to be taken down and which do not.
First of all, Jacoby is 100% right that decisions about statues should not be made by mobs who take the law into their own hands.
But unlike Jacoby, I don’t believe that these decisions should be made through the democratic process, either. Jacoby argues that decisions about which statues to remove should be made by people acting through their government. He suggests the following criteria to decide whether a statue should stay or go: “(1) Was that person honored for unworthy or indecent behavior? (2) Is that person known today primarily for unworthy or indecent behavior? When the answer to both is no, the statue or monument should stay.”
But different people will have vastly differing opinions on what constitutes unworthy or indecent behavior. Jacoby mentions Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Mahatma Gandhi as people who deserve to be honored with statues according to his criteria. He considers Christopher Columbus to be somewhere in the middle. And when it comes to Confederate monuments, he writes:
“By that test, every memorial that glorifies leaders and generals of the Confederacy should be hauled away. The cause for which they struggled was the vilest cause in American history: the perpetuation of African slavery. They were extolled because they went to war in defense of human bondage. Monuments to such men should have no place in our public square.”
I completely disagree. In my view, the Confederacy went to war not in defense of human bondage but to form an independent country, while the Union fought to force people to remain part of the United States against their will. I consider the Union’s cause to be vile and the Confederate cause to be honorable and correct. The majority of people in the U.S. probably don’t share my views, and I don’t expect them to. What constitutes unworthy and indecent behavior is in the eye of the beholder.
That is why decisions about which historical figures to honor should not be made through the democratic process. To make decisions this way is to treat the views of the majority (or the group that happens to hold the most influence over the political process) as more important than those of the minority. This is wrong. Just as the majority should not get to take away the rights of a minority, the majority should not get to deprive a minority of the statues and monuments they love and cherish. There are all sorts of different views about which actions are honorable and which are not, and therefore which people from history are worthy of admiration and which people are not. The government should not take a position one way or another on this issue, because to do so would be to discriminate against those who hold other views. The only thing that is fair and inclusive towards everyone is to have a wide variety of statues representing a wide variety of historical figures. That means that all statues that currently exist should stay exactly where they are. Any statues that have been destroyed by vandals should be repaired and restored, and any statues that have been removed should be put back. If it is determined that the existing collection of statues is lacking in racial, gender, or some other sort of diversity, then the solution is to add statues from underrepresented groups, not to remove existing ones.
“History’s verdict is not immutable, and society is entitled to change its mind about whom to celebrate,” Jacoby writes. But society as a whole is never going to agree on whom to celebrate. There are always going to be people (such as myself) who do not share the views of the majority, and it is not fair to us to give the majority the power to determine which statues are allowed to remain standing and which are not. I don’t think statues of Lincoln or Union generals should be taken down, even though I don’t think it was right of them to forcibly make the South remain part of the United States. By the same principle, those who believe the Confederacy fought for dishonorable reasons have no right to demand that monuments to Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, or Stonewall Jackson be taken down.
So no, not even people following the democratic process and acting through their government have the right to remove statues. All statues and monuments should stay. All of them.