The amount of destruction of historic statues that has taken place over the past months and years has been absolutely overwhelming. As a result, I admittedly haven’t been able to read and absorb all of the news as it’s been happening. As painful as it is, I’ve been spending the past couple of weeks catching up on old news stories about various incidents of statue vandalism and removal. One article that I came across is about Silent Sam, a Confederate statue that called University of North Carolina Chapel Hill home until August 20, 2018, when he was destroyed by protesters. As with all acts of destruction committed against statues, I condemn this despicable action in the strongest possible terms.
In the article, history professor Anne Bailey describes Silent Sam as a “powerful symbol of white supremacy” and “a divisive symbol of white supremacy” who “was meant to pay tribute to those who wanted to maintain slavery.” She also writes that “Confederate statues, therefore, represent a step backwards – a symbol of what the United States once was – not what it is now.”
In my opinion, Confederate statues are not symbols of white supremacy; they are simply symbols of the Confederacy, a short-lived nation that, like all nations, had various attributes, some admirable and some less so. And representing a step backwards is not necessarily a bad thing; there’s no reason why the way the country used to be is necessarily inferior to the way the country is today. (The pervasiveness and widespread acceptance of attacks on statues such as Silent Sam weighs heavily in favor of the argument that the U.S. was a better place in the past than it is now.)
As for the claim about being divisive, those who use this term seem to be assuming that it’s a bad thing to display any kind of symbol that is liked by some people and not others; in other words that only universally liked symbols should be displayed. But this is a recipe for a uniform, bland, sterile, conformist society containing nothing interesting or distinctive and no diversity. Not every monument or memorial, not every piece of public art is going to be liked by everyone, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s why tearing down statues is so wrong. Perpetrators claim to be carrying out this destruction in the name of diversity and inclusion, but what they are doing is contrary to these ideals. Destroying works of art because you do not like them violates the rights of those who do and demonstrates a complete disregard for their preferences and viewpoints.
Bailey also writes:
Today, the nation is experiencing what some call a civil war over statues. The only way to avert this new civil war – in some ways a symbolic one over the outcome of the original Civil War – is to have dialogue. And after dialogue, actions must follow. It could be that protesters who toppled Silent Sam acted out of a sense that dialogue had reached a standstill after years of debate. Communities may decide to take the statues down or replace them with monuments that honor abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, William H. Seward or Thaddeus Stephens. They may also choose to keep the Confederate statues intact with a plaque that gives a more balanced view of the causes of the war.
While dialogue is always a good thing, Bailey seems to be assuming that the only options to be discussed are getting rid of Confederate statues or adding plaques that profess a negative view towards the Confederacy (Bailey’s idea of a more balanced view of the causes of the war isn’t necessarily everyone’s). The option of leaving the statues completely as they are isn’t mentioned, let alone the option of adding more Confederate statues in places that do not currently have them. In this way, Bailey is presuming the truth of what she is trying to prove, namely that Confederate statues are bad. The idea that someone might consider the statues just fine as they are, or even want new ones to be built, isn’t even acknowledged as a possibility.