I recently came across an interview that Willamette Week did with one of the people (and I use that term loosely) who tore down a statue of Thomas Jefferson in Portland, Oregon. According to this account, a group of about 15 people tied ropes around the statue of our third president outside Jefferson High School and used a car to pull it off of its base and cause it to come crashing down. People then chopped at the statue with axes.
This man, who bravely chose to remain anonymous, described the destruction of the statue as necessary and morally correct. “It felt like the community just spontaneously got together to do this thing that needed to be done in that moment,” he said in the interview. “We were doing this thing that should’ve been done, that people in charge aren’t doing. It’s direct action. We need to not have this statue sitting here. It’s not right.”
I vehemently disagree with the claim that the destruction of a magnificent statue is something that “needs to be done.” Statues are beautiful works of art that give cities and towns character and identity. Their existence is a good thing. Taking them down is not only unnecessary; it is morally wrong and makes the world a worse place.
In a dubious stretch of logic, the anonymous protester denied that the destruction of the Jefferson statue constituted vandalism: “It’s not vandalism, you’re doing something by taking down this image. There wasn’t rage… We can’t just watch and let people call them vandals. That’s not vandalism.” I wasn’t aware that rage was a requirement for an act to be considered vandalism. Nor did I know that an action was exempt from being called vandalism if its perpetrators believe they are “doing something.” Destroying property that does not belong to you – and statues certainly qualify because they belong to the people as a whole – is vandalism. You can argue that vandalism is morally right in this case (and I would disagree with you wholeheartedly), but you can’t really deny that what happened was vandalism.
This man also expressed support for the destruction of Portland’s George Washington statue, which occurred in a separate incident. “We no longer want to let those things just exist out in the open,” he said of the statue of our first president. He also condemned Mt. Rushmore, one of the most iconic outdoor sculptures in the United States, calling it a “travesty” and a “shitty thing.”
He even questioned the idea of building monuments at all: “Should we be making statues of people? Is anybody worth having their figure being a permanent presence somewhere? It’s a powerful thing to think about. It’s a bit magical to have a lifelike body of an individual being a permanent presence. That’s a high school. It shouldn’t exist there.” And he characterized support for statues as a “fantasy about these figures that we were trained to have so much respect and admiration for.”
I could not feel more differently. We absolutely should be making statues of people, and the fact that they are permanent, and somewhat magical, is exactly why! A person does not need to be perfect in order to deserve having their statue become a permanent presence. They do not even need to be respected and admired by the majority of people. There is something beautiful and inherently enriching about having monuments to historical figures dotting the urban landscape. Remembering and learning about notable people from the past is intrinsically valuable. As people learn about history, they will come to a variety of different conclusions about which historical figures are and are not worthy of admiration. No person, group of people, or even society as a whole, has the right to get rid of a statue merely because they don’t find the subject admirable. Believing that statues should exist is not a “fantasy.” It does not mean that one thinks that the people depicted in the statues are perfect. It is, ironically, a matter of respect for diversity. Instead of creating a homogenized society in which everyone conforms unquestioningly to the social mores of the present, we should acknowledge and value the wide range of different ways of thinking that have existed in the past and exist today.
Maybe it’s because I have loved history since I was ten, but I find it incomprehensible that so many people prefer a world without statues of historical figures. A world in which the only thing that anyone cares about is the present might function okay, but it would be a world without culture, without identity, without joy, and without meaning. Why would anyone want that? Statues of historical figures absolutely should exist, not only at high schools but everywhere.