While recognizing that, in the heat of any acutely heated moment, voices of restraint are usually unwelcome, at least by those on the front lines of the fight, perhaps you would indulge me in a bit of distant reflection on the battle over our civic monuments.
At the extreme ends of the fight we find, on the one side, the Monument Men (and they do appear to be disproportionately male, at least when the cameras capture them at fisticuffs.) To the Monument Men the removal or defilement of a monument is an act of cultural decimation: Elimination solely as a statement, a lesson in the dreaded “political correctness.”
On the other end are the Iconoclasts (from the Greek, literally, “the breakers,” originally of religious images.) The Iconoclasts’ message is, We own the street. You had it (we know this, because we see the monuments you’ve left marking your reign); we don’t like what you did with it when you had it; and now it’s our turn. Your icons must go.
Many, perhaps even most, readers will say: Neither position represents my view, which is much more nuanced than that of either group of extremists. I’m sure it is. Yet, the culture warring Monument Men and Iconoclasts have found a battle on which there can be no neutral position. You can preach nuance at your dinner parties until the last bottle of port runs dry, but in the end the monuments must stay, or they must go. Of course they could stay with an added tablet explaining why some groups think this general or that politico was a racist perpetrator of genocide, but that position only transfers the battle to another front.
So, namby-pamby will not be served. But let us see if there is any common ground that can be found among those of good will who are willing to seek common ground. A few elements of this ground might lead us in a useful direction.
One: I don’t think most of us would subscribe to the position that once a monument goes up it must be maintained in perpetuity. It does not seem reasonable to expect the modern descendants of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to continue to cultivate public temples to Ba’al, a Middle East god or gods who antedated the Abrahamic religions. Nor should today’s Berliners be expected to pay for the upkeep of shrines to Nazi martyr Horst Wessel or stroll to the theater across Horst-Wessel Platz. Extreme examples, perhaps, but they make the point all the same. If you like the monument beside which you take your lunch break in the park, or the one on the quad of your alma mater, at some point you should be prepared to make the case for it in the public forum.
Two: Vandalism and street brawling are crimes and should be interdicted and prosecuted. Vandalism is not only criminal, it is a cowardly act. So, yes, our public authorities should exercise their legitimate monopoly in violence and prevent or stop the riotous behavior currently revolving around many of our monuments.
Three: Every monument on public ground is there with the approval of some public body that controls that ground. The property rights are explicit and well-defined. In theory, public spaces “belong” to “all of us.” In practice the legislature, the county commissioners, the city council or the university trustees control that space on behalf of the electorate. Which means that …
Four: If you think a monument represents forces you find reprehensible, then exercise the same power that once went into erecting the offending piece. Organize, develop a platform, identify good candidates, register voters, campaign and take control of the street in a civilized manner. It’s called democracy. It’s slow; it’s messy; the result often resembles under-cooked sausage; and, admittedly, for many, it lacks the thrill of a good street fight, but it’s a key element of the thin veneer that separates the rest of us from the Visigoths.
In short, if you don’t like a monument, exploit the democratic process to persuade the controllers of that ground and those who elect or appoint them. Barring success in that endeavor, as you walk by a monument to a historical figure whose greatness you question, simply avert your gaze, or perhaps explain your objections to your companions, or even other passersby, and while you’re at it, ask yourself why it is that “they” keep winning and “we” keep losing. I doubt if more vandalism and street brawling is the thoughtful answer. You might think it worked for the Brown Shirts, but then Horst-Wessel Platz is now Rosa-Luxemburg Platz.
Lee A. Craig is Alumni Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Economics at N.C. State University. His most recent book is Josephus Daniels, His Life and Times.