Sam Corey: Removing public statues of the morally dubious doesn’t obscure history
On July 15, George Boardman wrote a column about how, urged by a growing sensitivity on the Left, Americans are pulling the wool over their eyes, preventing ourselves from understanding the totality of our country’s history.
His argument went something like this: by hopping aboard the trend of removing statues, art and signage that represents the uglier sides of our history, we are protecting current and future generations from unfortunate truths woven into our past. That is, by removing statues of Thomas Jefferson, we are forgetting he owned slaves and that slavery predates our country’s founding; by stripping schools of paintings depicting the genocide of Indians we wipe away our recognition of the Trail of Tears. In sum, by removing offensive cultural symbols from public spaces we shield our collective conscious of important, yet upsetting, historical moments, and possibly strip contemporary citizens of what it really means to be American.
To his credit, Boardman recognizes the past horrors we cast on many different social groups deemed “other” over the few centuries of American life. At some level, he recognizes the argument that these public symbols likely cause pain to those who aren’t white heterosexual men. But his conclusion is that removing these symbols obscures history.
As you have likely gauged, my take is different.
I agree with Boardman that our history is important, and that we should be honest and courageous students of history, refusing to turn our heads from what it has to teach us. Being clear-headed about our past means being good stewards of our present. However, I begin to leave the train of his argument when he chooses where to place our history.
That is, we should not destroy the murals, paintings, sculptures, statues and other cultural symbols of America’s morally dubious leaders. Rather, we should move those works to different spaces — away from public squares, street signage and public schools. These symbols are part of the reason we have museums, to learn from certain historical figures without trying to reflect all of their actions (i.e. slave ownership, the inclination to promote unjust wars and misogynist tendencies).
The reasoning is simple: public spaces are arenas for veneration, pride and honor. These are the spaces where we go to harken to the better angels of our nature — not the worst. Signage and public art should represent the best aspects of Americans — our scholars, artists, teachers, librarians, police officers and political leaders who acted out our principals, and honored our constitution, in the best ways possible. We should pay respect to individuals who worked to create a more egalitarian, moral and “small d” democratic society.
It’s true that no public figure — past or present — is perfect. But we should look to those we respect most and place them in spaces we hold in our highest regard.
Of course, it’s understandable that some people — particularly white people — feel discomfort with this change. Due to significant demographic shifts and cultural liberalizing, we are, on the whole, becoming a more inclusive, peaceful society. It’s OK that people who aren’t comfortable with this change believe our culture to be changing quickly. It is changing rapidly. Those individuals are entitled to feeling discomfort, but that uncertain sentiment doesn’t necessitate, and likely won’t stop, our changing culture, society and politics.
Rather, I suggest leaning into the discomfort, and grappling with the idea that we should change the way we construct public spaces to represent our transition, paying tribute to people who are more inclusive, peaceful and promoting of our (small d) democratic values. I suspect that those who aren’t doing so are trying to replicate a more familiar and uncritical past, a place that offered what they felt was a safe space.
I support half of Boardman’s argument: let us understand the comprehensive, complex, beautiful and ugly truths of American history. In doing so, we should recognize that it has mostly prioritized Protestant white heterosexual males at the expense of sizeable populations, including poor whites, but that it has also paved the way to a better future, where we now have the opportunity to create the only pluralistic, fully democratic society in the history of the world.
As for our public spaces, leave those to the people we truly regard in high stature.
Sam Corey is a staff writer for The Union. Contact him at 530-477-4219 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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