Monuments should reflect today's thinking

Op-ed: Society can develop a principled method for removing objects that convey messages that we now reject.

With the recommendations of the task force created to consider what to do about Confederate-era monuments in Baltimore now before Mayor Stephanie Rawlings–Blake, we are embroiled once again in the issues surrounding the display of symbols representing people, institutions or ideas that most people no longer accept.

Whether the subject is a building, such as the recently renamed Byrd Stadium at the University of Maryland College Park; a monument; a plaque or a flag, the opposition to removing these negative symbols relies on two basic arguments. Those arguments are reasonable and worth exploring. At the end of the day, however, they are either inapplicable or can be accommodated. Accordingly, society can develop a principled method for removing objects that convey messages that we reject.

The first argument against removing these symbols is that we cannot and should not deny history or attempt to re-write it. This is quite true. Philosopher George Santayana's observation that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it is as true now as ever. We learn much from history and even beyond that, we are the products of that history. Nations, like individuals, can only fully understand themselves if they know what events and which people brought them to where and who they are now.

The reason this argument, while accurate, is largely inapplicable is that its proponents fail to distinguish between knowing about certain aspects of our history and venerating them. When a state flag has within it a symbol that represents to virtually all African-Americans and to many of the rest of us as well a war fought in large part to maintain the greatest evil ever perpetrated on this continent, its strategic position in the flag venerates more than it recognizes the Confederacy. The flag is the symbol of the state. Many monuments that display in a heroic manner figures who deserve no such heroic treatment also exemplify such veneration.

One need not revisit the endless debate about the relative importance of the various factors that led to the American Civil War in order to acknowledge the undeniable significance of the maintenance of slavery to the cause of the Confederacy. Similarly (and with no intention to minimize evils regarding the treatment of American Indians or the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II), it is beyond reasonable debate that the enslavement of millions of Americans is the greatest evil ever perpetrated in the United States.

One of the recommendations of the task force is that a statue clearly honoring Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, dressed in their uniforms and nobly astride their horses, be removed from its current location in Baltimore and moved to a U.S. Park Service park in Chancellorsville, Va, the site of several Civil War battles where Lee and Jackson were last together. This is a sensible way for the subjects of the statue to be viewed in their proper context.

The other argument propounded by those who oppose removing the monuments is that the subjects of the monuments were men of their times. That is, while their words or actions are evil or wrong judged by the standards of today, they cannot be blamed for holding views that were acceptable at the time they lived. This leads to the slippery slope argument that asks: Where do we stop honoring those whose actions were once largely accepted but no longer are? Should we, for example, remove the sculptures of Presidents Washington and Jefferson carved into Mt. Rushmore because both of them owned slaves?

As with many controversial issues, it is difficult to draw lines. Reasonable people can disagree as to what should be done with individual symbols. This however is no reason not to engage in such line drawing where it makes sense to do so. One such way to decide which monuments should be removed would be to see if the person represented on the monument was identified in a significant way with the particular evil at issue. Many people have commented on the noble qualities and actions Robert E. Lee, but he represents to most people, more even that Confederate President Jefferson Davis, those who battled long and hard to defend slavery. Curley Byrd achieved many positive things for the University of Maryland when he was its president, but he was known for his efforts to bar African-Americans from attending his university because of their race. Neither Washington nor Jefferson are identified by most people with slavery nor are they known for defending it.

Congratulations to the task force for attempting to draw these difficult but necessary lines. Now it's up to the rest of us to respect them.

Steven P. Grossman is the Dean Julius Isaacson Professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law; his email is sgrossman@ubalt.edu.

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