The Problem With Tearing Down Statues

jefferson statue
A statue of US Founding Father Thomas Jefferson has been torn down outside a high school named after him in the state of Oregon’s largest city of Portland, The Oregonian reported.

May 21, 2021

Tearing down statues erected by the Confederacy during the American Civil War has been a huge point of controversy in American politics, especially throughout these last six to eight months. The recent resurgence of Black Lives Matter in the wake of George Floyd’s death has sparked widespread calls, predominantly throughout the political left, to tear down statues that symbolize or ‘uphold’ white supremacy. 

This article could say what many other articles have said about this issue. We could sit here and scold those who disagree with us and invoke the age-old George Orwell 1984 quote that reads: “every book has been rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered.” And while that quote certainly rings true today, it is important to understand — and hell, even empathize with — the well-meaninged proponents of statue demolition in an attempt to inform them of the very real dangers that come with it. 

The proponents for this cause do have an understandable point here, and it is one that I believe conservatives should have at least listened to before rushing to issue their rebuttals, normally filled to the brim with Fox News talking points from Tucker Carlson Tonight. The point many well-meaninged proponents of tearing down Confederate statues are making is this: The United States has a legacy of enslavement and unfair treatment of black Americans. The American South in particular, has a history of declaring itself independent from the Union in pursuit of keeping slavery legal. As such, it is understandable that it would be uncomfortable for a black American to have to look at a statue glorifying a famous Confederate general or attend a majority-white school named after one, all the while knowing that those historical figures committed treason against their country to uphold the legacy of slavery and state-endorsed discrimination against their race. Such a predicament would essentially be the same as erecting a statue of Adolf Hitler in the middle of the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, which is well-known for its high concentration of Jews. 

However, as we have seen with the current ideological forces driving the Black Lives Matter movement, the vast majority of which support the demolition of statues of historical figures, it is clear that there is no limiting principle to accompany it – and that’s a problem. 

The outrage from conservatives directed towards the demolition of confederate statues is not necessarily in defense of the statues themselves, but rather the novel ideology that is driving the sudden push to do so. This ideology has garnered many names since its rise to prominence: wokeism, identity politics, neo-Marxism, etc. Eric Kaufmann, in The Social Construction of Racism in The United States, calls umbrellas this ideology as “Left-modernism”. 

Nevertheless, whatever term we use, the ideology does not simply call for the demolition of confederate statues, but rather for the demolition of all of them. This is because this ideology comes with the popularized notion that the United States is an evil, irredeemable country forever steeped in systemic racism; and the only way to atone for the inescapable sin of slavery and systemic racism is to demolish America in its current form and rebuild it from the ashes.

This is why we need to tear down confederate statues quickly morphed into we need to tear down that statue of Abraham Lincoln because he wasn’t an antiracist like us. Apparently, emancipating the slaves and abolishing the very practice that put them in chains in the first place isn’t enough in the eyes of fashionable ‘woke’ activists and critical race theory pseudo-academics like Ibram Kendi. But it didn’t stop at Abraham Lincoln. In June 2020, several New York City council members rallied for the removal of a statue of Thomas Jefferson from the New York City Hall, stating that the “well-known slave owner is a reminder of the injustices that have plagued communities of color since the inception of our country.” 

See the problem here?  

There are very few who would deny the historical truth of our Founders’ individual moral shortcomings. Unfortunately, this novel ideology seeks to zero in on those individual shortcomings in pursuit of constructing an anti-historical narrative to invalidate the American nation as a whole. Suddenly, honoring Thomas Jefferson, the father of the Declaration of Independence, is stigmatized and condemned due to his ownership of slaves. Any other contributions he made throughout his life, more notably through the founding of the United States, are disregarded or even invalidated due to his own moral shortcomings. 

Any reasonable person, however, would understand that the ideals and principles brought about by our Founders, conveyed in the Declaration of Independence, and inscribed in our Constitution, do not simply belong to them, but to every American. The fact that they came from old white men, most of whom owned slaves, shouldn’t matter. Indeed, the ideas themselves are valid regardless of their own shortcomings or the nation’s. There is a reason why the words To form a more perfect Union are inscribed in the preamble of our Constitution. America may never be a perfect Union, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for a more perfect one. 

It is perfectly within the caliber of our people, as has been exemplified throughout the history of the Republic, to appreciate, love, and respect our country for what it is without holding its founding ideals, as well as its current citizenry, in contempt for the sins of those who came before them. It is perfectly possible for reasonable people, equipped with the enlightenment tools of reason and the scientific method, to appreciate those ideals regardless of whether they were devised by dead white guys or not. 

Universal truths are not conditional: they don’t rely on the color of our skin or any other immutable characteristics that we’re now taught to believe are the most important defining features about us. When we disagree with basic tenets like “All men were created equal” because the person who uttered it committed sins, or because they’re a particular skin color, we establish a dangerous precedent of tearing down many foundations of basic morality and our shared history. When our morality and history are gone, there’s nothing of America left but warring tribes and competing ideologies struggling for prominence. There’s nothing hopeful in that future. 


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