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  • Robert M. Edsel

The President is not a Monuments Man

Today, we watch as fellow Americans destroy public monuments that honor historical figures with personal histories that include bad acts and flawed character. There is a better way to channel the hurt of long-oppressed communities while avoiding the destruction of works of art that can be useful in advancing dialogue about our country’s evolution toward its ideals. It begins with leaders in the communities where these objects are located, not through some national mandate.

On July 3rd, standing before Mount Rushmore, President Trump argued that “our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.” During World War II, the Monuments Men rescued much of pre-Nazi German culture, and millions of other stolen treasures, which were at risk from the consequences of just such a campaign. This is not that.

The President is the same man who six months ago threatened to bomb Iranian cultural heritage sites despite international treaties making such an act a war crime. He has issued an Executive Order promising to harshly punish those tearing down or defacing public monuments but has offered no positive suggestions for addressing the underlying pain that motivates such acts. A far different president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, said “You do not lead by hitting people over the head. That’s assault, not leadership.”

Inspired leadership requires deep empathy to first understand the drive behind protestors’ anger, and then the credibility to channel that energy into constructive solutions that people of goodwill can embrace. Doing so is far more difficult than either tearing down statues or demonizing those that do.

The existence throughout our nation of some 1,800 monuments and symbols honoring Confederate figures located on public property, without context for why such monuments were erected, is an affront to the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which states “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude…shall exist within the United States…” Many statues were mass-produced and sold to small towns for the purpose of perpetuating a romantic notion for some at odds with the facts for all: The United States won the Civil War. The Confederate States were defeated. The cause of freedom prevailed. The institution of slavery was resoundingly rejected, although its legacy has lasted for centuries.

These monuments should be removed from public squares reserved to celebrate community values and placed in museums where they can be viewed with honest and appropriate explanations. Destroying the monuments denies everyone, both proponents and opponents of their presence, something incredibly valuable: the chance to learn from our mistakes.

More than violating the law, mob action circumvents dialogue. It denies reason a seat at the council of people of goodwill. Destroying a monument to a Civil War figure no more erases our nation’s stain of slavery and Jim Crow than scrubbing former Third Reich territory of the last remaining vestiges of Nazi concentration and death camps would wash away the horrors of the Holocaust. Eliminating the evidence fuels our already-problematic historical illiteracy. It also destroys a work of art, no matter how vile we may view the subject today. That is a tragedy.

Our nation has not yet met the high ideals of the Declaration of Independence and its promise of equality for all. Protestors rightly sense that this time might be different, that the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and far too many other black Americans, will not just expose the racial injustice that still exists in our nation, but inspire citizens, business leaders, and politicians to remake our nation into a country where all men and women are respected and treated equally. Mob action, seeking instant gratification by destroying monuments in a “ready, shoot, aim” approach, is not the solution.

We have a once-in-a-generation moment to right the wrong of the construction of monuments to Confederate figures and naming of military bases in their honor. The decisions on how to provide context to them – through repositioning with explanatory plaques, or removal to institutional settings – should be made by the communities where they reside. Dialogue about how the statues got there and why is the point. It is the time-tested path to building consensus and effecting lasting change. Similarly, no one is more qualified to select replacement names for the nation’s military bases than our distinguished military leaders, but they should do so after a fulsome public process. Involve men and women in uniform in the selection process. Draw attention to the reason for the name change by emphasizing what was lacking in Confederate leaders, including loyalty to the United States of America.

We Americans would do well to not just accept but embrace our humanity. No man or woman is perfect. When monuments to our Founding Fathers and others were created, emphasis was placed on the subjects’ extraordinary achievements. Today, the emphasis targets their human flaws. Context is essential in each instance lest we might as well destroy every monument in the United States.

As for the President, he will be no more effective at solving the serious problems underlying our present social unrest by politicizing this process than he has been at addressing the pandemic by politicizing the nation’s response to the COVID-19 virus. During an era when people mistake information for knowledge, history is an even more important ally. Let us work together to seize the moment by redirecting emotional energy into thoughtful discussion about the most appropriate fate of each statue and creating new public art that pays lasting homage to people and ideas we can admire for their contributions to humankind, imperfections and all.

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