Why All Monuments Should Be Preserved
By Cameron John Robbins
For the past several years, there has been much ado about removing certain monuments. This is nothing new. Iconoclasms have come and gone in waves for centuries. It is unknowable how many artistic masterpieces have been lost to them. That is why many classical statues are conspicuously missing their gentiles due to obvious vandalism, and why many renaissance statues were sculpted with the famous fig leaves covering the naughty bits.
Social sensibilities evolve. But mostly they swing back and forth between opposing poles over time. However, one thing remains constant though. Each social group remains utterly convinced of their moral superiority, and feels fully justified in the righteous zeal with which they persecute any dissension.
The relevant questions are these: why do we erect monuments in the first place, and what difference does having or not having them make? Are we better off with them or without them? Those in power, or those who seek to be, are often willing to tolerate only the confirmations of their own beliefs. Any indication that other people see things differently becomes an important thing to demolish. And because they boldly memorialize some powerful ideal, monuments become a high-priority target for the revisionists.
By their very presence, monuments demand explanation. What is that thing and why is it there? They provoke questions, whether we like the answers or not. Ideally, they also instigate conversations and an exchange of understanding. They serve as an enduring reminder of something. That something is always an idea, a commemoration of what someone believes is valuable.
Everyone believes what they believe for a reason. That belief may be more or less correct, or dependent upon context. It may be based on personal experience, or rooted in ancient traditions. It may be supported by evidence or mere fancy. What people believe can be rational or irrational, or even a bit of both. It can be confused and confusing at the same time. It can also be true.
We may be able to articulate our beliefs with eloquence. We can also be surprised by how little our beliefs make sense when we say them out loud. But whatever the case may be, it is a mistake to blithely dismiss what another person believes, just because we don’t understand or agree with it. To realize why, we need only reflect on our own emotional reactions when our beliefs are despised or dismissed.
None of this means we have to agree with other people’s beliefs. But if we are serious about social cohesion and human progress, and if we have any self-awareness at all, then we must account for and appreciate the fact that other people are as sincere in their beliefs as we are in ours.
Since before recorded history, people have erected monuments to remind them of the ideas, beliefs and events that they considered most precious. For those who know what they’re looking at, even a certain pile of stones can be imbued with deep meaning and emotions. And woe betide the one who contemptuously kicks over that pile of stones.
Many monuments depict a real person from history. But the person depicted is always as an embodiment of a focused idea. They are never a representation of a complete human being, full of nuance and contradictions, as real people always are.
If Abraham Lincoln himself saw the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, he might recognize his own likeness; but would he see that heroic statue as a true reflection of the totality of who he really was inside? Probably not. Still, does that awareness of reality diminish the power of his likeness and life story to represent certain lofty ideals? No.
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – slavery, bondage and violent conquest are, and have always been appalling human institutions. As far as we can tell, they have also always been universal parts of the human story; and they still are today. What are we supposed to do with that? Institutions and behaviors that should never have existed continue to emerge in one form or another, generation after generation, across time.
For instance, it’s a fact of history that George Washington owned slaves. It is also a fact of history that he was the only one of the slave-holding Founding Fathers to emancipate his slaves during his lifetime. That was in addition to everything else he contributed to the liberty, security and birth of a new nation. And those contributions had a direct impact on making possible the eventual abolition of slavery in the United States. The process was no doubt slower, and more costly and painful than many would have liked. But it did happen.
Thomas Jefferson also owned many slaves, and retained that ownership until his death. But he also introduced abolitionist legislature in the Virginia assembly (which was only narrowly defeated); and was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, in which he averred that all men are created equal and are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Those are ideals that we take for granted now, but they were radically new when they were first penned. They were met with violent opposition at the time, and they are still repressed with violence in many countries today.
Erwin Rommel was a brilliant military commander who was admired and respected on all sides of the conflict that was WWII. He was also part of the conspiracy which tried to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Yet he applied his military talents on behalf of the Third Reich. Why would he do that? Was he a true believer in Nazism? Or was he, in his mind at least, simply fighting for the honor and preservation of his country, regardless of the ideology of its government at the time? Who can say?
What are we to do with these kinds of messy contradictions? Is it possible to admire and approve of some things in a person’s life, and to disapprove of others? Any honest study should reveal that history and real human beings are just too complicated to be reduced to single monolithic ideas. Or are we as humans predisposed to viewing everyone but ourselves and our own tribe as two-dimensional straw men? It’s certainly more convenient to do so. It’s just not reality.
Must a person have been perfect before they are worthy of being depicted in a monument? If so, perfect in what ways, and according to whom? Can anyone’s life withstand that kind of scrutiny? Most importantly, can we learn valuable lessons even from a monument dedicated to someone or something we despise?
After the second world war, a concerted effort was made to remove nearly every vestige of the Nazi Germany. The justification was that allowing its monuments to endure might inspire the continuation of that ideology. Fair enough. And in the context of the time, it is totally understandable. But did it work?
The short answer is, No, it did not. All of the ideas espoused by Nazism, in part or as a whole are still alive and well all over the world today. Those ideas may or may not go by different names now, and they certainly went by different names before the National Socialist Workers (NAZI) Party was ever formed.
Destroying their monuments did nothing to change people’s minds, or to erase certain ideas from the world. Those ideas and beliefs have endured and evolved even without inspiring monuments. They existed long before those monuments were erected, even before those ideas were identified by the names Fascism and Nazism. Hitler didn’t invent anything. He just repackaged and sold ideas that had already been around for a very, very long time.
Again, what do we do with that? Do we hide our heads under the blankets by destroying the evidence of opposing ideas, and thus try to convince ourselves that such opposition doesn’t exist? Or do we face up to the fact that people believe in things that we may oppose, and do so for reasons that we might actually understand, if we took the time to listen. We still may disagree with their conclusions. But we’d have some appreciation for how they got there.
In a very real way, monuments are a lot like the physical scars we all acquire during our lives.
There are scars we may have gotten while doing a good deed, fighting in a good cause, or on a grand adventure. They can remind us of when we dared greatly, stood up for our highest moral convictions, or bravely faced danger and lived to tell the tale.
Conversely, scars that have been gotten while doing things we never should have done, in places where we never should have been can be visceral reminders of behaviors that we should not repeat. Scars can give us rousing stories to tell, or be a source of embarrassment. But they do not allow us to forget how we got them. Different people can view the same scars in different ways. But regardless of how we view them, they still have things to teach us.
Monuments are enduring symbols of certain ideas. On the one hand, they can be a powerful reminder of ideals and actions that we should continue to aspire to. On the other hand, they can be a reminder of things we must never allow to happen again. Either way, their continued presence is a benefit to society and human progress. Without them, we are in danger of forgetting what we should be striving for, and of what we should avoid repeating in the future.