This is a story of three statues in context. Known locally as “Appomattox,” the first statue is a humble Confederate soldier standing tall on his plinth at a busy intersection in Alexandria, Virginia. He is a dignified but sad fellow, facing south with hat in hand, arms folded, eyes downcast, completely unarmed.
The second is a sixteen-foot, Czechoslovakian bronze of Vladimir Lenin striding purposely into the future at the head of his failed revolution; he occupies an outdoor retail property of the Fremont neighborhood in Seattle.
And finally, a huge, equestrian statue of an imposing George Washington with sword upraised in victory dominates a park in an African-American neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.
What do such diverse monuments have in common?
Some citizens are campaigning for their removal—and the removal of monuments like them—from public view because they are “offensive” or “insulting” while others adamantly defend them. The public is engaged in an emotional and sometimes violent debate on the subject.
Statues are symbols and symbols have context, both objective and subjective. Objective context encompasses their form and appearance, environment, and information concerning when, how, by whom, and why they were erected, as well as events concerning them since. Objective context is relatively static and available as historical data.
Subjective context—the personal perspectives and conclusions of those experiencing symbols—is highly variable. It might be informed by objective context but frequently is ignorant of it or unrelated to it. Various viewers will express inconsistent or even diametrically opposite reactions begetting anger and conflict. How are we to resolve antagonisms concerning our three metal men—Appomattox, Vladimir, and George—and those like them? Let’s posit some scenarios.
The loudest voices in this controversy on all sides frequently engage in virtue signaling, ego stroking, mob think, and demagoguery feeding on ignorance and bias. The tragedy in Charlottesville represents one extreme, while the other calls for removal of Christian symbols and even the American flag itself.
They seek to manipulate the peoples’ subjective context for nefarious motives of personal or political gain without respect for objective context. Their weapons are anger, fear, envy, hate, and greed. This is not peaceful demonstration, not the actions of responsible, self-governing citizens.
Those who wantonly disturb the peace of the community; those who destroy private or public property; those who wear masks, incite anger, violence or intimidation of any kind are acting as fools, cowards, and ignoramuses no matter the causes they espouse, very dangerous in a democracy. The first imperative is for leaders, law enforcement, and citizens to denounce, deter, and where culpable punish those responsible for such irresponsible behavior.
But legitimate concerns of fellow Americans must be addressed. So, what is offensive or insulting about these statues? I suggest that is the wrong question. How can one be personally offended or insulted by the dead, who can’t respond, or by the past, which can’t change?
The notion is inappropriate and unhelpful as it leads instinctively to anger. Anger is a powerful, primitive, physiological response to proximate, potentially lethal danger, i.e., self-defense, fight or flight. Anger is the antithesis of reason, which is why it is the primary tool of the demagogue. Rational debate, mutual respect, and consensus are impossible in such a context. There is too much anger in our public discourse; we all must do our best to discourage it.
That does not preclude reasoned passion. We can be genuinely repulsed by symbols of hateful ideas past or present and strongly desire not to view them near our homes or to have them influence our young. How should a veteran of the Cold War, for example, perhaps carrying scars from a hot skirmish of that war and now a resident of that Seattle neighborhood, feel about Vladimir in his midst? He is likely to be repelled by a statue representing one of history’s greatest evils against which he fought, bled, and witnessed the death of compatriots. That would be his subjective context.
What is the objective context? Why would anybody place such a relic on American soil? Ignorance? Fondness for utopian political schemes, authoritarian governance, elitism, or personality cults?
The Lenin statue seems to be primarily an object of curiosity and amusement representing the quirky nature of an artistic neighborhood, not to be taken seriously. Our veteran resident might campaign peacefully for Vladimir’s removal. On the other hand, he might ignore him, laugh at him, or use him as a teaching moment for the young.
He should not get angry, intimidating, or violent. Finally, as a veteran, he will have learned to respect the opinions of others and to subordinate his desires to the peaceful consensus of the community. Subjective context can change with understanding of objective context.
Now consider a long-term resident of Alexandria who commutes by Appomattox regularly, liking and respecting him. It is difficult to comprehend why so innocuous a memorial to the dead represents a threat to anyone. Perhaps her subjective context evolved during the mid-twentieth century in an almost exclusively European-American milieu on the plains of the heartland where there was no blood in the soil, at least not from the Civil War or from slavery.
She was blessed to have matured in a community where the subject of race as shouted about today just never arose; the Golden Rule characterized most behavior and beliefs. She never acquired from the elders a tendency for judging others on superficial and essentially meaningless attributes.
However, in that environment, primary education concerning the Civil War (to the degree it was studied) was undoubtedly influenced by Lost Cause romanticism, inculcating respect for the courage, commitment, and sacrifice of European-Americans of the South who said, and most believed, they fought for constitutional independence and freedom. That was not an entirely wrong education but it was very incomplete.
Our Alexandrian has consciously studied the history and the issues since, coming to a better grasp of evil causes and lingering issues for fellow Americans. Cognitive dissonance alters subjective context based on improved objective context. She would be sad to see Appomattox go but recognizes that the community and the nation might be better off. If he does disappear due to peaceful consensus, she would accept it without rancor.
What about George Washington? A local Chicago pastor claims that this statue represents the evils of slavery and therefore must be removed. As sincere as that subjective context might be, I believe it is a profound distortion of the objective context and a repudiation of the very values it seeks to promote. Such an outcome would deny new generations a powerful symbol of freedom and prosperity attained through so much sweat and blood.
These are just representative examples and there are no easy answers, but public historians have a crucial role to play. Historians will differ on the details of history—that’s the fun and challenge of it—but must share fundamental values of what the profession should be and what this country is about.
I choose to believe that most fellow citizens partake of those values and would prefer to consider what responsible historians have to say despite superficial, anxiety-inducing, and frequently biased media regurgitation.
It would be counterproductive to oppose demagogues on their turf with their weapons. The mission is to dispel ignorance with facts, reason, responsible analysis, and good writing, thereby countering anger, fear, envy, hate, and greed indirectly. For military historians, that’s a Sun Tzu approach. Objective context counters self-serving, simplistic, and uninformed subjective context and facilitates enlightened public conclusions.
There should be no universal solution to the fate of monuments such as Appomattox, Vladimir, and George; any attempt to enforce one invites demagoguery and tyranny. These questions must be resolved peacefully and democratically at the local level by the people most involved. Without bowing to the mob, it is necessary to understand and respect genuine concerns of those Americans who are uncomfortable with such statues in their community.