We Can Solve These Statue Problems Without Going Down The Path of Hypocrisy | Philly Views
August 17, 2017

We Can Solve These Statue Problems Without Going Down The Path of Hypocrisy

Written by Kevin Kinkead


On most days, it would be easy to dismiss the Charlottesville demonstration as misguided and anachronistic, a childish display from a fringe group of white-skinned primitives who comprise maybe 0.001 percent of the American population.

But we can’t do that, because one of those people decided to drive a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer in the process.

The whole point of the gathering was to (allegedly) rally against the removal of a Confederate statue, which has now resulted in other statues coming down as we undergo a nationwide introspection on whether these monuments should even exist.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the end product of this right-wing protest was the total opposite of what these people had hoped to accomplish in the first place.

That’s not to say that the other side is correct, the 0.001 percent of left-wingers who illegally toppled a statue in Durham, North Carolina. Whether the vandalism was justified, their decision to fight fire with fire resulted in the arrest of several people involved.

Where does that leave the remaining 99.998 percent of Americans?

They’re somewhere in the middle and willing to have a good-faith discussion absent of rash behavior.

The Charlottesville statue was built in 1924 and depicts Confederate General Robert E. Lee on horseback. In response to growing concern over the statue’s presence, city council last year established a special commission to look into the issue, and voted in February to relocate, which was met with a lawsuit one month later. As of last weekend’s events, the legal process was ongoing.

Lee, of course, was a brilliant military leader and noted slave owner, the author of an oft-referenced 1856 letter that described slavery as a “moral and political evil” while simultaneously labeling the practice as ordained by God. The letter is a case study in quote mining, the modern day practice of cherry picking to support dishonest points of view.

In the interest of context (I think), a trust fund was created to preserve Charlottesville’s monuments. The group’s goal is to upgrade the verbiage related to each statue to more accurately provide historical value.

This an excerpt from their mission statement:

“We will defend our city’s monuments against threats and encroachments of any sort — litigating if necessary. And we will improve them, by adding more informative, better detailed explanations of the history of the statues and what they can teach us.  We must know the past to understand our present and prepare for a better future.”

Lee himself argued against the creation of these monuments, and opposed the construction of a Gettysburg memorial back in 1869, writing this:

“I think it wiser, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”

Germany is a good example of that practice, with the display of Nazi symbolism strictly relegated to historic usage and banned entirely from public display.

The statue that came down in Durham, the “Confederate Soldiers Monument,” was also built in 1924. It featured a soldier with the phrase “In memory of the boys who wore the gray,” written on its base. Opponents saw it as a symbol of racism and oppression. Supporters say it honored men killed in the war. Local officials seem to be sitting on their ass and letting the whole thing play out on its own.

It should be noted that a number of these monuments were built during eras that coincide with Jim Crow laws or the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, which would suggest deceitful motives for their construction. That’s not the case for every East Coast memorial, but there are specific epochal patterns to consider.

I lived in Augusta, Georgia for two years and most of the locals viewed the monuments as a way to honor Americans who died in the war.

That’s not a blanket sentiment, but in my experience, the flash point for controversy revolved more around the Confederate Flag, and less around immobile statues. One of the bigger stories I covered as a producer at WJBF NewsChannel 6 was the display of the Stars and Bars over the South Carolina Statehouse, a flag that eventually was moved to the lawn in front of the building then removed from the grounds entirely after the 2015 Charleston church shooting. It was taken to the nearby Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum.

Another thing worth mentioning is that racism certainly is not exclusive to areas below the Mason-Dixon Line.

I grew up in Boyertown, Pennsylvania in the nineties, when the specter of the Klan still haunted Berks County. Pamphlets were being passed out on street corners as recently as 15 years ago, when I was a high school senior. The Grand Dragon or Grand Wizard or Grand whatever-the-hell his title was had a headquarters somewhere up Route 100.

And I’d actually argue that areas of the South are less racist than some places in and around Philadelphia. The new young South is growing up surrounded by diversity, with classmates and neighbors who are black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. At Boyertown, there was one Indian kid and one black kid in our 500-person graduating class.

It’s not really about where you grew up, it’s about your exposure to other cultures and people who don’t look like you.

In Center City, there’s talk of removing the statue of Mayor Frank Rizzo, who ran the city from 1972 to 1980.

He was an asshole, so I don’t know why we even built the thing in the first place, but it sits on Thomas Paine Plaza across from City Hall.

Councilwoman Helen Gym is running a campaign to remove the statue, which she’ll begin officially when Council reconvenes in September. Keep in mind, this is the same Councilwoman who claimed that an Asian-operated food truck was racist against Asians, so I don’t trust her to lead a fair discussion on the Rizzo topic.

The problem with all this talk of statue removal is that we teeter on the edge of a slippery slope.

That’s because we’re too lazy or near-sighted to realize that every single one of these situations comes with its own unique context. Each debate threatens a domino effect with more problems in lieu of closure. Every single statue we target is another Joe Paterno situation waiting to happen, a debate that never really ends.

For instance, should we…

…remove all Philadelphia references to Benjamin Franklin? He owned slaves before having a change of heart later in life.

…raze Independence Hall? A lot of Declaration signers were also slave owners.

…rename Thomas Jefferson University? How about Washington Crossing? Who puts the rope around William Penn’s City Hall bust?

And if we’re going down that road, let’s lobby Beijing politicians to tear down the slave-built Great Wall of China. Let’s stop putting gas in our cars, most of which is refined from oil imported from homosexual-hating countries. Let’s stop buying foreign-made clothes and vacationing in countries accused of human rights violations.

You get the point. If we’re going down this road, we’d better be prepared to take a hard-line stance, or else we’re hypocrites.

One of the pitiful things about the Charlottesville rally is that the cretins were carrying tiki torches, which are a creation of non-white Polynesian culture. And the Swastikas and Sunwheels painted on those trash can lids were stolen from other civilizations, so it’s not like there’s anything authentic about their “racial supremacy” anyway. I wish we could write this off as a LARP-gone-bad, but we can’t, because they killed an innocent woman.

And that’s the sad takeaway from this whole situation, the idea that a miniscule gathering of freaks sparked a nasty and divisive debate on race relations, when we’re entirely capable of our own tempered discourse.

Still, no matter what rhetoric you hear from each end of the spectrum, there is a middle ground here. There’s always a middle ground, and in this case it’s doing what South Carolina (finally) did with the Confederate flag.

The compromise is to move these statues into museums and preserve American history without paying tribute to repugnant people who did repugnant things.

Burying our history does nothing to erase American missteps and blemishes, while using public space to honor noted slave owners is an equally shitty idea.

There’s that old cliche about history, right? We’re doomed to repeat it if we don’t learn from it. No matter the cause for the Civil War, 600,000 Americans died in the conflict, and that’s something that is indisputably worth honoring.

But the correct way to approach this topic is not with citronella torches and faux-medieval weaponry, or illegal and incendiary responses. We need to prove that we’re grown adults who are capable of figuring this out amicably, instead of allowing the fringes of society to influence everyone else’s decision making.

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