The state of Florida recently introduced legislation to protect its historical monuments, as have other states. But there are still attempts to do away with these controversial monuments, and the country isn’t at all united in what to do about the issue. Thus, it seems timely to offer a few thoughts on the subject.
My primary concern is what these monuments are replaced with, which currently seems to be nothing.
As G. K. Chesterton famously said, anytime someone goes to remove a fence, that person ought to at least stop and ask why the fence was put there in the first place. If the reason is a good one, it should be left. If not, it could be taken down. But it isn’t at all clear that the anti-monument revolutionaries are thinking about this.
Before we get too far down this road, I want to clarify that I’m on the side of human liberty, against slavery, and looking forward to a time when the power structures of this world no longer oppress any individual — no matter who they are or where they’re from. I also completely sympathize with those who might view a statue of Robert E. Lee in a negative way because of the history with which he’s associated.
What I don’t sympathize with is the destruction involved in tearing such statutes down.
Now, there are many options other than outright destruction, but the one I want to offer is this: any statue that is removed must be replaced with a different and better statue.
It is well and good to criticize, deconstruct, and even destroy (philosophers Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man made a career out of doing it), but even a child can take things apart. It takes a much wiser person, someone of the caliber of Plato or Aristotle, to build things up.
The monument revolutionaries don’t seem to be building anything, and if they are, they aren’t telling the rest of us about it. They should be forced to replace these statues with whatever thinker or statesman they believe is ethically and intellectually superior to the one they want to remove. Maybe then we could have a debate about the virtues of one thinker/leader over another. Until then, we’re just taking things apart … for vague and unexplained reasons.
The truth is, all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, even the intellectual fathers of the revolutionaries, whoever they turn out to be. But as long as only one side has to show its checkered past, we are operating under the illusion that the intellectual exemplars of the desecrators are free of the failings they claim for the historical figures they are tearing down.
A simple look at history shows the above illusion is impossible. We Westerners know there was only one sinless individual, and He walked the earth a little over 2,000 years ago. If He is the intellectual force behind all the monument destruction, then we can discuss things; however, this seems about as likely as a circus in an Amish camp, given that this same Man said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
The historian David McCullough once said, “How can we know … where we’re going if we don’t know … where we have come from?” I would add, “If we don’t know where we have come from, how can we know who we are?”
But this is the problem. We don’t know who we are. In fact, we know almost everything but this. We can detect the failings of everybody else from a mile off, but, as Virginia Woolf said in “The Years,” “we don’t know ourselves.”
The history of mankind is checkered with horrendous sins and shortcomings and crimes that any decent society ought to want to obliterate. But there is a danger of losing ourselves completely in a cannibalistic process, such as the one being wrought by the statue removers, that seeks to sever us completely from our own history.
They didn’t invent their doctrines from thin air, for these, too, have a history. And it’s time we know what that history is.
Along with his father, Allen Keller runs a lumber business in Stevenson, Alabama. He has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Florida State University and an MBA from University of Virginia. He can be reached for comment at [email protected].
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