Destruction of Monuments Is Playing with Fire

Once more unto the breach, once more, to seek political sanity concerning statuary and other symbols that some find offensive, to prevent the facsimile of another Civil War, and to stop erasing the nation’s history. If it is time to heal the wounds between different sections of the nation, it is also, perhaps, time to wound the heals engaged in violence or improperly labelling those from they differ as “racists.” The question should be raised as in legal and police investigations, cui bono, who benefits?

Strong differences accompanied by some violence continue over the removal of monuments linked to leaders of the American confederacy, especially General Robert E. Lee. Now, a serious and complex issue has been transformed into a new example of black comedy, shocking, unexpected, and disturbing, bordering on insanity.

We know that Shakespeare’s Romeo had to defend himself by asking what’s in a name. We now have the suggestion or, one hoped, “fake news” that listeners of a sports broadcast might be outraged by the name of the broadcaster, or resort to violence similar to that experienced in Charlottesville, Va.

This gentleman is an Asian-American sports commentator named Robert Lee who was on September 2, 2017 expected to cover a football game held in Charlottesville between the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary. It is unlikely that anyone in Virginia, or anywhere else, is likely to confuse this young Asian journalist with the great Confederate General Robert E. Lee or his maligned horse, Traveller. Mr. Lee did not fight in the Civil War nor does he have a long beard, nor was General Lee a sports announcer or an Asian.

Parenthetically, one must pity students at the University of South Carolina who are being prevented from studying their favorite subject, astrophysics, because of the time spent in protesting the name of their mascot, Traveler, which resembles that of the General’s horse which is spelled Traveller (two lls).

Nevertheless, because of the coincidence of names, ESPN removed Mr. Lee from covering the football game and reassigned him to a different game elsewhere on the same day. No question of political correctness or of race or of professional competence is involved.  Mr. Lee apparently speaks Mandarin Chinese but his on-air commentary is in American English. It is equally unlikely that the managers of ESPN are qualified historians, but the explanation can only be that the name Lee whether of a journalist who is gifted at play by play commentary or a skilled general, will be a reminder of the history of slavery in the U.S. and of racial oppression.

As usual, Shakespeare makes the crucial observation. In Julius Caesar, he pointed out the confusion concerning names. One was the poet Cinna who had no will to wander out of door, but unfortunately did and was killed.  The ferocious Roman mob confused him with Cinna the conspirator, and called for the poor poet to be torn to pieces. Similarly, an angry Virginia mob might believe that whoever is called Robert Lee, and there are many athletes of that name, is equally guilty.

Hypocritically, the ESPN network stated it was a shame that this issue about Lee is even a topic of conversation. Unfortunately, it has become another item in the purported dispute about U.S. history, Southern culture, and racism, and more potently the connection between past injustices and current politics.

The painful issue, abroad as in the U.S., is linked to political choices of what to do about a past that was colonial or discriminatory. In Britain, the problem was illustrated by the controversy over the Rhodes Must Fall movement, the removal of statues of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, Oxford. The issue was clearly linked to politics in South Africa. Cecil Rhodes, the titan of diamond mines, and the generous philanthropist, was also an imperialist, symbol of colonization, a racist by his support of discriminatory laws on voting and land ownership, and the indirect instigator of the Boer War.

Rhodes’ belief in the English as a master race, for him the first race in the world, and his restriction of the rights of black Africans, do not make him an appealing figure to those who received benefits: the University of Cape Town which stands on the land he gave it; or the foreign students, including Bill Clinton, brought to Oxford by his funds. However, the Rhodes Must Fall affair was really an issue of the politics of South Africa, and a matter of the content at universities of the history curriculum.

Three things are clear. The first is that the destruction of monuments and the erasing of memories is not a positive act. Removing a statue, destroying property, or pretending that an offensive individual did not exist wins no battles. The issue is complex. Opponents of destruction are not necessarily “white supremacists” but some of them in demonstrations have expressed unhealthy anti-Semitic views.

The second matter is that the supposed wider social and political debate that was expected to follow the destruction of monuments is not occurring. There is not yet a national or international conversation on the issue. The destruction is supposed to be a lightning rod leading to discussion of values of society.  But to this point the result has been heat, not light.

The third is the restricted choice of who or what is to be removed or erased from memory. One might have expected an outcry or specific actions by those, male as well as female, believing in gender equality, against the oppressors of women.  Surely it would be logical to remove the heads of those, like prime ministers William Gladstone and Herbert Asquith, who spoke and voted against suffrage for women. No one who crosses Westminster Bridge on the way to the House of Parliament can fail to observe the large statue of Boudica, Queen of a British Celtic tribe who 60-61 A.D. was a profile in courage in leading an uprising against the Roman rulers of the island.  But again, a problem. She may be regarded as a national heroine, but she was guilty of massacring whole populations of citizens. What should British activists, and even Members of Parliament, decide?

History has not been a valuable guide to any positive outcome. Vandalism is one of the sports of the past. Medieval Christians melted down statues of pagan Roman emperors and reused the material for less than spiritual purposes.  Apparently, only Marcus Aurelius was spared because he was supposed to look like the Christian Emperor Constantine.

Who then should survive and why? Hitler certainly should not survive nor Stalin, for the majority of people, nor Mao. Otherwise, the choice is not obvious. Many, Irish citizens and others, would like to remove the statue of Oliver Cromwell, holding a sword and a bible, built by private funds, from his place outside the House of Commons. Cromwell was, at first, a defender of Parliament and then Lord Protector of the Commonwealth and recently voted one of the top ten Britons of all time, but he was the brutal conqueror of Ireland and massacred Catholics there and in Scotland.

There are countless problems of this kind. For example, no one can doubt the professional skill of Arthur “Bomber” Harris, head of RAF Bomber Command in World War II, but he was sometimes referred to as “Butcher” because of his preference for saturation bombing, rather than precision targeting of areas of Germany, including Dresden, that caused the death of thousands of civilians.

A recent British candidate for destruction is a less prominent figure, Edward Colston, 17th century Bristol businessman and MP for a short time. He was the most generous philanthropist, endowing schools, churches, charities, in the city of Bristol, but he was also a director of the Royal African Company, was involved in the slave and sugar trade, and responsible for the transport of thousands of slaves. Advocates for removal of reminders of him argue that Blacks in the city today, not only find honoring Colston by a statue and other ways is wrong, but also that they are less welcome in the city because of his memory.

The issue must be faced before it becomes uncontrollable. What should we do about the reminders of a discriminatory or colonialist past in the U.S. and elsewhere? Though there is not, at any rate at this moment, a sincere and objective debate about the history, painful and otherwise, of the country, the complexity of issues involved, the requirements of justice, and the ending of violence because of political and social differences, suggest it is essential.  

The most logical stating point is that the statues, found offensive, should not be destroyed, but they should have added to them objective descriptions of the life and career, and genuine criticism of the individual involved. Differences on the nature of politics and society will remain, but hopefully, violence may give way to rational conversation. Students at the University of Virginia might do this instead of calling in mid-August 2017 for the removal from campus of the statue of Thomas Jefferson, “emblem of white supremacy.”

Political correctness and behavior that resembles insanity must stop evaluating people by their name or other irrelevant factors. What’s in a name? That which we call Lee is as sweet as any other.