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Toppling the dissent on monuments

Antifa, Black Lives Matters, George Floyd protesters, and fellow travelers have defaced, destroyed, removed, or sparked plans for the removal of many memorials. The memorials include monuments, plaques, and statues.

Protesters targeted memorials for confederate leaders such as Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and J. E. B. Stuart. They also went after memorials for union figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, and Ulysses S. Grant. The protesters also targeted historical figures such as Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, George Washington, and Woodrow Wilson. In Great Britain, Winston Churchill’s statue would have been torn down were it not encased in a steel cage.

Names are falling even faster than memorials. Schools removed names from buildings, grandiose rooms, and programs. Names include those of confederates such as P. G. T. Beauregard and John C. Calhoun. Other discarded names include those of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Watson, and Woodrow Wilson. The names of Aunt Jemima breakfast food, Dixie Chicks band, Eskimo pies, and Disneyland’s Splash Mountain have been dumped into the filthy trash bin.

The removal of monuments is not wrong. When a monument is on government property, no one has a moral right that a monument be left up or taken down. Ditto for names, Still, these changes are bad in that they make us worse off.

The University of Minnesota-Morris’ Dan Demetriou gives an interesting argument against these changes. First, he argues, liberty and stability depend on tribal identity. Tribal identity occurs when one person sees another as a member of his group. Consider, for example, the way in which family members think about one another. Other examples include how people think about each another when they are in a sports team, military unit, or country. A good example occurred in the movie Saving Private Ryan. Private Ryan views members of his paratrooper unit as his brothers and is willing to fight and die alongside them.

Without tribal identity, nations break up or become increasingly unfree. Examples of nations that dissolved because of insufficient tribal identity include the European colonies as well as Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia. These countries’ peoples never formed a sufficiently strong tribal identity. Other countries without tribal identity (for example, Iraq) are kept together through force. When trust evaporates, governments protect people’s rights through prodigious amounts of force. Consider, for example, how in the U.S., federal and state governments responded to 1960’s antiwar and racial unrest.

Second, Demetriou argues, a people bring about tribal identity through memorialization. He argues that people make and keep a shared identity by celebrating their past. They celebrate their past by memorializing their art, heroes, tragedies, victories, and so on. This is similar, he argues, to how family members celebrate their tribal identity through memorialization, which they do by putting pictures of their adventures, ancestors, and descendants.

When a family puts a picture of its ancestors on the wall, it is not saying that the ancestors were better than other families’ ancestors or that the ancestors were good people or that they did the right thing. Rather, the family is saying, “This is our past and, thus, who we are.” This binds together those who share this past or see it as their own. Identification with a past need not be genetic. Consider, for example, how an adopted child views his adopted family’s past as his own. Families would react with fury were an outsider to come in and demand that they take down their ancestors’ pictures and throw them in the filthy trash bin, even if their ancestors acted wrongly. They would view this as an attack on them and would be right to do so.

By analogy, when the Chinese wave their country’s flag, they are celebrating the Chinese people and nation. They can do so without approving of the Chinese government’s appalling past. Mao and his enforcers killed 40 to 70 million people. The Chinese people’s past and, thus, identity includes, but is not defined by, Mao’s savagery. Muslims celebrate Mohammed, despite his antisemitism and practice of enslavement, rape, slaughter, etc. because he and the religion to which he gave rise have in part made them who they are.

Southerners’ past includes confederate soldiers. Stories of their beloved leaders, campaigns, and deaths are part of their past. They rightly understand the demand that memorials for their ancestry be thrown into the trash as deeply insulting. There is nothing conceptually problematic about a person celebrating her past, including her ancestors’ bravery, comradery, and sacrifice, without signing onto their cause.

Americans are not a racial or ethnic people as are the Chinese, (Asian) Indians, Irish, Italians, French, and Japanese. If Americans are to be a people rather than a grab bag of peoples (blacks, gays, Jews, Mexicans, etc.) who share less in common with each passing year, they have to have a shared identity. The identity is tied to the past and maintained through memorialization. There is no evidence that a tribal identity can rest on a value (for example, liberty) and, in any case, the left’s ongoing war on liberty suggests that this would not be a good bet were it possible.

Seton Hall University’s Travis Timmerman argues that confederate monuments should be taken down and put in private museums or historical sites where they can be put in historical context, cease to be held in reverence, and no longer receive state funding. He is right that it would have been better had federal and state governments not gotten into the memorial business. Similarly, it would have been better if federal and state governments had stayed out of broadcasting, museums, schools, welfare, and other areas in which they make a mess. Still, as long as they are in the memorial and naming business, they should give our past its due.

Stephen Kershnar is a State University of New York at Fredonia philosophy professor. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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