Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, August 17, 2017


Public monuments matter. They make assertions about the values shared by the groups that erect and maintain them. When those entities are governments, in a purportedly democratic society, the monuments are claims about the public consensus.

Monuments are also considerably more complicated than one might think without giving them much reflection. For one thing, they are time dependent. They purport to be about a person, or multiple people, or events. But that which is memorialized existed, or happened, some time before they were erected. So as statements, they refer not to the time of their subjects, but to the time of their creation. Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial was controversial because of the assertion it seemed to make about how we should view the Vietnam conflict at the time the monument was erected.  But after a while, that is also in the past. When we view monuments today, they are saying something about the time of their creation, and that may be jarringly different from our time. As it turns out, Lin's memorial has not only held up very well, it has come to seem even more appropriate over time. Her vision was prescient, not limited to the historical moment. But  obviously that isn't always the case.

My office is in the middle of Providence River Park, and specifically that part of the park that is full of monuments. There are monuments to the dead of both World Wars, to the Irish famine, and to the Shoah. The latter was erected last year, as it happens. This year, a monument (privately sponsored but on public land) to the Easter Uprising was installed next to the Irish famine memorial. There is also a Civil War memorial which, obviously, commemorates Union soldiers.

Some 20 years ago, I worked as a consultant for the sponsors of the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston. Again, it was privately financed but stands on public land. It has been vandalized twice this year.

Most of the memorials near my office do not, as far as I know, attract much controversy today. People in Providence don't have a problem honoring the war dead or the victims of the Shoa. The Irish memorials would be problematic for some English people. The question of English responsibility for the Irish famine is contested, as is the righteousness of the Easter rebellion. But English identity has not been enduring among North American settlers, whereas lots of people still think of themselves as Irish. So these go up on public land without any visible fuss.

All that throat clearing leads to this. The Confederate monuments which have suddenly become incandescently controversial do not, in fact, refer to the Civil War. They refer to the post-Reconstruction era, the rise of Jim Crow, and the Reign of Terror that re-established white supremacy in the South. They were erected during that era, generally 50 years or more after the Civil War, as a message about the present, not the past. That is not to say that the past was any less reprehensible. The cause of the Confederacy was treason in defense of slavery. The heroes of the Confederacy are not remembered for any other accomplishments of historic significance. Whether the monuments refer to 1865 or 1915, that is still true.

Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that they were not erected to commemorate history, but rather to enforce a current ideology -- an ideology which it is imperative, in the present era, that we utterly repudiate. Anyone who does not understand this is unfit for public office in 2017.


Smith said...


Anonymous said...

Public monuments matter. They make assertions about the values shared by the groups that erect and maintain them. When those entities are governments, in a purportedly democratic society, the monuments are claims about the public consensus.

Totally agree.

What's wrong about your post is the underlying assumption that there is a huge public consensus to remove these public monuments based upon the hooded and masked blackshirted violent mobs in the streets clamoring for removal.

It simply is not true.

Around 62% of Americans seem to think they should stay.

A majority of Americans polled in an NPR/PBS News Hours/Marist poll believe that statues of honoring leaders of the Confederacy should remain as a historical symbol.

Anonymous said...

Forgot this part from the same poll.

44 percent of African-Americans polled believe in keeping the statues standing. Of Latinos, 65 percent believe the statues should remain

I might add that in this poll, it's clear that the only majority (and only a slight majority)that wanted to remove these statues were those in the North East that identified as "strongly Democrat".

I guess the lesson is not to get caught up in a bubble and think because all of your peers agree with you that you are holding onto some kind of truth.

Cervantes said...

I wasn't taking a public opinion poll, I was making an argument. And I am not hooded and masked, nor am I wearing a black shirt.

Mark P said...

You make a very good point about these monuments not actually being about "history." I'm not sure I've seen that anywhere else.

As to the Marist poll, any poll that finds 44% of African Americans believe Confederate statues should remain as historical symbols is deeply flawed. The results might have something to do with the way the question was posed: Should the statues "remain as a historical symbol" or should they "be removed because the are offense to some people". "Some people?" How about every moral person. Maybe they should have asked if they should remain as symbols of white men who fought to keep slavery, or be removed because they commemorate a movement to deny freedom and civil rights for black Americans. I would like to see a deeper analysis of the poll by someone who knows more about polling design and statistics than me.

Anonymous said...

Yeah...screw Marist and NPR. What do they know, anyway?

Mark P said...

Well, anonymous (if that is, indeed, your real name), I don't know whether you're being sarcastic, but it's actually a pretty good question. What do they know? I've seen people more competent in polling and statistics tear apart results from reputable scientists and reputable polling organizations. Even the best pollsters sometimes phrase a question in a way that unintentionally elicits unrepresentative results. I suspect that this is one of those cases. I don't think an appeal to authority is an adequate defense of this poll.

Anonymous said...

YouGov poll

Stars and Bars
43% of general public see confederate flag as symbol of Southern pride
38% of general public see confederate flag as symbol of racism
18% have no opinion.

Confederate Statues
54% of general public see confederate statues as symbol of Southern pride.
26% of general public see confederate statues as symbol of racism.
20% have no opinion

Interestingly enough, only 33% of Blacks polled strongly approved of removing the statue of Robert E. Lee from the park in Charlottsville, Virginia.

That last statement is stunning. It's not at all what the left would have you believe.

If you listen to the liberal media, they all sound like Cervantes, but now two different polls expose the truth about how the public really feels about these issues.

Anonymous said...

More from the YouGov poll...

And there is little support for the protestors in the poll. Just 7% say they have a favorable opinion of white nationalists, and even fewer are favorable towards neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. Those with favorable opinions make up a miniscule proportion of Trump’s voters.

But many do not equate the Confederate flag or the statues representing heroes of the Confederacy with racism. Americans divide closely on whether the Confederate flag represents Southern pride or represents racism, and even more ascribe positive connotations to statues of those who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Just more evidence that all of the civil war brouhaha is mostlyl a lie and is just the latest in an ongoing attempt to overturn a democratically elected president. What issue will be tried next?

Mark P said...

I realize that I'm responding to a troll here, but still... I wonder what the results would have been if a poll had been taken in, say 1954, asking whether schools should be integrated. Since it's possible that I am, at times, too subtle, I will just explain this by saying that what people think (or say they think) is not necessarily a guide to moral conduct. Residents of Georgia, especially white residents, said that the recent state flag, which prominently featured the confederate battle flag, was also a symbol of southern pride, completely ignoring (or, more likely, simply being ignorant of) the history of that particular symbol, which was put on the flag in the 1950's precisely to indicate that the state opposed integration.

Anonymous said...

Standards change.

Disney, the family movie company, was not trying to be hurtful by producing the movie "Song of the South" and Mel Brooks thought he was being funny when he produced "Blazing Saddles" (and it was pretty funny!). To not understand that standards are always changing is just stupid.

What if, in the future, others looked back at your life and thought you were a complete asshole simply because you ate meat and wore leather shoes or drove an internal combustion car? Are you the evil bastard they might consider you to be in the future?

What all of this uproar is about is suddenly holding those who have been dead more than a century and a half to our contemporary standards. And most know it's a crock as demonstrated by these two polls. It's done for political gain.

And BTW, offering up a different viewpoint, respectfully, with reasoning and evidence to support it is certainly not "trolling".