The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The anti-statue movement has taken a turn into absurdity

A statue of George Washington, on the steps of the Federal Hall National Monument, overlooks Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange, right, in New York's Financial District in May 2016. (Richard Drew/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The United States’ frenzy of statuary iconoclasm has taken a turn into the theater of the absurd. Knocking down or defacing statues of national founders or heroes not only displays ignorance of history but also assaults the principles of Western civilization that allow for racial progress to continue.

Destroying statues is often a part of revolutionary movements. Patriots tore down a statue of King George III as the American Revolution gained steam, and those seeking freedom from communism’s vile yoke pulled down the monuments to their oppressors, Lenin and Stalin. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the protests over the killing of George Floyd have targeted edifices honoring the heroes of the Confederacy. As the Confederacy’s vice president, Alexander Stephens, said in his “cornerstone speech,” the Confederacy rested on “the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.” Monuments to this revolting sentiment have no place in a United States that is dedicated to the opposite principle — that all men are created equal.

That principle was first politically enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, and it has been America’s cornerstone ever since. All reasonable people acknowledge that it has been inconsistently applied throughout our nation’s history, but that principle has been the fuel of every movement that brought further emancipation. The early suffragists explicitly appealed to it at the first women’s rights meeting, the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Abraham Lincoln opposed slavery under its banner, and Franklin D. Roosevelt created the New Deal by citing its promise. The greatest speech of the 1960s civil rights revolution, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, is a masterful disquisition on that immortal principle. It is America’s gift to the world.

Full coverage of the George Floyd protests

Protesters who tear down statues to brave warriors who fought to more fully implement that principle mock and dishonor the idea that enables us to become a more perfect union. George Washington owned slaves, but he also founded a nation dedicated to the idea whose incompatibility with slavery made its eradication inevitable. Defacing or toppling his monuments dishonors the country. More than any man save Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant destroyed the Confederacy with his magisterial generalship. As president, he tried to extend the Civil War’s purpose by presiding over the Reconstruction of the South, an effort that was abandoned only after he left office. Toppling his statue — as protesters did in San Francisco, citing a slave whom Grant was gifted and later freed before the war — is ahistorically ludicrous.

There are those who say that Western civilization itself ought to be undone — that monuments to people such as these ought to be destroyed because of their participation in an endeavor that included global colonialism and racism. This fever has extended elsewhere, as statues to the English sailor Capt. James Cook, the man who brought knowledge of Australia and New Zealand to Europe, have been defaced in both countries by people who believe he paved the way for colonialism and the oppression of indigenous people. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s courage saved the world from Nazi barbarism, but his statue in London has also been vandalized for racist statements he once said.

Follow Henry Olsen's opinionsFollow

It is here that sober minds must pause and reflect. There is no pure past to which one can turn for intellectual sustenance if one desires a political regime dedicated to freedom and equality. Just about every pre-modern political regime was predicated upon the idea that its purported superiority justified treating outsiders over whom it ruled as if those people were not human beings. Aztecs murdered their war captives as human sacrifices to their gods. Many black Africans did not see other black Africans as fellow human beings to be protected against white slave traders; instead, they simply captured them and sold them to profit themselves. Mongol conquest of Russia and China was brutal and tyrannical as the warrior clan ruled on its own and for its own benefit. Almost all civilization has been based on inequality and tyranny regardless of the color of the masters’ skin.

Filmmaker Ken Burns reflects on James Baldwin's understanding of liberty, and how our most venerated monuments can remind us of where America falls short. (Video: The Washington Post)

What changes do you hope will come out of protests and debates about police and race? Write to The Post.

Modern Western civilization and its revolutionary ideals, however, have allowed for the peaceful, pan-racial democracies protesters say they want. The West’s ideals of universal freedom and human equality permit it to reform itself peacefully and extend the reality of freedom to fit the reality of human diversity. We take a multiethnic, free state for granted, but no such thing had ever existed before modern times. That is the achievement that statues to people such as Washington and Grant honor, an achievement that makes today’s protesters possible.

It is easy to destroy; it is hard to build. The American edifice that imperfect men and women have built over the past two centuries is a solid foundation for the just nation in which we live and seek to improve. We must not burn it down in the vain hope that a better future can emerge from its bonfire.

Read more:

Christine Emba: Memorials to white supremacy are falling. What will replace them?

Robert W. Lee IV: Robert E. Lee is my ancestor. Take down his statue, and let his cause be lost.

Karen Attiah: Monuments of white supremacy obscure the history of colonial crimes. That’s why they must come down.

Norman Leahy: Virginia’s Confederate statues betray the commonwealth’s claimed gentility

Eugene Robinson: Trump might go down in history as the last president of the Confederacy

The Post’s View: Trump won’t remove Confederate names from military bases. So Congress and the Pentagon should.