Statues, again

Dr. Jerry Coyne takes up a movement to remove three statues of prominent leaders now deemed racist: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill.

The issue of what to do with statues celebrating flawed or even thoroughly odious people is not an easy one, though to some it seems simple: pull ’em down! But by so doing you are erasing history, and, as we all know, not all of history is pleasant. It pains us to remember much of it, but do we erase the pain by erasing the past? Remember, erasure of history was Winston Smith’s job in Orwell’s novel 1984. I’d hate to think that, four decades after the time of Orwell’s prognostications, we’re approaching this kind of erasure for real.

Now I don’t favor leaving all statues up, but I’m generally in favor of it with “contextualization” of the more problematic ones. As a (secular) Jew, I still wouldn’t call for a statue of Hitler to be removed, but simply contextualized, perhaps with the kind of memorial to exterminated Jews that one sees in Israel or in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

I’m not sure I know what Coyne means by ‘contextualized,’ but it sounds a lot like my idea that these statues should be turned into outdoor museum exhibits that properly locate these figures in their time and place.

Monticello exhibits the spirit of what I have in mind with its recognition of Sally Hemings’ role in Jefferson’s life, about which:

They were Jefferson’s children.

In recognizing that, and restoring Hemings’ room and providing a more accurate picture of Jefferson’s life, we should not transform his relationship with Hemings into a Forbidden Grand Passion. Hemings was a slave, Jeffferson’s property, and his sexual relationship with her probably began when Hemings was in her mid-teens — possibly as young as 14-years old, and almost certainly by the time she was 16-years old. She was certainly not his intellectual peer or presentable as a companion in that time and place. Though it may be the case that a bond of affection formed over the years, it’s difficult to imagine how that affection could have overcome the bald fact that he owned her and could visit her for sexual release whenever it suited him; the close proximity to his bedroom was probably no more than a device for assuring his exclusive and convenient access.

And …

Good for Monticello and Yale, then, for understanding that we can learn from history only when we see it clearly.

There is no nice way to say it: There is more than a whiff of infantilism about these relentless demands that Jefferson et. al. be stricken from public memory and cast into Outer Darkness.

Reality is messy, complicated, and obliges leaders to navigate strenuously opposed forces. Rather than sniffishly condemning them for their imperfections, about which we ought to be mindful, we should marvel that they accomplished all that they did.

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