What Really Should Be Done about “Those” Statues

Let me see if I have this right. People want to take down statues of Robert E. Lee, a man who wrote that slavery is “a moral & political evil,” but retain statues, buildings, street names and so on memorializing slaveholders George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the documented racist Woodrow Wilson, the suspected anti-Asian racist Franklin Roosevelt and so on, not to mention the womanizers JFK, MLK and Bill Clinton (Trump too, but he has no statues yet).

And what about Washington and Lee University? Would it become simply Washington University? Putting aside the fact that the name is already taken by the excellent institution in St. Louis, I again ask: The idea is to retain the name of the slaveholder but get rid of the name of the anti-slavery guy posthaste, that is what people would want?

Isn’t this all just a wee bit inconsistent?

Oh, and I just noticed a building on my campus with a sign outside saying Student Community Center. Since statistical significance testing has come to be strongly questioned recently, and the Student t-test is central to such methods, it is clear that the aforementioned building needs to be renamed immediately.

Lest some readers not quite catch it, I’d better state for the record that this last point is made tongue-in-cheek (though significance testing is indeed coming to be questioned, for good reason). But concerning the statues, why not treat this as a “teachable moment”? I believe that we should retain the Lee statues but at the same time America’s schools should make a classroom example of Lee. On the one hand, he opposed slavery, but on the other hand he believed in states rights. The latter is not important to most people these days, and I submit it to be an outmoded notion, but it was a huge issue at the time. Lee’s moral dilemma would make for insightful classroom discussions, something we educators yearn for.

A good, positive compromise, don’t you think?

Update, Aug. 16, 10 pm: According to Robert E. Lee: a Biography, by Emory Thomas, Lee’s opposition to slavery was more nuanced than what I wrote above, and it was as much practical as it was based on ethical grounds. And in terms of emancipation, he was a gradualist, in contrast to Lincoln. To me, these nuances make his case even more of a “teachable moment.”


32 thoughts on “What Really Should Be Done about “Those” Statues

  1. There should be museums for such things. There are museums for various causes, so why not States’ Rights and Slavery? That would be a teachable moment, because the entire context could be provided — not just a lone statue.


  2. ‘Tokins’ , Number Five, Steve Miller

    “Now who would ever believe it could happen
    Right here in my hometown
    Especially when it’s so far north
    Of the Mason-Dixon line
    But some of the people they just won’t forget
    While others slip into regret
    And if things keep goin’ the way they’re goin’
    I just might get killed yet”

    Sorry been waiting 45 years to use that one. 🙂

    Enjoy the heat.


      • Take your pick Norm:

        a.) slow starters?
        b.) “Monster/Suicide/America” by Steppenwolf worked under most normal circumstances?
        c.) We have reeeeealy long set list?
        d.) Mickey writes way better songs to explain these things ?

        As always multiple choices are perfectly acceptable.
        If you want any other input in this area please feel free to come on up and lend a hand in the studio.
        We have never given a “Statistical Analyst” credit on our work and think its high time.

        Enjoy the heat 🙂 🙂


  3. “…(Trump too, but he has no statues yet).”

    That’s incorrect, I think. There was one, for awhile anyway, in Union Square in Manhattan.

    “Isn’t this all just a wee bit inconsistent?”

    Isn’t everything? Isn’t everyone?

    (I personally often feel like Diogenes, wandering the streets looking for an honest man, or at the very least, a consistant one.)


  4. Interesting idea–seems today that many of those who want to tear down the monument because of Lee’s support for state’s rights are also making the argument that STATES have a right to set their own immigration policies, even when those policies conflict with federal law.


  5. Yes Norm,

    History is littered with the good, bad and ugly, no matter where you turn, and these statues, monuments etc., are a great way to introduce a discussion of both evil and good.

    I returned to college in my thirties, and I was shocked at the lack of perspective, from the economics to math departments. Perspective helps students to think critically.

    I am saddened for our young people who are being deprived of perspective and the building blocks of critical thinking which are desperately needed in classrooms today.

    Thanks for keeping it rational.


    • Today I very politely and sympathetically told a student that college brainwashes them. And I was talking about statistics, not history! He had an odd look on his face, not sure how to deal with it.


      • This is because people are running out of Role Models and Institutions they can trust. You can’t trust a politician, or a televangelist, or a CEO, and now you can’t trust the media…. And then you tell him/her that they can’t trust an “educator”. No wonder people cling to the pronouncements of celebrities; who else is left?


  6. In real life, we are repeatedly confronted with the difference between being right and getting what we want – being smart or being effective. Successful politicians handle those situations instinctively. It’s a gift.

    Scientists are often trapped on the wrong side of that puzzle – being right, but not getting what we want; being smart, but not effective.

    Donald Trump finds ways to fail all possible configurations of that puzzle.


  7. Enough other people have commented everywhere about this past weekend, so I do like this post about the ideas involved. I’m originally from Kentucky, which during the Civil War was a Union slave state that provided significantly more men for the Union Army than for the Confederate Army (upwards of 2/3 – 1/3 split). Nowadays most of the Civil War monuments in Kentucky are to honor the Confederate dead (~55
    Confederate memorials, 7 Union). Most were put up 25 – 75 years after the war. Statues and memorials in other states seem to be from this time period also.

    Putting up a statue in a local town park should be a local issue, as it was 100 years ago. Moving a statue out of a local town park should be a local issue. It seems most of the Alt-Right were out of towners who had
    no business being there.

    So now the statue is no longer desired in Charlottesville.

    I think excellent questions for students would be what local social/political factors prompted the statue to be put up? What local social/political factors prompted the statue to be removed? How about across the South in

    Regardless — I doubt your compromise will work. In a few years the only statues remaining will be in small towns in economically depressed regions.

    However, I don’t think this will end well at all — for the left.

    As you and others have mentioned — it won’t stop at Confederates. And most while most people may not articulate it, I think they feel intuitively that attacking the Founding Fathers and other pivotal figures in our nation’s history is not driven by truth seeking or justice, but as a way of attacking the legitimacy of our country. As a path to more power.

    And that will anger of a lot of people, who will take it personally, including me.


    • Most of the people total were not likely residents of the community. I know that in my city during a recent controversy, the most vocal instigators of the demonstrations were from out of town. We should not have to be afraid to be in our home communities because of the outsiders looking for a fight.


  8. Prof. Norm, I really enjoy your writing, but you missed a big one: Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Virginia.

    Wikipedia says this of him: “In the early 1940s, Byrd recruited 150 of his friends and associates to create a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Sophia, West Virginia.” Thus, he was a committed racist, at least at this time.

    He evidently regretted it and apologized for it many times later.

    Wikipedia also has a page listing all the buildings and everything else that is named for him, 56 in all.

    Think of all those buildings suddenly finding themselves nameless….


  9. I’m a northerner living in the south. This past Memorial Day we visited a military museum with a memorial to all the dead from the state. There was a section for each war from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan. Under each section were listed the name of the soldiers from the state who had fought and died. Only the section for the Civil War didn’t list the names because the list was in the tens of thousands. There was not one family in the state that didn’t have a family member die in the Civil War.

    We live in a country where we don’t respect anything or anyone any more. We disrespect our dead and our history. This will not end well.


  10. How about placing statues of Grant (et al) alongside Lee (et al) to remind folks of the when’s and why’s of the Civil War? The Civil War is a significant part of US history and we’d be wise to not lose sight of that. Politicians can diddle with what’s taught in schools, and parents can nurture racism in their kids. I’m guessing that many, if not most, of the Charlottesville ‘protesters’ have never been to a R. E. Lee monument. I fear that moving such monuments into museums will simply give those ‘protesters’ a place of worship. So, why not provide prospective within such monuments?


  11. Norm, you’re a star in your field, but you are way out of your depth here. Monuments put up after Reconstruction to help reestablish white supremacy and glorify the Confederacy should be removed. Monuments to Confederate generals erected during the Civil Rights era as part of the segregationist backlash should be removed, too. I recommend you read Doug Blackmon’s, Slavery By Another Name, before you opine about how to deal with our legacy of brutal suppression of the rights of black Americans. Why do we celebrate traitors whose war against the United States caused 600,000 deaths? Why are we as a nation not repentant about the crimes of slavery, lynchings, and discrimination perpetuated by Americans and our government? Germany has recognized its horrific national sin and atones for it every day as an explicit national policy. We never have.
    Ross Eisenbrey


    • Thanks for your comments, Ross, all good points. Unfortunately, the fact remains that even if every such monument in the South were removed, we’d still have tons of statues, named buildings and so on that honor people who made their own contribution to that shameful history of black Americans. Corrective action did not begin until almost 100 years after the Civil War, so every president in between was complicit, some not just passively so.

      Has the nation, to use your words, “recognized its horrific national sin”? Some would say yes, but others would disagee. There have been calls for reparations to be paid to African-Americans, as Germany did for the Jews and the U.S. did for Japanese-Americans put in camps in WW II. Personally, I would support that, but it would not solve the problems of the millions of U.S. blacks who still live in poverty. The reasons for that are complex but can be traced back to slavery and Jim Crow. It is arguably exacerbated by high levels of low-skilled immigration today, which not only means competition for jobs but also for political clout, as now we have multiple minorities rather than one. Politicians who support this are culpable too.


    • The most repugnant of all monuments are the holocaust gas chambers, which are now tourist attractions. I have never understood why Jews, who are good at complaining, have never uttered a peep about it.


      • But that is just the point, Petunia. The motto has been, “Never Forget!” It’s basically the same principle I discussed yesterday in proposing that Lee’s statue could be used as a “teachable moment.”

        I must say I was very reluctant to tour the Holocaust Museum in DC a few years ago, but my wife and daughter were anxious to do so. I’m glad I did. Actually, there was one particular exhibit that I have mentioned to many people in the years since.

        Last year, in New Orleans, my wife and daughter were anxious to tour some plantations. Again I was reluctant, but the tours were well-organized and quite educational. One site, Laura Plantation, had actually been up for sale when two historians got wind of it, and fortunately converted them to tourist attractions.


        • I also toured one of the plantations near Laura. While it was beautiful, the sense that all that wealth was built on the misery of so many people was palpable. The experience doesn’t say much about white supremacy, it’s just the opposite.

          As an aside, I had watch the movie “Gone With The Wind” many times before living in the south, and thought it a love story. Now my view is entirely different. Scarlett wasn’t rejecting one man over another, she was rejecting one culture over another.


    • Maria, your comment reminds me of all the mail (and even a phone call) I received when I criticized James Damore on his essay about diversity at Google, esp. concerning his claim that men are biologically more suited for software development than women. “Read this book!” “Read that article!” “Watch that video!” These people were sure that if I only read/watch the material, I’d see the light, and realize that Damore was right.

      Please answer my question regarding my reply to Petunia, esp. regarding Holocaust museums etc. I proposed making a “teachable moment” out of the Lee statue. The inscription — better, a more detailed display along side — could state Lee’s mixed views of slavery, as well as the white supremacist history behind putting up such statues. This seems to be a very constructive solution, don’t you think?


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