The New York Daily News published an op-ed by LANDMARK WEST! board member Jeffrey Kroessler regarding the special monuments commission Mayor de Blasio has appointed to address controversial monuments around New York City. You can find it on The New York Daily News website or read it below.
The statue-topplers insult our history
Hundreds of scholars of “American art, cultural history and social analysis” have signed a letter to Mayor de Blasio’s monuments commission calling for the removal of “symbols of hate.” I am not among them.
That so many share that opinion does not make them right.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. published “The Disuniting of America” in 1991. In that short work, he recognized the cancer of identity politics and its poisonous effect on our body politic. He also warned against using history as a weapon in the culture wars. We now see what happens when the state wields the past as a weapon.
The commission’s mandate is to judge statues in accordance with “New York values.” For the city to determine what values are acceptable is presumptuous to say the least. In practice it is chilling and totalitarian, and certainly not reflecting an American legacy of tolerance and diversity of thought.
None of the statuary or historical monuments or markers in the City of New York should be removed. Not one. As a historian, as a New Yorker and as an American, I recoil at the notion of whitewashing history, eliminating what some find deeply or superficially offensive.
History is not pretty. History does not care how you feel.
We do care what you know, and if we eliminate any monuments we will all know less. Schlesinger put it plainly: “history is to the nation as memory is to the individual.” We owe it to ourselves to confront the shameful and unpleasant aspects of our nation’s past, not erase them.
Let’s get beyond the simplistic. Everyone agrees that slavery was evil, wrong, the original sin of the United States. No one among us thinks the nation, or the world would have been better had the South won the Civil War.
Those are no longer historical debates; they are in our national DNA. Anyone still pining for the days of slavery is so far out of the American mainstream as to be laughable.
But that doesn’t mean we scrub our history of links to the pre-Civil War past. Baltimore recently removed the statue of Roger Taney, chief justice of the Supreme Court and author of the wretched and racist Dred Scott decision.
Removing that statute eliminates the possibility of someone walking by and saying, “Hey, you know who that is? Roger Taney. Do you know what he did? Do you know what that son of a bitch did?”
Now, to residents of Baltimore, Roger Taney never existed. Down the memory hole with him.
That’s a reference to George Orwell’s “1984.” The mania for removing statues and monuments is Orwellian. It is an effort to enforce a single interpretation on the American past. In “1984,” the Party well knows: “He who controls the past controls the future; he who controls the present controls the past.”
The horror is for the state to eliminate the past, to say something didn’t happen, that a person never existed.
Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson should never have been removed from the Hall of Fame of Great Americans in the Bronx. Yes, they turned their backs on their country.
Why would Lee, an honorable man, have fought for such a dishonorable cause? Now their busts are gone, and no one will have to think about that, nor why an earlier generation would have included them among the “Great Americans.”
A minister in Bay Ridge removed a plaque from the church where Robert E. Lee worshipped when he was the commandant at Fort Hamilton. Lee, who fought to maintain slavery, was also a Christian.
That is a powerful contradiction worth straining to understand. Remove the plaque and we can’t ask, what kind of Christian fights to maintain slavery? Tough question? Better not ask it then.
Schlesinger was fond of quoting the Dutch historian Peter Geyl: “History is indeed an argument without end.”
The monuments commission seeks to settle the arguments and provide the answers. But it is not through answers that we understand history, but questions.
History is not pure. It is not simple. It is messy and inevitably makes us uncomfortable.
Purifying representations of our American past will make some happier, and simpler. And our nation, our city, ourselves will be emptied out of profound conflicts and controversies and challenges, leaving only the smug supremacy of the present.
Moral purity, perhaps. Historical illiteracy certainly.
Kroessler is a librarian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY.