Why Is The Left Obsessed With Tearing Down Statues?

Berny Belvedere gets it wrong. If Lee goes, Washington must go.

It seems that everywhere I go there are leftists who want to tear down statues. When I was at Oxford, there was an organization called Rhodes Must Fall whose central cause was to bring down Oriel College’s statue of Cecil Rhodes (yes, that Cecil Rhodes), which is prominently displayed on the side of the college that faces the High Street.

The statue of Rhodes is at the very top, above all the others, looking down on the High Street

Rhodes, they argued, was a racist colonialist and oppressor of Africans, and we shouldn’t honor colonialists or oppressors with statues. (It’s unclear what they would’ve done to the Rhodes House in Oxford or the Rhodes scholarship itself. Incidentally, one of the leaders of the group was himself an African Rhodes scholar who had no intention of surrendering Rhodes’ money.)

The agitators were almost successful. The Oxford Union, of which I’m a member, voted 245–212 that Rhodes must fall. (This is the same august debating society that in 1933 affirmed the motion “that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country” by a vote of 275–153.)

But when it looked like the administration might give in to their pressure, Oriel alumni threatened to pull their millions. About £1.5 million had already been canceled and Oriel might well have lost another £100 million if they decided to remove the statue.

The statue stands to this day.

Must Rhodes fall? It’s of course true that Rhodes was an unapologetic imperialist and fervent supporter of the British Empire, and he probably had racial views that were common among white people of his time, i.e. racist ones. Shouldn’t we, therefore, remove the statue? (For another take on Rhodes, see Nigel Biggar’s argument at the Oxford Union debate.)

The above campaign bears a striking resemblance to the recent one, here in America, to erase from our streets all references to the Confederacy or its fighting men. In my view, both campaigns are problematic for the same reasons, some of which were alluded to by President Trump at a recent press conference.

After pointing out that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave owners (he might’ve also added that they were racists), the President asked, “Are we going to take down [their] statue[s]?” He went on to ask the following:

This week it’s Robert E. Lee [and] I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is [also] coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? Where does it stop?

Where indeed will it stop?

There are two questions here. The first is whether statues of Washington and Jefferson are similar in the relevant ways to statues of Lee and Jackson. If they are, then the same reasoning would justify removing statues of Washington and Jefferson. The second is one that the President raised, which is a concern about where the agitators will draw the line.

Regarding the second, I think the evidence strongly suggests that they won’t draw the line very narrowly. In addition to statues of rebels, they have their sights on American presidents such as Woodrow Wilson, to give just one example.

Moreover, it’s clear that they will not be indiscriminate in their calls for the removal of statues of bad men. Does anyone seriously believe that statues of left-wing icons will come down? For example, in Seattle there is a statue of Vladimir Lenin. It is conspicuous that there have been no illegal attempts by left wingers to remove that statue, despite the fact that the crimes of the Confederacy in general and Robert E. Lee in particular pale in comparison to the crimes of Bolshevism, which Lenin represents.

The irrationality and incoherence with which statues will be removed is itself a reason to oppose these agitators now even if it would be good if there were no rebel monuments. Removing statues of Lee and Jackson would only encourage them to successfully remove statues that actually shouldn't be removed.

Lenin himself advised that the left should “probe with a bayonet: if you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.” Frankly, I don’t trust that the conservative intellectuals who are now calling for the removal of rebel statues are going to mount a successful campaign against the agitators in the future. The left are going to probe, meet mush, and push again. Better to give ‘em steel now.

Let’s return to the first question about whether statues to confederate generals are similar in the relevant ways to statues to previous American presidents. If they are, then there’s a reductio ad absurdum argument against removing confederate monuments. Here’s how Berny Belvedere states the argument:

1. If we seek the removal of Confederate monuments on the grounds that those memorialized fought to preserve slavery, the same logic should dictate that we remove monuments to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom were slave-owners.

2. But of course we shouldn’t remove monuments to Washington and Jefferson. That would be absurd.


3. We shouldn’t remove Confederate statues either.

Belvedere accepts (2) but denies (1). Why? After all, as the President pointed out, both Washington and Jefferson were racist slave owners. Here’s what Belvedere writes:

While it’s true that our first and third presidents were slave-owners, this is not central (or even relevant) to why they are memorialized. What’s more, they did not push for the permanent establishment of slavery.

There are a few problems with this attempt to draw a distinction between statues of Robert E. Lee, on the one hand, and statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on the other.

First, why someone is memorialized depends on the person doing the memorializing. Alt-right fanatics memorialize the Founders and early American politicians all the time. They memorialize them because they believe, not at all implausibly, that many of the Founders shared their ethno-nationalist views. They often point out, for example, that the Naturalization Act of 1790 (and 1795, 1798, and 1802) restricted immigration to white people of good character, which is precisely what the alt-right wants. Importantly, these acts were supported and enforced by both Washington (in the 1790s) and Jefferson (after 1802).

In these respects, the views of both Washington and Jefferson were indistinguishable from the views of the alt-right. They shared the belief that immigration should be restricted to white people in order to maintain a predominantly white society. So, for many, their views and behavior here are relevant to why they are memorialized. The fact that others among us tend to downplay these uncomfortable facts and instead memorialize them for their nobler aspects does nothing whatsoever to undermine this point.

Which brings me to my next one: not everyone who memorializes men like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson memorialize them for the evils of the Confederacy. For them, the fact that these men had slaves and fought on the wrong side in a bloody war aren’t central to why they’re memorialized. In fact, they’re often memorialized in spite of these facts about them.

Like both Washington and Jefferson, Lee and Jackson are morally complicated and important figures in American history, albeit to a lesser degree. Yes, they decided to fight for Virginia and by extension the Confederacy, which was in my view seriously wrong. But this doesn’t imply that the reason they decided to fight for Virginia was to preserve the institution of slavery. Both fought because they believed it would be intolerable to draw their swords against their native country in support of a foreign invader.

That sentiment will be incomprehensible to most readers, but in 1861 the perception in the South was very much that the United States was a union of sovereign countries, more like the European Union today than what we think of as our single, united country now.

It is of course true that there were people who fought ferociously to preserve the institution of slavery, but not all rebels, Lee and Jackson included, were among them. I’m here reminded of an anecdote in Shelby Foote’s history “The Civil War: A Narrative”:

At this time there was no agreement in either army as to what the war was about, though on both sides there was a general feeling that each was meeting some sort of challenge flung out by the other. … Perhaps the best definition of the conflict was given in conversation by a civilian, James M. Mason of Virginia: “I look upon it then, sir, as a war of sentiment and opinion by one form of society against another form of society.” No soldier would have argued with this; but few would have found it satisfactory. … Meanwhile, perhaps no soldier in either army gave a better answer — more readily understandable to his fellow soldiers, at any rate — than ragged Virginia private, pounced on by the Northerners in a retreat.
“What are you fighting for anyhow?” his captors asked, looking at him. They were genuinely puzzled, for he obviously owned no slaves and seemingly could have little interest in States Rights or even Independence.
“I’m fighting because you’re down here,” he said.

The idea that Lee went to war to preserve the institution of slavery is inconsistent with the historical evidence. When President Lincoln offered then-Colonel Lee a promotion to the rank of major general and the command of the defense of the capital, Lee refused, saying “I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?” Despite his opposition to secession, Lee was a loyal Virginian; that’s why he fought.

In fact, Lee expressed (qualified) moral disapproval of the institution. For example, he wrote in 1856 — more than four years before the war — that “slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any Country.” Of course, his views on slavery and race were by no stretch perfect, to put it mildly. He would go on to write that slavery was

a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy. This influence though slow, is sure. The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years, to Convert but a small part of the human race, & even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist! While we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day.

Additionally, Lee would in 1864 support the emancipation of the slaves so that they could be enlisted to fight in the defense of the South. That’s not the position of a virulent defender of the institution of slavery; it’s the position of a military commander whose goal was the successful defense of his state.

In the light of the above it’s clear that the idea that statues of Lee must also memorialize the institution of slavery flies in the face of what we know about him. Consequently, it simply isn’t the case that the grave evils that are associated with the Confederacy are central to our memorialization of individual Confederate soldiers. The fact that they fought for a country that supported wicked institutions doesn’t even mildly imply that they shouldn’t be memorialized at all or that they themselves were fighting for those wicked institutions. My country presently supports the mass killing of millions of innocent babies, but this doesn’t imply that when one fights for it, one fights because one supports these grave evils.

Despite the above considerations about the individual men memorialized, Belvedere asserts that “a Confederate monument has an inextricable, and therefore enduring, connection to the aims of the Confederacy.”

There is, however, a distinction between a Confederate monument and a Lee or Jackson monument. A monument that memorializes the Confederacy isn’t the same as one that memorializes individual soldiers, for the reasons I’ve already stated. The former is much more morally objectionable.

Belvedere simply asserts that there’s “no way to [pay tribute to the valor of Confederate soldiers] without at the same time eulogizing the Confederate cause.” This is the central claim that requires argument, and I failed to detect one. I’m suspicious of it precisely because most people I’ve encountered who respect Lee and Jackson can memorialize them and their accomplishments without eulogizing slavery.

It will now be helpful to return to the example with which I began. The Rhodes statue is opposed because the man was a fervent supporter of the British Empire and its colonization of Africa. And it is indubitable that the British Empire was responsible for significant crimes, including mass murder, over and above its conquest of foreign lands. If we were to follow Belvedere’s reasoning, we’d have to say that there’s “no way to pay tribute to the valor of British soldiers without at the same time eulogizing their imperialist cause.”

Following Belvedere, we may argue as follows: Since it is impossible for a monument to rabid imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes or Sir Winston Churchill to extricate its connection to imperialism in any meaningful way, and since the permanent establishment of Britain as the world’s greatest power by means of the control of other people’s territory and resources was the rationale for British imperialism, there’s nothing to be gained, and quite a bit to be lost, by allowing any pocket of Britain to officially herald its identity through imperialist monuments, even if the individual men memorialized may have done some good things in addition to the very wicked things they did.

Of course, all of this is absurd. Despite all their faults, leave Washington, Jefferson, Lee, Jackson, Wilson, Rhodes, and Churchill alone.