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History, statues, collective memory and contemporary politics

Motion: All Confederate monuments and flags should be immediately removed from all public property. 

How does a society deal with the sins of its past? This is a question that has sparked debate and myriad remedies in countries throughout the world, and the United States is certainly not exempt. 


For this debate, two new voices to Citizen Jane Blog have agreed to address the question as it pertains to the United States and the Confederate relics that can be found in many cities. Specifically, they will discuss whether the Confederate monuments and flags that are on these public property should be forced into removal. 

This topic, although one that has been of concern for many decades, has recently regained currency. As the country grapples with the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and numerous other minorities at the hands of police, protests have risen and activists have demanded, as well as forcibly removed, defaced or destroyed many of these Confederate monuments.


The questions at hand for this debate are should these relics be removed? If so, by whom? How? More specifically, the motion to be addressed is: All Confederate monuments and flags should be immediately removed from all public property. 

The format for the debate will be as follows: Each debater will submit Opening Statements; followed by a series of alternating Rebuttals; followed by a Question and Answer segment; and concluding with Closing Statements. I will update the blog with their ongoing responses as the debate proceeds. 

The debaters have asked to utilize pseudonyms. Publius will be arguing in favor of the motion, and Brutus will be arguing in opposition. For some very brief introductions: 

Publius is an East Coast intellectual.

Brutus is a West Coast lawyer. 

With that out of the way, let us begin! I look forward to a well-thought out and nuanced debate. 

Opening Statements


The Confederacy was the most drastic attempt by the Slave Power to protect and expand its system of racial oppression by tearing apart the United States of America. Decades after the Civil War, Confederate monuments across this country were put in place in order to express Confederate apologists’ support of racial segregation and white supremacy. Several state governments incorporated the Confederate battle flag into their state flags for much the same reasons. Some have since justified these monuments as reminders of history or examples of "Southern heritage." However, history does not require heroic public monuments to be remembered, and it would be a poor heritage indeed if the Confederacy yielded the only aspects of the South worth noting.


Among our shared public values as 21st-century Americans is a rejection of slavery, racism, and white supremacy. These values are deeply at odds with the Confederacy, its leaders, soldiers, and symbols, and so those leaders, soldiers, and symbols should not continue to be maintained on public property. So long as they are, they will continue to insult and undermine our public values, and provide rallying points for racists who want to continue to consider themselves good Americans, or "the real America."


The issue is not whether the Confederacy is “bad,” but what is the right way as a matter of law and policy to regulate state public speech? 


To the extent that Confederate symbols on public property (e.g., statues) or in public insignia (e.g., state flags) constitute state speech, speech the state is lawfully allowed to publicly express, that state speech must be silenced by legal process or not at all. That means silencing of state speech must be by lawful state action, such as binding resolution of the relevant city council, or by the order of a court of competent jurisdiction, and not by mob violence, however offended the mob may feel. 


As for the related policy matter, the statue topplers and flag pullers should at a minimum be required to provide a coherent standard for determining which symbols are to be removed/toppled and a rationally defensible justification for such a standard, preferably one that if applied consistently wouldn’t result in the removal of statues of Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, and the like. That is, to avoid swallowing all of history whole, this standard for removing symbols and silencing state speech is going to need some built-in limits. Let’s discuss that.

First Rebuttals


The question before us is whether Confederate symbols on public property should be immediately removed, not how they should be removed or by whom. If this question were worded differently, I might have had a somewhat different answer. Regardless, most Confederate statues and monuments that have been removed from public view over the last two months have been taken down through government action or at the request of their owners. There is a list of monuments and memorials removed during the George Floyd protests on Wikipedia that documents that. In many cases, city councils voted unanimously for removal. The recent shift in American political opinion is not confined to angry mobs.

Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln, while they had their faults, did not organize or support a rebellion against the United States, nor did they fight a war in support of the enslavement of millions of people in America. I believe that this combination is a sufficiently conservative criterion for selecting whom to continue or discontinue honoring with public statuary that most Americans can swiftly agree upon it, once the issue is brought to their attention. Some few may wish to go further, but again, that is not the question before us.

I am also not arguing that the presence of Confederate monuments should be made illegal or ruled unconstitutional. My stance is more modest: that such monuments do not belong on public property, in the United States or anywhere, and that they should be removed without any further delay.


Because principled, lawful removal precludes “immediate” removal by riotous, revolutionary mob, the question becomes by what principle should lawful authority non-immediately remove one symbol and not another, if that is to happen at all? You draw the line at rebellion and slavery. Symbols depicting those who rebelled on behalf of a former slave state should come down, while all others stay up, at least for now, you say. This is a curious line to draw for it conveniently preserves symbols of Marx, whose revolutionary ideas not only led to the deaths of 100 million people but also to the present rioting, including the toppling of statues of long-dead white men, irrespective of their actual histories or contributions to American civilization.

Why should a symbol depicting Stonewall Jackson come down but that of Marx stay up, or that of any of his disciples, whether Lenin, Stalin, or Mao? Why should Washington stand but Jackson fall? Both owned slaves. Both were Virginians. Both fought bravely against a great power on behalf of a smaller power. Neither clearly fought for slavery. One happened to be born later than the other. Should accident of timing be why one is revered and the other reviled? Why remove a symbol merely interpreted as evil by some yet honorable by others? Why not counter speech you dislike (and likely misunderstand) with more speech rather than suppression? Why not add new statues, new voices to our statuary rather than engage in politically motivated suppression of presently disfavored symbols?

Question and Answer Segment Amongst Debaters


I want to address my colleague's apparent reluctance to remove disfavored statues from public property. It is, after all, a longstanding tradition to do so, both in America and around the world. Americans in New York pulled down the statue of King George III in 1776 (even though not all New Yorkers considered him a tyrant). The people of Iraq did not preserve the many public statues and portraits of Saddam Hussein littered throughout their country, even after the demise of the Ba'athist regime. Many (but not all) of the people of Ukraine regarded the statues of Lenin in their midst as symbols of Communist despotism and Russian domination, so they tore them down. Were they all wrong to do so? Were they all justified in doing so? Were some of them wrong, and some of them right to do so? When a society's public values change, when – if ever – is it appropriate to change the public symbols that are now in sharp opposition to those values?


When the US hastened the demise of the USSR, the newly freed Ukrainians toppled statues of Lenin, a symbol of Soviet dominance of Ukraine. When the US ended the Ba’athist regime, the newly freed Iraqis toppled statues of Saddam, a symbol of Ba’athist dominance of Iraq. These statues did not fall because social values changed, as you suggest. Repressive governments fell and so their statues fell, too. Americans pulled down the statue of King George to end the rule of man and to begin for the first time in human history the rule of law. Unlike the Ukrainians, Iraqis, and American patriots, the mob today is not pulling down statues to further the rule of law. No, they are rioting directly against the rule of law. There are lawful ways of changing public symbols. Assuming they would heed your counsel, Publius, would you advise the rioters to cease rioting and instead seek lawful redress of their grievances? Would you have them respect the rule of law?

Question and Answer Segment with Questions from Moderator

Citizen Jane for Publius:

Annette Gordon-Reed, a historian of U.S. slavery, legal scholar, and member of the Presidential Initiative on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, stated in an interview with Harvard Gazette  that as a law professor, she “cannot see myself pulling down a statue in that way. It would be odd for me to condone other people doing something I would not do.” 


However, later in the interview, when asked “What do you say to those who argue that the removal of such statues in prominent public settings dishonors the memory of those who died fighting for the Confederacy?” Gordon-Reed responded by stating “I would say there are other places for that — on battlefields and cemeteries. The Confederates lost the war, the rebellion. The victors, the thousands of soldiers — black and white — in the armed forces of the United States, died to protect this country. I think it dishonors them to celebrate the men who killed them and tried to kill off the American nation. The United States was far from perfect, but the values of the Confederacy, open and unrepentant white supremacy and total disregard for the humanity of black people, to the extent they still exist, have produced tragedy and discord. There is no path to a peaceful and prosperous country without challenging and rejecting that as a basis for our society.” 


Do you agree that her argument that there is a place for these Confederate statues on battlefields or do you think they should be removed entirely?

Publius Response:

This is an interesting question that gets at the edges of where public and private values meet. I agree with Annette Gordon-Reed that celebration or glorification of the Confederacy and its values dishonors those who fought against them to protect and preserve the United States. On the other hand, I think that, in the interest of human dignity, everyone should have a grave if they so chose, in order to be memorialized as individuals, even if they died for a despicable cause. Tombs and cenotaphs that are not for individuals, but for Confederate veterans writ large, or that celebrate the Confederacy as a whole, are where we run into trouble. A monument dedicated specifically to Confederate war dead in a cemetery in Kentucky (for example) should be as jarring to us as a monument to Ukrainian SS troops in a cemetery in Canada, and as morally suspect. I am personally not very supportive of monuments to war dead from any side erected on a battlefield, beyond individual grave markers; their purpose as emotional foci for national myth-building tends to detract from what I see as the primary value of preserving a battlefield: as a tool in teaching history.



Citizen Jane Question for Brutus:

Brutus, you wrote in your question to Publius the following: “Americans pulled down the statue of King George to end the rule of man and to begin for the first time in human history the rule of law. Unlike the Ukrainians, Iraqis, and American patriots, the mob today is not pulling down statues to further the rule of law. No, they are rioting directly against the rule of law.” 


My question for you is the following: In the article Erasing History?  Um, History is Full of Torn-Down Monuments by Candida Moss, Moss writes, 


“...there’s also something freeing about destroying statues that symbolize oppression. Few spilled tears when US forces in Baghdad toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos square. When the removal of a statue comes at the behest of an oppressed community it can do important work. In the case of the 2010 removal of Josef Stalin’s statue from his childhood home in Gori, Georgia, there was something cathartic about the quiet dismantling of his legacy there. At the time, Georgia’s culture minister noted that Stalin had created problems in Georgia that continued into the present. The removal of the statue was about healing those wounds.

Many of the statues currently being torn down are not relics of the incredibly short-lived Confederacy at all. Many of these statues were mass produced around the turn of the 20th century, when racist nostalgia wistfully looked back to this period. It’s worth asking if these are monuments to anything other than intractable racism.” 


How would you respond to this argument? Do you feel that there is something cathartic about tearing down the statues of oppressors and that this perhaps can justify the “rioting directly against the rule of law”, no matter the means done to achieve it? 

Brutus Response:

Moss asserts that Confederate statues “symbolize oppression” and represent “intractable racism.” Is she right? No. Why? Because there is no right answer as to what any statue means. To some, a statue of Stonewall Jackson means oppression and racism. But to others, it means military ingenuity, bravery against the odds, or perhaps just a fighting spirit, among myriad other possibilities. Who’s to say which interpretation is the right one? There is no judge, no standards for answering this question. The statue of Stalin came down in Gori not because it truly represented oppression, but because there was a prior sea change in the law. Unlike the former USSR, the US legal system has not been overthrown, nor will it be. Here, it remains unlawful to destroy public property, and those who’ve toppled statues will pay the price. The law does not care about the feelings of the mob, its violent search for “catharsis,” or any ill-formed opinion on what this or that symbol may mean. Nor should it. Don’t like that answer? Win some elections, rewrite the law, and appoint some judges. That’s how democracy works. That’s how the rule of law works. Think a revolution is coming to sweep away democracy, the rule of law, and all “oppressive” symbols? Well, as Georgetown law professor Bill Otis recently put it, "[t]hese people deserve Trump and I now suspect they're going to get him." Too true. 

Concluding Remarks


One may argue that a single, agreed-upon meaning for a symbol is impossible. But if that were so, then why should anyone care to defend a symbol that can be construed to mean anything, or nothing? We should not reduce ourselves to arguing for the impossibility of shared meaning in order to defend these hunks of concrete and metal. They have no intrinsic value, and don’t need saving if they’re meaningless. 


In these turbulent times, it can be difficult to keep in mind the underlying values that we hold in common, and how they differ from the values upheld by a powerful few in the past. These symbols that white supremacists erected to celebrate a white supremacist regime still stand in many of our public squares today. They mock our attempts to fully realize our ideals of liberty and justice for all in the present. They should therefore be removed from public property. Agreeing with this does not require advocating that angry mobs tear them down. All it requires is that we, the public, agree that it should be done, because public expressions of our shared values deserve not to be muddled with apologias for the tyrannies of our past.


The original question is whether Confederate monuments and flags should be removed immediately from all public property. Lawful removal of "bad" symbols, even if widely and strongly desired, would at most proceed case-by-case, locality-by-locality, each case potentially fraught with difficulty, setback, and compromise. The only way to immediately remove monuments and flags of any sort, Confederate or otherwise, from all public property would be by unlawful force, such as by direct mob action, the sort we've witnessed this summer. Removal by lawful process, such as by city council vote or by legal action in a court of law, would necessarily be non-immediate, which is tantamount to rejection of the original proposition in defiance of the will of the mob. There's no reason to think the mob, if unopposed by law, would just topple the supposedly "bad" symbols of our legal regime and then suddenly develop principles of discernment and self-restraint, taking Stonewall Jackson down while leaving George Washington up. No, if the toppling were allowed to continue, it would only be a matter of time until the rule of law itself would tumble down, which is of course the entire point. That this is so should be obvious to all.  

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