In Defense of Iconoclasm

Wikipedia/public domain
Wikipedia/public domain

Editor’s Note: The following is a debate with Breitbart News’ Jarrett Stepman over the New Orleans City Council’s December 17, 2015 decision to remove four monuments relating to the Confederacy. Read Stepman’s article here.

On July 9, 1776, patriots in Manhattan, having heard the Declaration of Independence read aloud for the first time, marched down Broadway and tore from its perch the two-ton lead statue of King George III. They trucked the metal to Connecticut, where it was rendered into musket balls. Similar displays of civil disobedience took place in other American cities, including Philadelphia, where the King’s coat of arms was ripped down and burned behind Independence Hall. The American revolutionaries knew that monuments are symbols—and that destroying monuments is also a symbolic act. In this case, their iconoclasm would symbolize the overthrow of monarchical tyranny and the creation of a new body politic that called itself the people of the United States.

Today, Americans, particularly in the south, are reconsidering the value of the public symbols left to them by past generations—symbols that represent a disgraceful institution, and a painful history, that today’s citizens would like to regard as passed. Cities like Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans, La., are moving to take down monuments that celebrate the alleged glories of the Confederacy and its leaders—Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and others—who fought to perpetuate slavery and white supremacy. But some, particularly conservatives, object that this represents an excess of political correctness and an effort to whitewash history.

Such complaints might be more plausible if the same conservatives would likewise denounce Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s decision in December to remove from the state’s capitol building a display celebrating the Bill of Rights. But let’s put that aside for a moment and talk about what it means to take down monuments such as—well, to take one instance, the Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans.

The Liberty Place Monument is—quite literally—a monument to white supremacy. It commemorates (only the white) deaths from an 1874 race riot. Louisiana was one of the worst epicenters of Reconstruction era violence, and the so-called “Battle of Liberty Place” occurred when a white supremacist terrorist organization rose up violently against the state’s duly elected Reconstruction government. After days of warfare in the streets, legal order was restored, but two years later, when the Hayes Administration withdrew federal troops from the south, the former slaveholding class was given leave once again to take over the state. To commemorate this purported liberation, the Liberty Place Monument was erected, listing the names of only the whites killed in the “battle.”

Later, to make the point clearer, it was inscribed as follows:

[Democrats] McEnery and Penny having been elected governor and lieutenant-governor by the white people, were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored). United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.

Our state,” you see, because the “colored” who are not “supreme” are not part of “us.” In the past thirty years or so, this monument has become more and more of a headache for the people of New Orleans. It’s constantly being defaced—and understandably so. City officials have tried covering up some of the offensive wording, and moved it to an out-of-the-way place in the parking lot behind a casino. But it’s still an obscenity. The obelisk is essentially a middle finger pointed at black Louisianans by racist barbarians from a century past. It has no place in a decent society conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Were the Liberty Place Monument just a front-yard decoration, a passer-by might simply roll his eyes and hasten down the street. But it’s more than that. It purports to be a public monument. And public monuments must be distinguished from idiosyncratic displays or historical artifacts. Everyone, including the bigot, has the right to speak for himself through some personal display. And historical artifacts are simply objects of study. But public monuments are neither of these things. They’re forms of public expression. They’re sculptures and inscriptions meant to embody and to express public ideals. Unlike private displays, through which the speaker addresses the world, public monuments are meant to speak for the people. That’s why they speak in terms of “We.” Only when a monument ceases to speak in this way, does it become an historical object. It is then placed in a museum, where it speaks, not for the living, but the dead, and not to the citizen but to the scholar. There are plenty of repulsive expressions of the past in historical museums—the Louisiana Civil War Museum, within walking distance of the Liberty Place Monument, contains many such objects—and nobody objects to them. That’s where they belong.

But a public monument in a public square speaks to the public, and, especially when it is built and maintained by the state, it speaks FOR the public. This is one reason libertarians object to public monuments in general, and it’s why the Constitution itself forbids certain kinds of public monuments entirely: taxpayers cannot be forced to subsidize religious public monuments, because, as Jefferson said, “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” Many libertarians would apply the same principle to patriotic monuments, too, but so long as these exist, a decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that they express the ideas of liberty and equality to which this nation is dedicated—and not the ideas of hatred, racial subordination, and oppression for which the Confederate forces fought. For people today to demand the removal of a living insult like the Liberty Place Monument—or a celebration of traitors who led a rebellion for the sake of what Frederick Douglass aptly called a “pretended government, based upon an open, bold, and shocking denial of all rights, except the right of the strongest”—is not only perfectly reasonable, but entirely consistent with our nation’s basic creed. It is just what our forefathers did when they tore down the statues of George III.

Some claim that taking down these monuments represents a “war on history,” or an effort to “rewrite” the past. But this is not serious. There may be some who are motivated by some such goal, but nobody can actually think that removing a monument that celebrates Jefferson Davis—an unrepentant secessionist and white supremacist—is somehow going to make the Civil War to never have happened. (Time travel, says science fiction author John Varley, is hell on verb tenses.) Rather, taking it down—and, ideally, putting it in a museum—says that it no longer performs its function of speaking for and by the people. Indeed, it never really did, since so many were at that time wrongfully excluded from what counted as “the people.” To its credit, our nation has moved beyond such ideas, and should be past these monuments. If it has not, it should explain itself.

In a free and dynamic society, monuments come and go anyway. New ones are always being erected, old ones taken down, often without people noticing. Many are simply forgotten. And if a monument is to express something alive and real, then that is as it should be. An unvenerated monument is a hollow thing, it is the letter that killeth, after the spirit hath ceased to give life. It is the bottle without the wine. It is the recitation of the words, with no sense for the meaning. That, incidentally, is why the very best monuments—the ones that most fully do what monuments are supposed to—are the spontaneous ones, like the original monument to the victims of Flight 93—alas, now destroyed to make way for some soulless, minimalist thing.

Some fear that if we take down a statue of Jeff Davis, we might soon take down statues of actual heroes, like Thomas Jefferson. And, yes, some fools have called for that. Jefferson himself—who eschewed monuments to himself—would probably not have minded. But the real answer is that this proposal has been greeted almost entirely with eye-rolling. True heroes have little to fear in this regard. And if ever there came a time when Americans wanted to take down the Jefferson Memorial, then it, too, should be demolished. If Americans ever lose their reverence for Jefferson or to such a degree that they decided to remove his monument, no force on earth could stop them. Nor should any try. The people would then have proven themselves unworthy of that monument. It would then do no good to force them to retain it. Would we then tell the people that, although they no longer love or care about a monument, nevertheless, they must allow it to go on speaking in their name (and that they must be forced to subsidize it)?

Even if one does not regard this as sinful and tyrannical, what good does it do? A monument the people do not cherish in their hearts cannot be revived by forcing people to keep it. That’s just replacing the bottle, instead of the wine. It’s cargo cult thinking—the idea that by keeping up the gestures, the living force animating those gestures can somehow be conjured back into existence. In fact, the hope that keeping monuments around will somehow teach the people virtue is not just pointless—it’s likely to be counterproductive, producing instead a general cynicism toward all monuments. When compelled to revere, we usually learn to resent.

Perhaps someday, like Kipling’s Bandar-log, Americans will be disposed to sit among the ruins of their civilization hooting at each other. “The monkeys called the place their city,” Kipling writes in The Jungle Book, “and pretended to despise the Jungle-People because they lived in the forest. And yet they never knew what the buildings were made for nor how to use them. They would sit in circles on the hall of the king’s council chamber, and scratch for fleas and pretend to be men…. They explored all the passages and dark tunnels in the palace and the hundreds of little dark rooms, but they never remembered what they had seen and what they had not; and so drifted about in ones and twos or crowds telling each other that they were doing as men did. They drank at the tanks and made the water all muddy, and then they fought over it, and then they would all rush together in mobs and shout: ‘There is no one in the jungle so wise and good and clever and strong and gentle as the Bandar-log.’” If this is our fate, keeping monuments, particularly those of slaveocrats and their generals, is not going to stop it. The Bandar-log were hardly ennobled by the ruins of their temples.

I for one don’t think we are at that stage, and so long as Americans love liberty and equality enough to despise the memory of the Confederacy, they will not be. The movement to destroy Confederate monuments is a sign of the health, not the deterioration, of our society. Meanwhile, those of us who cherish the nation’s history and Constitution are better served spending our time teaching our fellow citizens, and our children, the living spirit of the Declaration, than fighting to preserve some fragments of stone that rightly offend our fellow Americans. Let us have malice toward none, charity for all, and strive to finish the work of binding up the nation’s wounds.

I want to emphasize this last point, because one undercurrent in discussions on this issue seems to be the assumption that there’s something wrong, or silly, or even offensive about wanting to remove Confederate monuments, or the Confederate battle flag. There is nothing wrong with it. In fact, given the hideous history of slavery and segregation that these things represent, the question is not why we should remove them from public monuments, but why should we want to retain them? Why should a Confederate flag fly over a capitol building—which is supposed to represent the whole people of the state—when a large portion of that people understandably see it as a symbol of hatred and oppression? To celebrate our history? My own ancestors were slaveowners and fought for the Confederacy. I can respect their devotion and bravery while still acknowledging not only that they were wrong—and that our nation is better for rejecting their principles—but also that the symbol of their crimes should not fly proudly atop the house of the people, a “people” that today includes the descendants of slaves. There are matters over which the majority’s preferences should yield to the minority’s feelings, out of respect, decency, or even simple magnanimity. One of those is the question of public symbols.

Yet, sadly, as I mentioned before, it’s hard to shake the sense that some of those who oppose removing Confederate monuments are not really motivated by concerns of historical preservation, as they claim, but instead are using this as a proxy fight with which to cling to the values for which the Confederates fought—values that were and remain disgusting. One need not venture far on this trail to encounter a disconcertingly large minority who still believe, if not in slavery, then in the reactionary causes of class-hierarchy, agrarian authoritarianism, and blood-and-soil paleoconservatism which the Confederate flag now symbolizes.

I say this because, as I mentioned before, there’s been no similar outcry from conservative circles about Gov. Abbott’s order removing a commemoration of the Bill of Rights from the Texas capitol building. That memorial was placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist group I support, and it depicts the founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty surrounding the newborn Bill of Rights (Bill of Rights Day is Dec. 17). Gov. Abbott absurdly alleged that the depiction was “offensive” and “mocking,” obvious and poor quality excuses for bigotry against a religious minority whom Gov. Abbott feels it convenient to discriminate. Far from objecting to this shameful act, the conservative website The Blaze even editorialized in favor of Abbott.

Can we really take seriously the complaints of those who would retain this—


but force the removal of this?



One gets here the sense that anti-removal arguments based on “history” and “education,” are really misdirection, meant to distract us from what actually a desire to retain Confederate iconography as a testament to the anti-liberal doctrines of the Old South. Conservatives have used this rhetorical tactic before, especially in all-too-clever attempts to place sectarian religious monuments in government buildings, in violation of the First Amendment, while saying that they’re just meant as “historical,” not religious expressions. (Even if that weren’t a lie, it would be taking the Lord’s name in vain.)

But even if my suspicion is misplaced, public symbology is supposed to represent shared values. Laughing off our fellow citizens’ non-trivial objections is hardly in the spirit of the things. Besides, Southerners pride themselves on their hospitality. If a friend or neighbor were offended by your cigarette smoke, you’d put it out. So why force them to join in a public spectacle that celebrates those who sought to enslave their ancestors? That’s not hospitable. It’s not American. It’s not Christian. Why force a public symbol down their throats, instead of finding a symbol we can all enjoy together? That symbol is the flag of the United States.

Yes, removing statutes is a small matter, in the scheme of things. At most, it only tears down the bad, when the real work is building up the good. But it’s still a worthwhile step. In fact, the removal of Confederate monuments should not just be allowed, but celebrated. Like the New Yorkers who melted down the statue of George III to make musket balls, and the Philadelphians who cheered to the burning of his coat of arms, this is an opportunity for us to commemorate ourselves as a new and freer people. Why not do it together? Why not join hands and cast away these lasting monuments to ignorance and tyranny? Make a celebration out of it, a late celebration of our new birth of freedom? That would be a party to which everyone could feel welcome.

Timothy Sandefur is a Principal Attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation and author of The Conscience of The Constitution (Cato Institute, 2014).


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