The hauling down of statues has a certain resonance for people of my generation who not only recall the lassooing of Saddam Hussein but the defacement of Buddhist carvings by Islamic extremists as well as the consignment of the stentorian images of Lenin and Marx to Moscow suburban junkyards as well has the obliteration of Chinese imagery (that was not of Chairman Mao) during the cultural revolution of the late sixties and seventies. In a sense the Vietnam memorial, which I found personally very poignantly and unexpectedly moving when I went to see it, was also an expression of this tendency of de-iconfication and healthy disillusionment so in my mind at least there are both positive and negative aspects to it.
While the tendency to purge awkward memories is a strong one in both our public and personal lives, it is worth examining where it is a healthy scourging of outmoded imagery or where the wholesale obliteration of meaning. I think it important, first of all, to distinguish purely political from artistic statements. In my view at least, the wanton destruction of the giant Buddhas of Barniyan by the Taliban was simply an act of vandalism, while the hauling down of Saddam Hussein was basically just an example of good taste. One was art and the other politics.
Honestly, I do not believe that statues of Robert E. Lee belong in the public square. They are symbols of an abhorrent and discredited ideology and a reminder of a dark chapter in the history of the nation. To glorify that seems perverse. On the other hand, the call now to remove Lee and Stonewall Jackson's names from the barracks of West Point seems to me both unnecessary and punitive-- the manifestation of a rabid tendency to obliterate any uncomfortable symbols of past guilt from American discourse. Lee was a graduate of West Point and Superintendent there from 1852 to 1855. He is part of the history of that institution. Not only that, he was undeniably a brilliant tactician and military strategist, two skills which the institution purports to teach and of which we, as a nation, if we are to remain one, are in need. The concept of 'the state' in American has changed over time.To seek to obliterate his name simply because he chose loyalty to his state over that of his country from the institution he served and attended is in my mind more akin to an attempt at collective self absolution than a mark of sensitivity to modern cultural norms or true justice and does nothing for the stature of the nation. While it may be simply making hay in the current political climate, I think the calls to do this are misguided.
And while I may be accused on nit-picking, I do think it is important to maintain the distinction between glorification and commemoration and in this case, of West Point, I believe it is commemoration and thus should be left to stand. And while, racists and haters may also seek to make hay on the other side of the road if the names are left to stand, I believe they will be on much shakier ground in doing so. So, while I find myself in an uncomfortable position in saying so, and I have spent a lot of time talking about commemoration and monuments of which neither subject do I have any great fondness or affinity, and while I do not share Trump's great affection for embodying memory in stone or glass, I do believe that simple eradication without accompanying self reflection of either memory or the places of honor in it. is a destructive process and should be undertaken with great care.