I’ve written a few times about the great debate involving controversial historical monuments in this country. The two sides in the matter are deeply dug into their positions. One group yells, “No, you can’t take them down—it’s history,” and the other screams, “Yes, you must take them down because they’re hateful.” In my opinion, the dialogue never became much more sophisticated than this—one side simply tries to scream louder than the other.
My last blog on the topic, “The Difference Between Celebrating and Not Forgetting,” which I posted on May 30th and reposted on August 18th, was an effort to provide a nuance to the discussion. I suggested that it was appropriate to “not forget” something that was bad through a monument (e.g. the 9/11 Monuments in NY) but it was not okay to celebrate something that is hateful (e.g. a statue of an individual who fought for a cause or principle that was evil). My blog reached over 21,000 people on Facebook and received almost 400 posted comments, but very few addressed my nuance and most simply continued screaming either a loud “No” or “Yes.”
Today, I read an interesting article in the NY Post, entitled, “Public Chimes in on Monumental Debate.” The piece describes a meeting of Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers—a group that was established to provide recommendations about what to do with potentially offensive statues and monuments. One commenter spoke of Christopher Columbus and suggested that the good he did as an explorer outweighed the bad he did in annihilating the Taino and other indigenous peoples in the Caribbean. This to me is a twist to the dialogue, and while I won’t choose to discuss the merits of statues celebrating Columbus, I would like to explore the concept of this argument further.
The logic of this approach is to consider the benefit of an individual’s positive achievements against any negative deeds or positions associated with them. Let’s start with an extreme, and perhaps absurd, example of this approach—just to make a point. Imagine that Adolf Hitler was associated with a significant scientific achievement before coming to power in Germany. It would be hard to fathom how any achievement could outweigh the evil associated with his later deeds—clearly, there would be no justification for any monuments in this case.
The Post article mentioned a less extreme example of a statue erected in New York’s Central Park of Dr. J. Marion Sims, who is often considered to be the father of gynecology, a field of great importance around the world. He was also known to have experimented on enslaved women during the 1840s. Here is the Wikipedia entry for Dr. Sims:
James Marion Sims (January 25, 1813 – November 13, 1883) (known as J. Marion Sims) was an American physician and a pioneer in the field of surgery, known as the “father of modern gynecology.” His most significant work was to develop a surgical technique for the repair of vesicovaginal fistula, a severe complication of obstructed childbirth.
Sims used enslaved African-American women, unanesthetized, as experimental subjects in the development of this important surgical breakthrough. This work has been regarded by many modern historians and ethicists as unethical. He has been described as “a prime example of progress in the medical profession made at the expense of a vulnerable population.” But his contributions are also defended. Physician L. L. Wall emphasized that Sims conformed to accepted medical practices of the time, that he performed surgery for a therapeutic result, and that the women he operated on suffered what could be a catastrophic condition for their health and quality of life.
Clearly, both the positive and negative aspects of Dr. Sims legacy have been duly recorded and perhaps the approach of comparing the two opposing views of his achievements might lead to a reasoned decision as to the status of his monument. In other words, I could see how an intelligent group of citizens could get together and have a discussion about Dr. J. Marion Sims statue using this approach.
Now, let’s try to apply this methodology to the Confederate statue controversy by imagining a situation where a confederate general founded a college in the south after the war was over. He left a legacy at the college of learning and academic excellence and built the institution on such a firm foundation, it still exists today. A statue of him was erected in the center of the college’s great lawn and now one group is screaming “No, you can’t take it down,” while the other yells, “Yes, it has to go.”
The answer in this unusual case might be that the statue stays because this individual did so much good after the war with his work at the college, it out-weighs the fact that he was on the wrong side of the issue during the war. After all, the goal of the post-war period was reconciliation and embracing a new reality in the south. If someone did this and achieved great things in the process, a monument celebrating post-war achievements might, in fact, be appropriate.
The problem is that many of the confederate statues are only celebrating the individual’s achievements during a war in which they fought to hold onto a system that enslaved an entire class of people. Many of the statues were erected years after the war during the Jim Crow period either to intimidate or reminisce, and neither of these motivations is worthy of celebration.
So maybe instead of screaming “No” or countering with “Yes,” we should take a breath and look at who we are honoring and why we feel it appropriate to do so. Weighing the positives and negatives before deciding on a course of action seems like a smart thing to do.