My last post about learning from the past got me to thinking about Confederate statues. As my son pointed out, what’s most objectionable about a statue of, for example, Robert E. Lee, isn’t that he had slaves or defended slavery, or even that he took up arms against the government.
If we judge people in the past by our moral standards they will fall short, as we will if future generations judge us by their standards. They may justifiably chastise us because we tortured and ate animals, destroyed the environment, irrevocably changed the climate thereby, and more. If we judge this way it follows that we have nothing to learn from past generations and future ones will have nothing to learn from us.
As for Confederate statues, the main reason they are appalling is that they were meant to terrorize African Americans; they were built mostly in the 20th century to reinforce white supremacy. That’s the difference between confederate statues and statues of say Washington, Lincoln, or Jefferson whatever be the moral shortcomings of those men.
My son also pointed out that statues themselves are a problematic art form. By suggesting the immutable perfection of their subjects they mislead us about the mixed nature of human beings. Thomas Jefferson was an educated man and a slaveholder; Woodrow Wilson was the leading architect of the League of Nations and a racist; Mother Theresa opened India’s first hospice and did many despicable things. But statues by their nature can’t account for such simple distinctions or place their subjects in context.
What is really needed is a true understanding of history as opposed to myths and legends. I suppose the truth may set us free.