The Question of the Offensive Monument

The Question of the Offensive Monument

The Question of the Offensive Monument

What do we lose by simply removing monuments? Robert Bevan attempts to answer that question in a recent book, Monumental Lies.


On a recent visit to Arlington National Cemetery, I was the only loner amid squadrons of middle schoolers on field trips, their matching T-shirts printed with the names of the hometowns from which they had come to Washington, D.C., for a dose of national mythology. I was there to see the Arlington Confederate Memorial. Unveiled in 1914, the memorial’s bronze frieze shows dozens of life-size Southerners rushing to the aid of a comely personification of the South, her drapery fallen open to reveal her breasts.

Her protectors include a Black man marching off to war among Confederate soldiers. As Hilary A. Herbert, the congressman from Alabama who was the cheerleader behind the memorial, put it in the account he wrote of its creation, the monument’s “leading purpose” was “to correct history” by showing how “the astonishing fidelity of the slaves everywhere during the war…was convincing proof of the kindly relations between master and slave in the old South.” The memorial is just one of many demonstrations of “Lost Cause” propaganda.

Today, a sign next to the memorial describes its depiction of slavery as “highly sanitized.” The sign includes a link to an official website, which expands on how misinformation about a mythical antebellum past of racial harmony fueled white backlash against the expansion of Black civil rights. The memorial’s insistence that a sexually vulnerable white woman must be protected by the maintenance of a system of strict racial control fit right into the 1910s, an era when lynchings justified by a claimed threat of sexual assault were reaching their peak.

Can we stop monuments like the Arlington Confederate Memorial from spreading historical lies and hateful ideology? What do we lose by simply removing them? Robert Bevan, a British architectural critic, attempts to answer such questions in his new book, Monumental Lies: Culture Wars and the Truth About the Past.

Bevan usefully contextualizes current debates around monuments within the larger schema of “culture wars,” in which liberals and conservatives fight to capture the imagination of voters with opposing visions of history, social life, and the country’s political future. Progressives see a past full of evils, such as slavery, that we must escape to achieve an ideal, equitable future. Conservatives appeal to the greatness of a mythologized past, warning that liberals do not understand the perils of discarding it. Monuments, with their visual arguments about just what in our national past should be honored and emulated, are perfect battlegrounds in America’s forever culture wars.

Bevan calls monuments “obvious sites of deceit,” and his book begins from the assumption that the elites who generally pay for public artworks will of course use them to tell a story that benefits themselves. A plaque on the base of the statue in Bristol, England, of the 17th-century merchant Edward Colston is one striking example. The statue illustrates the story of a dolphin that supposedly saved one of Colston’s ships during a storm by inserting itself into a hole below the waterline until the sailors could repair it. The monument does not give any hint that Colston was a slave trader or that his miraculously protected cargo was human. Their lives were spared so that they could be sold.

In June 2020, protesters pulled down the statue and pushed it into Bristol’s harbor. No dolphins were on hand to save Colston from this demonstration. Bevan, however, does not approve of such acts, which he calls the “new iconoclasm.” He argues for the transformation of lying monuments by the addition of signage and artistic interventions, making them into “thinking sites that shame rather than honor,” so that we can change their meaning “without losing altogether the vital evidence of [the] past from the public realm.”

This position, of condemning monuments for their biased versions of history but wishing to spare them from total destruction, has emerged as a common line of argument. But while many such thinkers are content with a vague gesture toward the dangers of “erasing history,” Bevan attempts more systematically to lay out his case for the benefits of transformation.

Bevan wants to preserve monuments for their evidentiary value, like murder weapons stored in an evidence locker. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argued that the ideal totalitarian subjects are not those who truly believe their ruler’s ideological claims but rather those who can be made to believe anything because they are no longer able to tell the difference between true and false. Bevan repeatedly cites this theory, fearing that the removal of monuments “in the name of progress” will pave the way for “a dangerous Humpty Dumpty populism where truth…is whatever you say it is.”

For decades, Holocaust deniers repeated the slogan “No holes, no Holocaust!” They claimed that the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau had no holes in their ceilings. On this basis, they dismissed the huge amount of oral and written testimony about the execution of prisoners through the dropping of Zyklon-B pellets into the gas chambers—a dismissal made easier by the fact that the retreating Nazis had destroyed the gas chambers. Only in 2000 did an exacting forensic study of the remains of the structures locate the relevant holes.

Bevan devotes a chapter to this story, arguing that preserving the monuments in place might also someday provide crucial evidence. For me, the tale of the holes proves the opposite point: Holocaust denial is as strong as ever; the discovery of the holes neither persuaded existing deniers nor prevented others from joining their ranks. People who were capable of disregarding all the other evidence about the Holocaust are not going to change their minds simply by putting their finger in a new hole. Evidence is not proof.

Besides, monuments and gas chambers are different types of evidence. The Nazis tried to destroy the gas chambers because they did not want us to see what they had done at Auschwitz-Birkenau. But monuments are propaganda. They are bronze braggarts, paid for by people who very much hoped we would continue to listen to their messages.

For all his insistence on the importance of preserving monuments as evidence, Bevan is reluctant to specify what exactly this evidence might be. He writes that monuments related to slavery “confront us with the reality of how elites have seen fit to honor horrors in public.” But is this the best case that can be made in their favor?

It is true that the Arlington Confederate Memorial is an illustration of how eagerly many turn-of-the-century Americans tried to reframe the Civil War as a quest to protect states’ rights. It also shows that this reframing was supported at the highest levels: President William Howard Taft laid the monument’s cornerstone in 1912, while his successor, Woodow Wilson, accepted the completed monument on behalf of the nation at its 1914 dedication, saying that Northerners and Southerners could now stand “shoulder to shoulder to lift the burdens of mankind in the future and show the paths of freedom to all the world.” The 19th Amendment was still five years away, and the Voting Rights Act would take another half-century. Surely some of the women and people of color listening to Wilson, whose political power was either totally or functionally denied, needed no help seeing the paths of freedom they were not allowed to tread.

Of course, Americans should neither forget these past injustices nor overlook their continuances in the present. But the memorial is only one of innumerable sources of evidence about our nation’s privileging of white men. We can read its creators’ descriptions of what exactly they hoped to prove in their proud publications without needing to spend a sweaty afternoon trekking across the hills of Arlington to see it.

The preservation of a crime scene always requires compromise between investigation and the resumption of life. We do not leave bodies lying on the street until their murderers are convicted. The distress to relatives and onlookers would be too great to justify the potential benefits for crime scene investigators. In the case of monuments, too, we must consider the consequences of leaving them up.

Research suggests that the disparities in health outcomes between Black and white Americans are related to constant exposure to the psychosocial stressors created by racism. In a short comment in an academic journal published in 2018, Chelsey R. Carter, then a PhD student and now a professor of public health and anthropology at Yale, argued that monuments should be recognized as another of these stressors. Carter wrote that many American monuments not only remind her of “ancestors who gave their lives fighting for my freedom” but also of the fact that the United States continues to give official honor to men who did not believe she is fully human. Bevan scoffs at Carter’s theory, arguing that “we don’t truly know” whether monuments cause “actual harm” to any viewers apart from the “individual psychological response of an observer to a specific monument.” But what is pain, if not an individual response to a particular stimulus? It is true that no research studies on the health impacts of monuments have yet been done. But Bevan is all too ready to dismiss the very possibility of such harm.

Bevan claims we “diminish ourselves as humans” when we believe that inanimate objects like monuments have the power to cause us pain. Perhaps he believes that his equanimity in the face of a monument is proof that he is more open-minded. Or perhaps he simply does not believe Carter when she says that she suffers—a well-recognized phenomenon in medicine, where doctors are more likely to believe that their minority patients are exaggerating their pain.

Bevan also derides the removal of monuments as “symbolic change” that distracts progressives’ energies from “genuine change” in the form of, say, affordable housing or reparations. He suggests that activists concentrate on removing the greater societal causes of harms, like discrimination, “rather than its inert symbols.” It is a pity that Bevan constructed a straw man to argue against rather than asking anyone who took action why they did so. Unsurprisingly, none of the activists who toppled monuments in 2020 that I interviewed for my recent book, who had their own theories about the benefits of removing monuments, were under the delusion that doing so would instantly transform society or prevent them from advocating for other issues.

If we are to keep up controversial monuments, Bevan believes they must undergo a “subversive transformation”: the addition of new layers of meaning that highlight rather than conceal historical trauma. His main example is a Fascist public monument urging the populace of the northern Italian city of Bolzano to “believe, obey, fight.” In 2017, town authorities added LED letters to the monument to spell out a Hannah Arendt quote: “No one has the right to obey.” Arendt’s insistence on our ethical responsibility to question authority contradicts the still-visible Fascist slogan.

But neofascism has only gained strength in Italy since this monument’s transformation. And transformations like these are vanishingly rare, since they are usually opposed by both authorities and private interest groups. For example, most of the current proposals to modify Confederate monuments rather than merely remove them have been blocked by a rash of lawsuits.

On that day in Arlington, after circumambulating the Confederate Memorial in the hot sun, I gratefully laid in the shade of oak trees, listening to the calls of mourning doves and the occasional distant rifle crack of a final salute. I was in Section 27, where there isn’t much to see: just rows of small tombstones, with no spectacular monument or even signage to explain that I was surrounded by the graves of around 1,500 members of the United States Colored Troops who had died fighting for the Union during the Civil War.

The area, which had been a civilian burial ground known as the Lower Cemetery, did not become part of Arlington proper until President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces, including their burials, in 1948. Before then, only white soldiers were honored at Arlington. Even the Confederate dead were welcomed long before Black soldiers. In 1912, more than 100 Confederates were exhumed from the Lower Cemetery and reburied near the planned Confederal Memorial.

The sacrifices of the men in Section 27 remain far less visible in Arlington than the fictions conjured up by the Confederate Memorial, whose images claim that enslaved people helped their enslavers defend their right to own them. This is in stark contrast to the historical reality not only of Black service in the Union forces but also of the importance of slave rebellions both before and during the war. Schools send their students to Arlington to find heroes. The question of what to do with the Confederate Memorial is not a question about our nation’s past but its future.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Berkenau were formerly crematoria. As well, a discussion of Robert Bevan’s consulting work that appeared in a previous version of this article has been removed.

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