Statues topple as national identity and global values change Part I: Statues falling in America

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The Robert E. Lee monument on Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia, USA. The monument was by sculptor Antonin Mercie and erected in 1876. It was removed in 2020. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the United States of America (Ref. number is 06001213) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/file:statue_robert_e._lee_richmond)

IO – In many parts of the Western world in recent weeks there have been demonstrations and even at times riots. The tearing down of statues of once venerated people has been one of the major demands of large numbers of protestors. 

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston South Carolina on 21 June 2015 with tributes to the parishners killed by Dylann Roof. (Photo By Kellyjeanne9)

The movement to remove statues in America began with the removal of Confederate statues after Dylann Roof a young white man opened fire and killed nine parishioners at a church in South Carolina. He had posted photographs of himself posing with the Confederate flag on the internet. 

It was only then that larger segments of society began to look at what Confederate monuments really meant for Black people; imagining what it must feel like to pass the statue of a Confederate leader in a park or in front of a municipal building everyday on the way to work; the statue of a leader who had fought to enslave people like themselves. Bearing in mind that America is supposed to be the home of democracy where all men are said to be created equal, it is in fact quite strange that Confederate statues were ever erected in the first place. 

It was not only statues but also other symbols of the Confederacy that began to be removed after 2015. Public schools and roads named after Confederate heroes were renamed, the Confederate flag began to be removed and the state of Georgia changed its Confederate Memorial Day to the State Holiday instead. Since 2015 symbols of the Confederacy have been removed at a rate of about three every month. However, it was estimated that there were about 1,730 Confederate monuments still standing and surprisingly enough there were even new Confederate monuments being raised all over the United States (since 1990 about 50 new Confederate monuments) with 60% of them erected on public land. 

The words that ignited a nation’s humanity, “I can’t breath”. George Floyd protests in Minneapolis on May 28, 2020. (Photo by Fibonacci Blue)

After the video of George Floyd being killed by a White police officer with two other officers watching as he begged for his life, went viral many people were deeply distressed and moved by his fate. It was as though their humanity had suddenly been ignited by the fire of his anguish and death. Many people began to understand what it means to be black in America and the suffering and ordeals of so many black people. Despite the pandemic demonstrations broke out all over the United States, many turning into riots with days of looting, burning and the tearing down of Confederate statues and symbols. These were attended not only by black people but by tens of thousands of non-blacks. The toppling of Confederate statues was further followed by the demand for the removal of other statues that were not necessarily Confederate statues but that were deemed racist or were those of slaveholders. The rage in America spread to Europe especially Britain. Soon, people were questioning which statues it was right to pull down and which should not be pulled down. Others however, questioned whether any statues should be pulled down at all. 

Statues are symbols of the values that a society holds. They say: “These are the people whose words, actions and sacrifices reflect the values held by our society. Emulate them!” This is especially true of statues placed on government owned land such as parks and even more so when they are located in conspicuous places such as in or in front of government buildings which give them a certain authority. There is therefore a strong connection between a society’s identity and its statues and monuments which reflect that identity and the values that underline it. 

The taller Buddha of Bamiyan (before 2001). (Photo by James Gordon/ Fars News Agency)

In the 21st century perhaps the most famous destruction of a major statue was the annihilation of the two monumental statues of Gautama Buddha in a valley in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. In 2001 the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar declared them to be un-Islamic and within the month the two 6th century statues had been dynamited. In carrying out this destruction the Taliban were well aware that statues reflect the values and identity of a community. Afghanistan may not have been Buddhist any longer at the time of their destruction but the two statues were symbols of the diversity and tolerance that were intolerable to a movement bent on enforcing their own austere version of Sharia, or Islamic law. 

Currently, the often violent tearing down of statues is a reflection of the changes taking place in national identity in several parts of the Western world, especially America. As America has come to represent the stronghold of democracy and the leader of democratic values, it is incumbent upon any nation claiming to be a democracy to follow events and try to understand what is happening in America now. For Indonesia with its hundreds of ethnicities and tribes, languages and beliefs its national identity has always played a tremendously important role in unifying the nation and as the largest democracy in Southeast Asia, what is happening in the United States and parts of Western Europe and where that is leading, is of special interest; particularity in comparison to events in China with regard to Hongkong, the treatment of the Uighurs, Tibetans and other minorities not in line with communist party policy.

In America, especially the South there has long been a debate about whether Confederate statues and symbols should be removed or allowed to stand. For those in favour of allowing the statues to remain the chief argument has always been that one should not erase history; That people need to know their country’s history and that statues are the symbols for portraying that history. In this regard Frances Affandy, an American-Indonesian heritage expert from Bandung and one of the founder of the ICOMOS Indonesia branch quotes the writer L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel The Go-Between where he says, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” 

She says, “We need to understand Hartley’s ‘foreign country’ and ask what were the motivations when the statues were raised: who are they of? What was the culture then? Who do the people who erected the statues want to be? It is a kind of multi-dimensional chess played with our ancestors in their ‘foreign country’.” 

As regards the Confederate statues a case in point are the statues of General Robert Lee who led the armies of the Confederacy as commander of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War. Mary Lee, who is a descendant of General Lee now living in Bali says that her family remembers Lee as not only a brilliant military strategist but also as a good and decent man who was not only revered in the South but even admired by President Lincoln and his Union counterpart General Grant. Mary Lee says, “Lee came from an area that bordered on the North and the South and there was a period he did not know which way to go. He might have gone to the Northern side but his family and lands were in the South. I believe Lee was a great man so no, I do not believe his statues should be torn down although I understand why people want to take them down for his statues represent a lot of symbolism. He was a plantation owner and he had slaves.” 

Those who argued for the removal of Lee’s statues say that it is more than that. Lee was a general in the United States army and when his President asked him to lead the Union armies against its enemy the Confederacy, Lee chose instead to lead the armies of the enemy of the United States. As a consequence of his orders and leadership over 600,000 United States Union soldiers died. That is nearly as many as the number of US soldiers that died during the First World War and the Second World War. Also, the essential cause of the Confederacy was to preserve slavery, an institution that basically runs counter to the very ideals of the American Constitution that purports the equality of all men. Lee knew that the reason he was not tried and hung as a traitor after the War was because of Lincoln’s attempt to bind up the nation’s wounds through “malice toward none; with charity for all..” and later also through the protection of General Ulysses S. Grant. He appreciated this and also committed himself to binding up the wounds of war. 

Protests against police violence after the death of George Floyd on 26 May 2020. (Photo by Fibonacci Blue)

In 1869, when Lee was asked about erecting Confederate statues and memorials his response was, “I think it wise not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.” 

Frances Affandy quotes the comedienne John Oliver who remarked, “Robert E. Lee was opposed to statues of people like Robert E. Lee. So, any city keeping a statue of him should add a speech bubble saying, ‘You know I told you all specifically not to do this!” 

She further says that although there were some Confederate monuments erected in cemeteries during the first years after Lee’s defeat most of the 700 Confederate monuments were erected decades after the Confederacy surrendered. In particular, there was a spike in the erection of Confederate statues and monuments between 1900 and 1920 when many of the Jim Crow laws were created to marginalize and segregate African Americans. There was another surge in Confederate monuments in the 1950s and 1960s as a form of resistance towards the civil rights movement for African Americans. So, many of the Confederate statues are not so much historical landmarks but rather comprise a hostile message against blacks. 

Statue of Jeb Stuart in Richmond, Virginia covered in graffiti during the George Floyd protests on the 1st June 2020. (Photo: Quidster4040 at English Wikipedia)

Since the death of George Floyd over a hundred monuments of the Confederacy have been removed including those of leaders of the Confederacy such as Robert Lee, JEB Stuart, Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davies as well as monuments simply commemorating the Confederacy or the soldiers or daughters of the Confederacy. Beside that the Confederate names of schools and roads have been changed, the military has said that it is open to discuss changing the names of military forts named after Confederate heroes and even NASCAR has banned fans from displaying Confederate flags at racetracks. 

There is a difference between remembering and commemorating history and those wanting to keep the Confederate statues often seem to overlook this distinction. Mary Lee however contends, “I don’t believe the statues should be torn down and busted up. Moving them to a museum might be a better option instead because people need to know about history – but I do understand that there are many negative associations with these statues so that it is better for them not to stand in public spaces.” 

It seems that the national discourse in America about the position and rights of African Americans (and now includes that of other non-whites) which perhaps began with the Civil War, was continued with the Civil Rights movement under Martin Luther King has now come into full swing again with the death of George Floyd. There has been a major shift in perception about Confederate statues and monuments and what they represent not just to African Americans but all Americans with regard to the American identity. Meanwhile, the American Congress has just passed a sweeping police reform bill which although it has little prospect of becoming law amid partisan gridlock and veto threats from President Trump shows that there will soon be a police reform law – another step forward for African Americans.

The conclusion that perhaps can be drawn from all this is that all nations face challenges and are continually questioning and changing their values and identities in accordance with the needs of their society. We are presently witnessing a period of great change in values and identity in many Western nations especially the United States. This is part of dealing with the many discrepancies and problems that have arisen in America and not been properly addressed for decades ranging from race relations and discrimination to such things as education, health care, housing etc. Some claim that the American capitalist system is too extreme, comparing it to those in other developed countries which provide far more social care and benefits for their peoples.

Nevertheless, democracy provides a certain flexibility in making such changes possible. By way of contrast authoritarian systems as practiced in China for example do not equip their societies with such a flexibility. In all this the statues of a nation clearly reflect those changing values and identity. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed this article you may like to read:
Part II: https://observerid.com/statues-topple-as-national-identity-and-global-values-change-part-ii-statues-falling-in-europe/