As an anthropologist who has studied the meaning of monuments and sacred spaces in other cultures, the controversy and violence surrounding Confederate monuments has been ethically challenging. I love my country, and part of my professional responsibility is to foster tolerance. I have also worked with our military to help thwart the Islamic State, an organization that instituted slavery in our time. As such, I detest the legacy of division, bigotry, and slavery these monuments represent.
But I think they should remain.
In the 1980s, I worked as an archaeologist at ancient Mayan ruins in Central America and saw how monuments to their rulers were defaced during the tumultuous fall of their civilization. The Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten similarly defaced and destroyed statues of earlier Egyptian gods in his religious reform 3,300 years ago, and Spanish conquistadors destroyed Aztec and Inca monuments and statuary in their war on idolatry in the New World.
And there are plenty of examples of the desecration of monuments in the 21st century. The Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001; we aided Iraqis in toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in 2003; and nothing can compare to the scale of destruction of monuments at the hands of the Islamic State.
Simply removing monuments and moving them so they are out of sight likewise is not new, either. The Inca Empire of South America removed icons of conquered peoples’ gods and effectively held them hostage in a temple in the Incan capital of Cuzco. In our time, the post-Soviet Russian government removed many statues of Lenin and others, which now reside in Muzeon Arts Park in Moscow.
People effectively act as though destruction of a monument exorcises its power and removal banishes the power from their midst. But these pieces of metal and stone only have the meaning we assign to them, and that meaning can take any form we like. They can be revered or reviled; honored or ridiculed; or co-opted for a new purpose.
I understand the affront that Confederate monuments are to those whose ancestors were held as slaves or died preserving our country, and to those who suffer and oppose racism today. However, destroying monuments takes a page out of the playbook of mobs across the centuries, lowering one’s self to that moral plane.
Further, removing Confederate statues amounts to whitewashing our history, turning our heads away from the inconvenient truths of our past. We should let them stand and use them to remind ourselves of what we are and are not, the cost our forebears paid for our freedom and to educate our children.
And the facts are plain: The South seceded from the United States over the issue of slavery. Many Americans believed in the superiority of Europeans over Africans at that time. Slave owners used that belief to justify the owning and abuse of millions of human beings. In the late 1800s, the era of Jim Crow disenfranchisement of blacks was ushered in and continued until the 1950s. This period witnessed the greatest spike (especially from 1900 to 1930) in monument building honoring the Confederacy. A smaller spike occurred from 1954 to 1968, in reaction to the civil rights movement.
The Civil War was the single most devastating war our nation ever fought. Nearly as many Americans died in that war than all of our other wars combined. Americans never paid so dearly for their country and what it was to be. With regard to fighting against racist ideology, World War II claimed 400,000 American lives. These two wars may account for 80 percent of the blood spilled for our country.
Civil War monuments bear a constant testimony to all of this history, none of which should be forgotten. The monuments should remain, and we should constantly remind ourselves of what they represent.
When racists revere these monuments, those of us who oppose racism should double our efforts to use these monuments as tools for education. Auschwitz and Dachau stand as mute testimonials to a past that Europeans would never want to forget or repeat. Why not our Confederate monuments?
Destroying or removing monuments is the easy way out of our obligation to understand our past and improve our future. Monuments to our nation’s racism can be as much a tool to counter it as they can be a tool to foment it. The choice and obligation are ours.
Lawrence A. Kuznar is a professor of anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.