All of us have been swept up in the horrible violence and rhetoric that occurred last weekend in Charlottesville, VA. As you probably know, the initial spark to this was dismantling of the city’s statue/monument memorializing the Confederacy’s top general, Robert E. Lee. The city’s leadership wanted it down. White Nationalists wanted it to stay. I’m sure most of you, like me, would want that statue not only taken down, but destroyed. While it may have been crafted beautifully (as President Trump seems to think), it stands for something very, very ugly.
I discussed this with my friends back in May and one challenged me saying that we NEED these monuments to remain. “If we take the beautiful, but, ugly monuments down,” he said, “will we forget the ugliness they symbolize?” Condoleezza Rice argued the same thing. A few months back she was quoted saying in the Washington Examiner, “I want us to have to look at those names and recognize what they did and to be able to tell our kids what they did and for them to have a sense of their own history. When you start wiping out your history, sanitizing your history to make you feel better it’s a bad thing…”
I see their point. There are many beautiful, yet, ugly monuments. In countries around the world stand beautifully crafted structures that represent ugly behaviors, philosophies and leaders, think Czars’ castles or Egypt’s Pyramids, for example. But having them remain is critical. Not because we endorse the behaviors of the leaders behind these places, but because they force us to remember. But I think it goes further than that. Their very beauty challenges us. We are forced to ask “how can something so beautiful be so bad?”
A few years back I wrote a post around a similar topic: The Stark Contrast Makes It The Most Chilling & Appropriate. In it I reflect upon journalist’s, Laura Kelly‘s, visit to the beautiful, picturesque village of Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin. In this town, and, in particular, in a beautiful villa that still remains there, the Nazis met to conceive the Final Solution. My initial response to such a place was also “tear it down!” But then I realize we need to maintain these places. Like Rice’s point, they remind us of our history.
But why not just keep the ugly reminders: concentration camps, parts of the Berlin wall, or bombed out buildings? Wouldn’t keeping the beautiful (but ugly) reminders offer the wrong message? Couldn’t we be at risk of people interpreting the very presence of these beautiful structures as a sign that we should admire this dark history?
But it’s the very beauty of these “ugly” monuments may offer an even more searing effect. As I wrote in my post: “Seeing the beautiful landscapes of Wannsee don’t deflect from the horrors but actually reinforce them. When we see how beautiful the world CAN and SHOULD be, and then realize how ugly it actually has become in some instances, the ugliness feels that much more jarring.”
I referenced Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as an example of this very thing, I go on to write: “While the film does an excellent job portraying the horrors of Holocaust, the film is still a masterpiece. It’s beautifully written, acted and shot. Perhaps this is why the film still captures our attention to this day.”
If we take down all the beautiful, ugly the monuments will we be effectively letting part of our history go? Will we forget? And will the very painful dichotomy of beauty and ugliness be spared?
What differs the Robert E. Lee monument from the others I mentioned above, though, is that sadly enough, there remains a critical mass of people who don’t see him or what he stands for as horrible. In the other cases, the philosophies underlying the monuments are rejected by most of the population: Egypt no longer has Israelite slaves, Russia is no longer ruled by Czars (well, it has another type of despotic ruler but let’s not get off track), and it’s illegal to be a Nazi sympathizer in Germany.
But sometimes the ugliness of beautiful things is too horrible to for us to keep. And sometimes its the very ACT of tearing it down, vs having it remain or having it gone, which is the point. We all need to remind those who still support Lee’s beliefs that we won’t, as a nation, tolerate them –years ago, years into the future but especially RIGHT NOW. We need to actively tear these beliefs down along with the statue that represents them.
So, yes, Robert E. Lee must go.