BLM, Culture Wars

America Has Problems. Tearing Down Statues Won’t Solve Them

Earlier this week, a group of protesters involved in Black Lives Matter demonstrations spray-painted a statue of Winston Churchill in historic Parliament Square, adding the words “was a racist” under Churchill’s name. As critics of Churchill are quick to remind us, the former British prime minister supported the use of chemical weapons against rebellious Kurds and Afghans (though whether he advocated for the use of lethal gas is a subject of historical dispute).

Churchill also supported Britain’s colonial grip over the Indian subcontinent. When Mohandas Gandhi began his series of hunger strikes in protest of British rule, Churchill’s casually morbid reply sounded like something you’d hear from an action-movie villain: “We should be rid of a bad man and an enemy of the Empire if he died.”

Yet even Gandhi no longer gets a pass, apparently. In Washington, D.C., which also has witnessed protests, vandals defaced a Gandhi statue outside the Indian embassy. The motivations aren’t clear, but it’s believed they relate to Gandhi’s prejudiced views toward black Africans during his time as a South African lawyer (even if Nelson Mandela himself wrote an essay for Time magazine about how much he admired Gandhi’s tactics and values).

These are not isolated examples. In the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the widespread spirit of protest has expanded to a wide array of cultural symbols—ranging from statues of Columbus to the movie Gone With The Wind. In Toronto, activists are demanding the renaming of a major street because it happens to be named after a long-dead Scottish politician who opposed the abolition of the slave trade. Some of these campaigns are questionable. But in the current environment, any claim or posture that’s seen as emanating from the Black Lives Matter movement, however indirectly, is taken as morally unassailable.

In fact, this trend already was well underway before Floyd’s death. But it has accelerated over the last two weeks. Last year, for instance, Nike pulled a planned shoe line featuring the Betsy Ross-designed colonial-era flag after a celebrity representative, Colin Kaepernick, complained that the symbol is associated with slavery and racism. The city of Charlottesville, Virginia voted to stop celebrating Thomas Jefferson’s birthday on concerns that such celebrations serve to whitewash a slaveholder. In San Francisco, a school will spend $600,000 removing a mural depicting George Washington’s brutality toward Native Americans and American slaves—an especially odd move given that the Depression-era artwork had originally been lauded for showing the cruel and aggressive elements of early American history.

Conservatives have long lampooned liberals as prosecuting a vendetta to erase history. But even putting aside such crude political caricatures, it isn’t clear how any of the above-listed campaigns would materially improve the lives of African Americans, Native Americans or other disadvantaged groups. Even Barack Obama—often described as the most liberal president in American history—was measured about his approach. When he (rightly) argued for changing South Carolina’s state flag—which until recently was emblazoned with a design honoring the Confederacy—he correctly argued that the flag “belongs in a museum.” Obama was not seeking to completely erase even the ugliest parts of American history, but rather to point out that they should be preserved as relics of the past instead of modern political symbols.

Unfortunately, both sides are quick to caricature their opponents whenever this debate flares up. I know, because I lived through a particularly raucous instalment when I was growing up in the southern state of Georgia, once the site of some of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles.

In the 1990s, then-Democratic Governor Zell Miller led a campaign to change his state’s flag, which at the time was a 1956 design that included the Confederate battle emblem. (The pre-1956 version, created in 1879, had been adapted from the first national flag of the Confederacy, the Stars and Bars.) “What we fly today is not an enduring symbol of our heritage, but the fighting flag of those who wanted to preserve a segregated South in the face of the civil rights movement,” he argued, noting that the flag had been adopted at a time when the South was gearing up to oppose federal integration efforts.

The flag was eventually changed in the 2000s (twice, in fact). But by then, the fight had exposed (and exacerbated) divisions between the two sides, both of which insisted the other side was extreme. Many of those who wanted the flag changed believed their opponents were hardened segregationists. In fact, most defenders of the 1956 flag simply saw it as a familiar part of their heritage and history.

Many Confederate monuments in the south were erected in the mid-20th century as a sort of protest against civil rights for African Americans. And some violent extremists, such as Dylann Roof, idolized the Confederate flag for explicitly racist reasons. But the same wasn’t true for the friends and neighbors I knew who owned Confederate flags. Most of them flew these flags not as any kind of political statement about race relations, but because they believed it was connected to their lineage. The Civil War was a war over slavery, and Georgia was on the wrong side of history. But ordinary Georgians suffered tremendously as General Sherman’s armies delivered history’s verdict in late 1864. Stories of battlefield defeats, scorched-earth tactics, and the humiliation accompanying Atlanta’s destruction created a narrative of victimization that was passed down from one generation to the next. Flag defenders’ claims that they were motivated by “heritage, not hatred” generally struck me as sincere.

Ultimately, I believe that Georgia officials were right to change the flag. As the years passed, more and more of the state’s population came from other parts of the United States, or from other countries. Fewer and fewer Georgians remained attached to Confederate symbols as markers of heritage or history. Newer arrivals, not to mention many blacks, viewed the old flag as honoring the Confederate States of America, a wicked institution that was established to defend the inhumane practice of human bondage. Our symbols should be inclusive and representative of who we are. Southern heritage doesn’t have to be focused on the trauma inflicted by a 19th-century war fought for a disgraced cause.

If I’d designed it, Stone Mountain—a massive rock-wall carving outside Atlanta overlooking a public park—would feature Jimmy Carter and Ray Charles, not Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson. Carter and Charles represent the compassion, talent, and diversity encoded in Georgia’s heritage. A pair of 19th-century generals who sent legions of conscripted men to agonizing deaths to defend the institution of slavery don’t. But it’s possible to take this position without demonizing the other side, or demanding that those carvings be blasted away with dynamite.

A 2017 poll conducted in the state where I live today, Virginia, found that 57 percent of registered-voter respondents supported leaving Confederate monuments in place. I doubt this means that nearly 60 percent of my neighbors believe in the cause of the Confederacy. They simply place more value than I do in these historical markers of the state’s history, tragically flawed as it is.

A few miles north, at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., you can visit a memorial to the nearly 60,000 American service members who perished in the Vietnam War. The memorial lists the names of every one of them. What it doesn’t list are the names of the millions of Vietnamese and other Indochinese victims killed during the war. Many of those lives were smothered out by napalm, cut down by chopper fire, or massacred at My Lai. The war is simply described as “controversial” on the government website for the memorial.

It has always struck me as strange that our war memorials memorialize only the dead on our side. This one-sided presentation is something we simply take for granted. But think about it: Why should the life of a rice paddy farmer in Vietnam matter any less than a kid from Kansas sent to fight him? Ideally, we would build a wall many times longer on the Mall to pay our respects to the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians who lost their lives as well. That doesn’t mean I begrudge the memorializing of American soldiers fighting (as I see it) an unjust war, only that I’d like to see the suffering of others recognized, too.

Arthur Ashe monument, Richmond Virginia

Whenever these controversies erupt, our first thought should be to add, not subtract. Visit Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA, for instance, and you will see statues memorializing Virginian Confederates from the Civil War, including Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. But since 1996, there has also been another statue—this one honoring African-American tennis legend Arthur Ashe (1943–1993), who grew up and trained in the Richmond area. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a strong argument for taking down the older statues. But the inclusion of Ashe on Monument Avenue at least sends an important message: Our history isn’t frozen in the 1860s. Times change. And a boy who once would have grown up in Virginia as a slave instead would become the first black man to win Wimbledon and an inspiration to millions.

My own family wasn’t involved in the Civil War or the Vietnam War. But I did have family member who served in the Second World War. When Japan invaded colonial India, its soldiers captured a number of Indian troops, including my own grandfather, dispatching them to brutal prison camps in the Pacific. When I found out that US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s former chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, has a t-shirt emblazoned with the face of Subhas Chandra Bose, I was perturbed. Bose was an Indian nationalist who allied with the Axis powers during the war, even going so far as to meet with Hitler and organize an army of Indians who fought under the Imperial Japanese flag.

Subhas Chandra Bose, Center, in 1942.

Did Chakrabarti don a Bose t-shirt because he believed that the world would have been better off if the Axis won the Second World War? I’m very much guessing no—even if that would be the natural starting point of anyone who’d sought to get Chakrabarti “canceled.” The unfortunate fact is that Bose is today honored by some in India who view him more as an anti-British nationalist than an Axis quisling. (An airport in Kolkata is even named after him.) It’s likely that Chakrabarti finds this characterization persuasive. I can’t say I agree, but I also refuse to assume the worst about his viewpoint.

To the extent we all care about the important underlying issues, such as fighting racial discrimination and promoting opportunity to all, we shouldn’t allow our culture wars over statues and symbols to dominate our discourse. To quote Mike Chase, a criminal defense lawyer who has written for years about the litany of absurd and unjust federal laws on the books, “Stop tearing down statues. Start tearing down statutes.”


Zaid Jilani is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter at @ZaidJilani.

Featured image: Demonstrators and spectators gather around a toppled Confederate statue known as Silent Sam Monday, Aug. 20, 2018 at UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. (Julia Wall/Raleigh News & Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)


  1. I wonder how far this will go. Will we be removing statues of Jefferson and Washington next? After all, they owned slaves. And if so, tearing down the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorials should be next. And razing Mount Vernon and Monticello can’t be far behind; after all, slaves were held there, and to retain those buildings is to glorify that.

    If your reaction is to say ‘Don’t be silly, it won’t get to that; that’s excessive, and these removals are justified’, 40 years ago the most ludicrous excesses of transgenderism were in a Monty Python skit, and now people are being cancelled over them.


  2. While we are at it, there are many more statues and portraits to tear down and destroy all across Western countries. For the beginning some first examples:

    • Zeus, ruler of Olympus, a multiple rapist and old white male, together with the other ancient gods who are completely beyond the pale from today’s perspective.
    • Julius Caesar, who subjugated Gaul, and for similar reasons all other Roman emperors as well.
    • Charlemagne, also known as the Butcher of Saxony.
    • Napoleon Bonaparte, who plunged Europe into years of bloody war.
    • Galileo Galilei, because he put rational thinking and science above feelings and belief systems.
    • James Edison and Albert Einstein, who occupy the place that rightfully belongs to those at the top of the intersectional victim pyramid.

    There is so much to do for our busybodies and iconoclasts!

    And after these and all the other cases have finally been cleared up, future generations will look at us in the same way as we today look at the Taliban…

  3. The statue destroyers have the same reasoning, and fanaticism, as the Taliban destroying the famous Buddhas. Anything they dislike must be destroyed.

    I suspect the real reason - in the Taliban’s case as well - is not so much ideological purity as the deep down knowledge that they cannot create anything, so at least they feel competent by destroying what others did.

  4. You don’t seem to understand a major reason behind those monuments - they were put up in part in grief over the human cost of a war they lost. The Union people who actually fought the war, and lost close comrades, had a lot more sympathy for them than people today. Go read about Grant’s treatment of Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, about how Lincoln wanted to treat them post-war, about the extraordinary gesture of Chamberlain (the hero of Little Round Top) to the surrendering Confederates his men had fought.

    Glenn Loury had an apt phrase for the people who are out after the statues: “People are frustrated that conventional political solutions … have not worked. That’s why they take refuge in the empty thesis of racism.” (Here: - fantastic interview.)

    That’s what all those removal/renaming efforts are: empty, useless symbolism.


  5. One founder of a major world religion was a racist who owned slaves. There aren’t so many statues or drawings of him, but if everyone named after him could just go ahead and change their name, that would be great.

  6. I think it might be a range of psychological impulses driving white youths.

    1. Woke is a religion. Religions expect sacrifices. So it might be a kind of “Behold gods of Woke, I have torn down this false god’s statue. Visit not thy wrath upon me. Accept me into thine arms” thing.
    2. It’s real easy to sacrifice other people’s stuff. God forbid, these youths had to give up their Smartphones.
    3. Cool social media photo: “Look at me, next to the destroyed statue.”
    4. Youths often rebel against their parents to discover their own identity. They can also, during this time, be manipulated by peers and pseudo parents.
    5. There is the temptation of being there at a pivotal point in history. And, as a young person, one imagines the future is something that will adhere to your desires. All your dreams will come true. It’s why “year zero” ideologies have such a grasp on youths.
  7. They wanted to leave the US, not overthrow it.

  8. Yes, as the Founding Fathers betrayed their King, their country and their oaths.

    Most legal scholars agree that the Constitution does not permit states to secede from the union.

    Yes, and neither did British law permit the American colonies to secede from Great Britain.

    Traitors, all.

  9. The statue tearing show - apart from the usual barbarism and historical ignorance of the protestors - that they see themselves of the same sort of those who tear down the statue of the local dictator after a revolution. But Cook’s statue was not put up by Cook to force the people to honor him or else. Tearing down the statue of Cook is not an act of revenge or frustration against him, like it is when a dictator falls.

    The felling of statues of the likes of Cook, Rhodes, CSA generals etc. is, in the mind of the iconoclasts, justified by the fact that they believe white people in general to be evil, the source of all their trouble. It is the past they hate, with all its prominent white men, therefore one must start over with the year zero. The motivation is the same of those of the Taliban, or the Chinese “cultural revolution”, not of those who pull down statues of dictators.

    @K_Dershem said that he thinks these figures should be “remembered by history” but not have their statues in “public places”. He missed the statue-breakers point, which - like the Chinese cultural revolution - is to remove the statues from “public places” precisely in order to erase them from history. “Beware those in which the will to punish is strong”, said Nietzsche, These people posses the will to punish to a very strong degree - and little else.

  10. Meanwhile, nearly every person of color on earth is willing to risk their life to come to the USA in order to take part in our system and enjoy our boundless wealth and opportunity for everyone, with literally the most welcoming people on earth. Everything they say in the media and academia is a lie. We have a media controlled state.

  11. Well, and in the case of the Confederacy, they weren’t even wanting to have a war in the first place. They just wanted a USexit. I’m not saying I agree with their motives, but I see people referring to them as traitors a lot lately, and I don’t think that’s accurate.

  12. The NYT, summarized:

    Monday - Trump is evil
    Tuesday - His supporters are disgusting
    Wednesday - Let’s riot and burn
    Thursday - Kill whitey
    Friday - We need a revolution
    Saturday - oh dear, racial and political tensions are increasing

  13. @jnc

    “I’ve been watching this all pretty closely for almost 50 years now, and alas we are. I don’t have the time/energy to write down a full analysis, …”

    I thought the same. I could spend a day and half droning on about that topic. I decided to just go with the more succinct “hell in a hand basket” language.

    However since we are close to the same age, have witnessed many of the same events and it is between responding or starting the Honey-Do list, I will try to keep it brief.

    I remember when we were one screwball trigger finger away from nuclear annihilation. This was not just the stuff of science fiction.

    I remember the race riots of the 60’s. Many were convinced a race war was coming, especially after the assassination of Dr. King.

    I remember the hippies, the cults, the Symbionese Liberation Army, The Weathermen Underground, ect… I remember the social scientist policing theories that caused crime to sky rocket in the 70’s and 80’s. Doomsayers of the period were proclaiming exhaustion of our natural resources and food shortages by the 1980’s. There was a coming ice age. Mine and other parents must have been convinced my generation was doomed.

    Think what Depression era parents must have thought or WWII era parents before victory was assured.

    I see these things a cyclical. The children come out to play before the cameras. There is liberal policy experimentation followed by high crime, an economic slow down and weakened military until the people get fed up and put the adults back in charge. I think there exists a doom industry that continually fosters the notion because it knows some of the worst political decisions are made in times of fear and panic.

    I don’t believe there was ever a time when the press was unbiased. Everyone brings their biases to work, reporters are no exception.

    I agree cancel culture is a problem and a threat to free speech. However I remember when cancel culture took out Jimmy the Greek, Al Campanis, John Rocker and others.

    Mostly what I see going on is a bad retro remake of the 60’s full of self righteousness and outrage but not offering anything new or original.

    I’m the eternal optimist but not the rose colored glasses type. I believe the countries of the anglosphere will still continue to produce men and women willing and capable of storming the beaches of Normandy and conquering new frontiers. I believe that should free speech cease to be guaranteed people will still find away to communicate. I believe in the end truth always wins out. I believe children like yours will make this world a better place because of parents like you. I am an optimist because that and a can do attitude have made me and others I have witnessed successful. These are some of my beliefs that guide my opinions and actions. Thanks for engaging. Even though we may not agree I know you are one of the individuals who will not let freedom die. My optimism comes from faith in people like you.

    That was the Reader’s Digest version.

  14. All he discussion here about whether the confederacy’ secession was or wasn’t treason is quite interesting, but I think, distracts from the main point. If the town which has a CSA general’s statue decides to remove it, through its city hall meeting, or a vote, or even lobbying, that is one thing. That is the rule of law and democracy, even if one disagrees with the decision.

    I can well see @K_Dershem arguing for the removal and, say, @MorganFoster arguing for the retention of the statue. But I do not see @K_Dershem going out and tearing down the statue anyway if the decision is to keep them, and is not to his liking.

    Here we are taking about something else entirely: people who think it is perfectly justified to use violence to destroy something merely because it hurts their feelings. This has nothing to do with whether or not such statues should be erected or removed. It is simply the very definition of barbarism: violence ruled by the emotions, with no regard to reason or the rule of law.

    Which begs the question: why do so many civilized people make excuses for barbarians? People who would never hurt a fly themselves excused Stalin’s or Mao’s crimes, for example. Now, numerous academics (in particular) justify the rioters and the barbarians.

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