Liberty Faceoff – Do we Have the Right to Remove Controversial Monuments?
In this Liberty Face Off, Ryan Khurana and Richard Mason discuss whether we have the right to remove controversial monuments.
The fate of statues should be left to those with the right over the property.
By Ryan Khurana
During the revolutions of 1989, which eventually led to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, an iconoclasm took place, removing many of the monuments to Soviet heroes such as Lenin and Stalin. The removal of these monuments signalled to the revolutionaries a freedom from the oppressive grip of a system that had caused so much suffering. It would make no sense for us to have compelled the revolutionaries to keep monuments to their own torture in public squares, similarly, it would make no sense to compel Americans today to honour their checkered past.
The proposal by Charlottesville city council to remove a monument to notorious Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and rename Lee Park which stood in his honour, is no different than other historical wound healings. In a time of increasing racial division and political polarisation, the community saw the statue as antagonistic to goals of harmony and peace. Thanks to the US’s strong rule of law and property rights, the deliberative process was civil. After lengthy public commissions, judicial review, and council debate, the decision was made to remove the statue later this year, pending court approval.
This represents a stage of social evolution. Attitudes and customs change, people who were once revered become villains, outcasts become heroes and things that once applied now seem out of place. There seems to be no moral duty to honour someone simply because they were honoured, but consideration must be given to the reasons they were honoured. If a beloved figure was posthumously discovered to be a paedophile, then the reasons for honouring them no longer apply in light on new evidence. In this sense, we must also consider the historical standard when passing judgement.
When it comes to historical attitudes, things usually get more complicated, but not in the case of Lee. He was vehemently opposed to all Confederate monuments, claiming “it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered”. This is as clear evidence as any that the actions of Charlottesville council were not an affront to history, but rather the demands of it.
The purpose of monuments may be debated, but most commonly understood is their role in fostering morale and national pride. When they no longer serve this purpose for the people, it is the people affected who then decide the monument’s fate. By affected, I refer to those who are relevant stakeholders. If a monument is on private land or privately owned, then it is the right of the owner to do with it as he pleases. The stakeholder is one, and those who dislike the monument can seek either to convince him to act in their interest or buy it from him to place it in a museum. In the case of public ownership, the stakeholders are the lowest level of authority over the property right. Charlottesville council having that authority, their registered taxpayers and local voters become the relevant stakeholders.
Decisions such as these then are not for the wider public to decide, only to comment on. As with a decision by a private company over its land and assets, it may consult outsiders and they may voice their opinion, but only the voting body of shareholders, through the board, has the right to make the decision. We may after the fact continue to show remorse if that is our personal sentiment, but this does not deprive the body of its right to make its decision.
Nonetheless, certain reasonable limits can be placed on the fate of monuments. Charlottesville has opted for an auction, while others may choose to donate them to museums. It is in the public interest, however, that these monuments not be outright destroyed, as this would deprive those who are fond of the work from appreciating it. Unlike in times of war or revolution, the removal of statues in periods operating under the strict rule of law allows for the legitimate disagreement over the respect the work deserves.
Aside from this limited concern with material preservation for aesthetic or educational purposes, no other principle can be applied regarding statues themselves. A principle to respect all historical statues would lead to tyranny, while one condemning all would lead to cultural erosion. Principles based on the nature and merits of the individuals, such as no statues to communists or racists, is similarly absurd in that it hands over control of definition to those who enforce that principle. It only makes sense then to allow statues to stand or be removed on a case by case basis where those closest to the statue engage in reasoned debate over its merits. As such, the current institutional process surrounding the removal of statues works well.
Ryan Khurana is an ESFL Local Coordinator with Students For Liberty and Speak Freely Blog Editor.
Statues should be left standing as catalysts for discussion and as buttresses against censorship.
By Richard Mason
Outside of the Houses of Parliament in London is a large statue of Oliver Cromwell, leader of the Parliamentarian cause during the English Civil War and Lord Protector of the short-lived Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland following this temporary dissolution of the monarchy. My very own Sixth Form (British post-16 school) took classes in Hinchingbrooke House, his old home, where pictures of him and his family adorn the walls. There are multiple statues and monuments to Cromwell around the UK, honouring him for his role in transferring power from monarchy to parliament, and paving the way for the more democratic Britain we have today. One place you’ll never find a statue of him, however, is Ireland.
That’s because, as well as being one of the forefathers of British democracy, Cromwell was a staunch Puritan who hated Catholicism, and treated the Catholic Irish with brutality. Civilians were treated as second class citizens and, during military campaigns in Ireland under his command, often murdered and had their cities sacked. When Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland visited London in the 1990’s, he apparently walked out of a meeting with the British Foreign Secretary and refused to return until a portrait of Cromwell had been taken down. Why then, does the statue of Cromwell remain so prominently before the centre of Britain’s government?
As with most historical statues, this is for two reasons. First, because of what he represents. Good or bad, Cromwell represents the democratic cause and the rejection of monarchic authority, in much the same way as Robert E. Lee represents opposition to centralisation and reduced state power. Without Cromwell, British democracy may have taken a different path. Undoubtedly, he represents a crucial figure in British political history.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, the statue remains because it is impossible to box Cromwell (as well as most other historical figures) into a single moral category. Those with negative views of Cromwell, most prominently Irish republican groups and parties, are able to present evidence that he was a tyrant and a murderer. Simultaneously, those more favourable of him could argue very well that his campaigns in Ireland are either exaggerated or falsified. Ultimately, however, no one knows for sure. As with most figures in history, new evidence and historical context often shift perceptions of figures, making it almost impossible to group them into ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Even today, for example, there are now Irish figures (such as author Tom Reilly) arguing that Cromwell has been unfairly demonized, and English people (myself included) who view him unfavourably. Similarly in America, the morality of confederate figures compared to their unionist counterparts is highly debatable; to some they are slave owners and tyrants, to others they are patriots and freedom fighters. Ultimately, however, historical statues represent an idea or a zeitgeist, rather than the person itself. The bottom line is that these monuments represent a historical cornerstone or a cultural spirit, and seldom just the person themselves.
Furthermore, as with all other forms of free expression, we must protect these monuments before more and more begin to be torn down. Since it is almost impossible to objectively say if a figure is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and since facts can be presented in a way which suits the needs of an ideology, almost any historical statue can be argued to be too offensive to remain standing, especially if judge them by the standards of modern morality. If we allow statues of figures such as Cromwell or Lee to be torn down or shoved away in museums, there’s nothing to stop the same from happening to Washington or Jefferson. The slippery slope of censorship and erasure must be avoided at all costs, and the first step in doing so is ensuring that controversial statues remain standing. Allow the people represented in statues to be debated, use the monuments as catalysts for debate, but don’t simply erase them from history.
Thus, my argument against the tearing down or relocating of controversial statues can be separated into two key points. First, we have to appreciate what the statues represent, rather than the life of the person. To tear down a statue of Robert E. Lee is to tear down an icon of the South based on one side of the argument, and thus suggests that all other interpretations are invalid. Secondly, allowing the relocation or destruction of statues is the first step on a slippery slope to censorship – as libertarians, we must protect free speech and expression all we can. Statues should be allowed to stand, at the very least, as engines for debate. People should protest them, place traffic cones on their heads and explain to other why they think they are evil, but the last thing we need is for history to begin being erased, otherwise we may never learn.
Richard Mason is an ESFL Local Coordinator with Students For Liberty and Speak Freely Blog Editor.