One of the axioms of our existence in this universe is as follows: the natural world is random, in the sense that there is no predetermined path or course for any events. Doubly so for our individual lives, which are dominated by chance occurrences, random encounters, and social movements beyond the control of any single person. Humanity’s existence lies in the puzzling place between mastery and control of our environment and thoughts, behaviors, and actions and the overwhelming power of external events and the various lotteries we did not know we were playing.
A necessary consequence of this idea is that almost all the stories we tell ourselves are lies. Any series of events that leads clearly from one set to another is almost always, at least, a sanding-down of reality. History, for example, tends to find a middle ground – but is always a story that attempts to make sense of randomness – where we can look at a broad series of events from a great enough distance to see previously hidden causes and effects. Stories are essential to us for finding actionable information (to find the fleeting spaces between randomness which may be filled with human-intervention) and to develop meaning (as in an understanding of the individual’s purpose in the world – often related to basic survival needs – where risk is foundational for meaning – but that’s a different post). Stories-creating-meaning happens at all levels of social-grouping, and the modern social-grouping of the nation-state is what I’ll confine myself to here.
The Myth of a Nation
The artificial confines of the nation-state, which seek to bind a diverse group of people, from diverse traditions and local or regional natural loyalties, are forged with myths, traditions, ideals, and stories. These are always demolitions of the messy truth and create an unnatural sense of community. Nation-states find their tribal-coherence so tenuous that some of the greatest crimes and tragedies of the recent past are centered around, at least partly, in strengthening the “natural” connections found within the boundaries of a country. Ethnic-cleansing and genocide often find their intellectual well-spring in the seeming necessity to stave-off weakness and disunity inside a particular state. In some countries the tensions of coherence in the nation-state are obvious, as in the colonial states that share no strong bonds of culture, language, or historical narratives. There is no founding myth for these countries, just the brutality and arrogance of drawing lines on a map. In others the process of creating the nation-state is primarily an exercise in refining the common myths of ideals and history and compounding old stories with new ones. The United States is one such country.
And what is a public and overt way to honor the mythic heroes of the past which makes us all stick-together? The erection and veneration of monuments and statues.
It is instructive to view the symbolic importance of statues through some recent events. There is, of course, the famous incident of the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down in Baghdad after the American invasion in 2003. This was a potent symbol of the transfer of power from Iraqi to American hands. Toppling of Soviet statues in Ukraine became symbolic of a resurgence in Ukrainian nationalism. Statues of the Roman Emperors solidified their divinity, marking them as eternal Gods, powerful narrative glue with which to stick an Empire together (and perhaps attempts to make sure future Emperor’s expired by natural means…).
So in the American South, statues of Confederate generals may be seen in the light of the significance of statuary in history. These are public symbols of power, of ideals, and of the links between leaders and the myth of the nation-state.
Monuments and Their Meaning
First, let us dispose of some unfortunate and pesky nuance. Some statues and monuments referencing the Confederacy are, in fact, meant to honor the war dead. They have a value and meaning to those who placed the monuments unrelated to the cause in which they died. Mourning and memory for loved one’s should not be eliminated by future generations. There is no difference between the defacement of graves of fallen South Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War and the erasure of the memory of Confederate soldiers who died. Not their cause, but their memory, is important to descendants. With that being said, this is not the purpose, imputed or historical, for the existence of many of these monuments.
As I’ve written previously, as the distance grows between the present and a certain time in the past, events are both foreshortened and judged with a sense of hindsight. A man deemed a hero in the present may seem a villain in the future. An excellent example is the shifting views on the slave-holding Founding Fathers of America, though still venerated, they are being judged much more harshly for their involvement in slavery. This same reckoning is obviously happening now (and, of course, continuously in some form or another) among “racist” or Confederate figures.
Some Confederate monuments specifically belong to an ideology that sought to erase the purpose and legacy of the Civil War – that it was in defense of the system of slavery. Most of the Confederate statues were placed long after the Civil War, and were a mythological, symbolic reminder of the dominance of white Americans, of the fact that though the Confederacy had lost the Civil War the true goal of embedding White Supremacy was achieved. The statues become bound-up in the notion of Southern identity, a visible reminder of the heroism that shaped the Southern identity, as if it were a separate nation still, inside of the United States.
In the excellent Epsilon Theory note: Always Go to the Funeral, Ben Hunt describes the partisan dust-up over statues in this way:
“You hear all the time about how these Trump tweets and the associated narrative construction are a “dog whistle” that motivates and calls forth the alt-right clowns. Okay. I guess. But what the tweets and the narrative really are — and this is what Steve Bannon understands perfectly — is a dog whistle for the Democrats and an obedience collar for the Republicans. It creates a Competition Game where none existed before, and it forces every elected politician, regardless of party, to play their appointed role, strutting and fretting upon the stage. Even though none of them like the script and none of them want to play the part.”
This is a part of the narrative of the statues as well. Regardless of the role statues mean in a larger sense, to the life of the nation-state in the minds of citizens (as grandiose as that sounds, the chain of myth and story directly connects them) they are being used as a political tool for manipulation. The endless complications that arise from this muddy the waters, for the moment, of historical meaning. As anyone’s opinion of whether a statue should remain or fall becomes part of a public campaign of tribal signaling, having a true opinion on the basis of the modern nation and the confines and constituent parts thereof (and linking it to the manner and type of public monuments in display in our cities) becomes difficult to voice without being drawn into a political argument. Pulling down statues is already a (perhaps surprisingly to some) radical act, and to bind that radical act to the absurd theater of the Red vs. Blue power struggle increases the intensity of the discord. The machinations of political actors will pass away, the argument over statues will not figure prominently in the political histories of America in the 2010’s, but the era peppered with controversies over the removal of the statues will be.
As statues are symbolic – often deeply of the foundation of the nation-state – their removal can be of great consequence as well. Now, as statues across the country, and abroad, are vandalized and torn down, there is a process of meaning-making occurring. As a matter of fact, when critics say things like “the left is tearing down statues because they hate America” they’re at least getting toward the truth. That is to say, pulling down statues of figures who represent, or seem to represent, racism is a way of remaking the mythology and story of the whole country – and rejecting the current one. Pulling down statues is about transferring the rights of power from one group inside the country to another.
But what about a new story? That is much harder to tease-out. America is still bound by the old, nonrenewable narrative of the Post-WWII Era. “America, through purity of ideology, military, and economic strength, stands for and defends liberty around the world.” This story around which our nation is centered, like all the others, is a lie, but it is increasingly out-of-step with reality. Nihilism is bleeding into our social life with not much to replace it. Recent histories of America are pessimistic, realistic pieces, which seek to strip-away the artifice and rose-colored tones of both the recent and distant past. An inclusive, non-racial American story is elusive at best, as we have no great tale to renew our artificial boundaries, and American history is scarred by racism.
The questions we need to be asking are forward-facing, not backwards. Tearing down statues, when accompanied by visible regime change, or a surging movement which recaptures a different story of the past is a necessary part of creative-destruction. When unaccompanied by such a redefinition of the nation, they are a marker of the disintegration of national cohesion.
Should the statues be removed? Yes, they are largely anachronisms, symbols of a past that no longer exists, and reminders of deep inhumanity. But the harder question is: What will replace them?