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How to decide which statues to pull down

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As statues come down everywhere and right-of-centre pundits waggle their fingers and say they told us so, it is important to try to draw distinctions. After all, when you topple George Washington from his pedestal — which many argued would never happen — you are making a bold claim about who deserves to be dishonoured.

I warned five years ago that we are rushing down this road with only the haziest notion of where we will wind up. Now that we have a better idea — Cervantes? Who hates Cervantes? — it is less clear than ever that the road is worth taking.

But if this is to be our journey, we would do better to travel it democratically. Decisions about which historical figures to — literally — de-platform should be taken within, not outside of, the ordinary processes of political debate.

With this caveat in mind, let me suggest two simple rules to guide our conversations.

Rule No 1: No statue is entitled to continue to exist merely because it exists now. The activists are right about this. Change in our decisions over whom to commemorate is often sensible.

Everything else is up for grabs.

Rule No 2: As we will see in a moment, this rule matters most. But it requires a preamble. Much of the social-media debate has been over whether an historical figure who took a morally objectionable position must be understood as “a man of his time”.

The response of activists has often been along the lines of “Hitler was a man of his time, too”.

Here both sides are mistaken. Hitler wasn't a man of his time. The most devastating war in human history was fought to prove otherwise. On the other hand, we shouldn't excuse anyone just because of — to continue the gendered tone of the debate — the times in which he lived. The right question is where he stood with respect to the moral understandings of his time.

In particular, what we should ask is whether the views of the person to whom objection is now being raised were above or below the median position held by people of the era.

And if they were below, how far below did they lie? For a simple example, look at the Washington professional football team's removal of the statue honouring longtime owner George Preston Marshall. He was the last National Football League owner to integrate.

He hired his first black players, with ill grace, only under severe pressure from the Kennedy Administration. (Proud personal confession: my father was involved in the decision to bring that particular bit of pressure.)

Similarly, the Confederate generals who have become objectionable were not just on the wrong side of history.

They were willing to kill and die for that wrong side's victory, at a time when a genuine battle line had been drawn. (And, no, I don't exempt Robert E. Lee because of his occasional public disapproval of slavery. Quite the contrary.)

Yes, diehards insist that the South was fighting for independence not slavery, but this trope ignores the historical and economic reality. The southern states said they would leave the Union if Abraham Lincoln, who they considered an abolitionist, was elected; and after he was elected, they left.

True, much of the country also supported the racial hierarchy of the day, and as the historian David Blight reminds us, the determination to bind up the war's wounds healed only the breaches between whites. (For that matter, the very term “civil war” arguably de-emphasises the role of slavery in the conflict.)

But there is a difference between, say, Ulysses Grant — his statue shamefully toppled in San Francisco — who whatever else he did pursued the Union cause with a vengeance, and the men who fought for the actual goal of preserving white supremacy.

As for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, the case for leaving their statues in place is strong, because although they held slaves, the views they expressed about the practice tended to be in advance of the position of the nation at the time. (This doesn't excuse either Washington's brutal treatment of his captive workers or the viciousness of Jefferson's comments on black people in Notes on the State of Virginia.)

But let's jump forward into the more recent past. Even before today's protests, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had become the objects of ire.

Wilson deserves it more. Not only did he refuse to admit black applicants while serving as president of Princeton University, but he instituted racial segregation in much of federal employment — and stuck to his decision in the teeth of black protest against the practice. As for Teddy, I certainly understand the objections to honouring him. But his cousin was worse. Liberal hero Franklin D. Roosevelt was the one who presided over the Japanese internment programme.

FDR also refused repeated entreaties from black leaders during the Second World War to integrate the armed forces. His White House stated falsely that the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People supported the segregation policy. Let's recall, too, that he turned a deaf ear to the entreaties from black newspaper editors and his own wife to integrate the White House press corps.

He used the n-word in private conversations, and penned it in the margin of a political speech. And he infamously authored a college paper in which he referred to black people as “semi-beasts”.

Don't get me wrong. Although I understand and often share the anguish and pain of the demonstrators, I'm not endorsing the removal of any particular bit of iconography. I'm endorsing serious conversation about which should go. Racial flat-earthers who insist on defending them all don't have much of a case; but neither do those who think the decision should rest on anything less than proper democratic debate.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include The Emperor of Ocean Park, and his latest non-fiction book is Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster

In limbo: one of the Confederate statues that was felled from the Confederate monument on the west side of the North Carolina State Capitol by protesters is hung over a utility pole at the corner of Salisbury Street and Hargett Street, on Friday, June 19, 2020, in Raleigh (Photograph by Robert Willett/The News & Observer/AP)
In this Wednesday, June 17, 2020, photo protesters gather around the statue of John C. Calhoun at Marion Square in Charleston during a demonstration in Charleston, S.C. Mayor John Tecklenburg called for the relocation of the monument honouring Calhoun, a slavery advocate. He said he introduced a resolution to move it to a museum or other academic institution. (Josh Morgan/The Independent-Mail via AP)
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall
A statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback guided by a Native American man, left, and an African man, right, sits in front of the American Museum of Natural History, Monday, June 22, 2020, in New York. The statue, which was installed in1940, will be taken down after objections that it symbolises colonial expansion and racial discrimination (Photograph by Kathy Willens/AP)
A statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback flanked by a Native American man, left, and an African man, right, sits in front of the American Museum of Natural History, Monday, June 22, 2020, in New York. The statue, which was installed in 1940, will be taken down after objections that it symbolises colonial expansion and racial discrimination. Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday the city supports removal of the statue because it depicts Black and Indigenous people as subjugated and racially inferior (Photograph by Kathy Willens/AP)
This photo taken Monday, June 22, 2020, shows the Christopher Columbus statue on the Ohio Statehouse grounds. Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther has announced plans to remove a Christopher Columbus statue at Columbus City Hall, but state officials have made no final decision on the Statehouse statue (Photograph by Doral Chenoweth/The Columbus Dispatch/AP)
The statue of Hubert Lyautey, who served in Morocco, Algeria, Madagascar and Indo-China when they were under French control, is offered with red painting Monday, June 22, 2020. Two statues related to France's colonial era were covered in graffiti Monday amid a global movement to take down monuments to figures tied to slavery or colonialism (Photograph by Rafael Yaghobzadeh/AP)
Protesters pull down figures from the Confederate monument at the State Capitol on Juneteenth, Friday, June 19, 2020, in Raleigh, North Carolina (Photograph by Travis Long/The News & Observer/AP)
A passer-by walks near a damaged Christopher Columbus statue, Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in a waterfront park near the city's traditionally Italian North End neighbourhood, in Boston. The statue was found beheaded Wednesday morning, Boston mayor Marty Walsh said (Photograph by Steven Senne/AP)
Workers for The Virginia Department of General Services install concrete barriers around the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Richmond, Virginia. The barriers are intended to protect the safety of demonstrators as well as the structure itself (Photograph by Steve Helber/AP)
In this June 8, 2020 file photo an inspection crew from the Virginia Department of General Services takes measurements as they inspect the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Six property owners along Monument Avenue in Virginia's capital city filed a lawsuit Monday, June 15, 2020 seeking to stop Governor Ralph Northam's administration from removing the towering statue (Photograph by Steve Helber/AP)
A statue from the Richmond Howitzers Monument in Richmond, Virginia., lies after being toppled Tuesday night, June 16, 2020. The monument was erected in 1892 to commemorate a Richmond Civil War artillery unit, (Photograph by Alexa Welch Edlund/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP)
People gather in Marion Square in the historic South Carolina city of Charleston, early Wednesday, June 24, 2020, to watch the removal of a statue of former vice-president and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun. In the wake of protests and unrest, city council members voted Tuesday to remove the statue and place it permanently at “an appropriate site where it will be protected and preserved” (Photograph by Meg Kinnard/AP)
A 100-foot monument to former US vice-president and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun towers over a downtown square Tuesday, June 23, 2020, in Charleston, South Carolina. Officials in Charleston voted unanimously to remove the statue from a downtown square, the latest in a wave of actions arising from protests against racism and police brutality against African-Americans (Photograph by Meg Kinnard/AP)
In this Wednesday, June 17, 2020, photo, protesters write messages on the statue of John C. Calhoun at Marion Square in Charleston, South Carolina. Protesters were unhappy with the city's decision to move the statue to a museum at a later date, instead asking for it to be taken down and thrown away immediately (Photograph by Josh Morgan/The Independent-Mail/AP)

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Published June 25, 2020 at 9:00 am (Updated June 25, 2020 at 9:41 am)

How to decide which statues to pull down

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