Forget the Past: Statues Represent Who We Want to Be

Here's a better way to decide which historical figures deserve monuments.

For all the controversy over Confederate statues, I thought it would be worthwhile to step back and consider some more general principles for public honors and monuments, starting with some less dramatic scenarios than the clashes and tear-downs we’ve seen this week.

I can think of at least three practical reasons for erecting public statues. First, we may wish to create an incentive for future behavior, as we do with Nobel Prizes and Halls of Fame. If a politician thinks his or her legacy might include more recognition, that may provide an additional reason to work for the public interest.

Statues and monuments also create focal points to help groups organize. Tributes and memorials to Helen Keller, for instance, may help disability-related groups establish their identities, recruit members and promulgate their messages.

Third, statues and public monuments help drive tourism and establish the identities of regions. Fewer people would visit South Dakota if not for Mount Rushmore, and the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington helps maintain the city’s stature as a historic center of black culture.

The striking feature of these motivations is how much they are about the present and the future, not the past. So instead of obsessing over the worthies and unworthies of history, we would do better to consider which future causes statues are likely to support.

When I lived in West Germany in the 1980s, occasionally I would stumble across a memorial honoring Germans who fought in World War I or the Franco-Prussian War (but never World War II). I felt uncomfortable but ultimately decided it was OK to keep them, mostly because Germany had done a good job atoning for its role in World War II. Beating the Germans over the head with earlier wars probably would have been counterproductive. Thus it was better to let those statues remain, though not to respect or praise them too much either. Furthermore, as the statues age and decay, they can be replaced with a minimum of fuss.

Or consider the debates in Macedonia. The city of Skopje went on a major statue-building binge several years ago, both as fiscal policy and to cement national identity. One of the resulting disputes is whether those statues should emphasize the country’s ancient Greek connections (e.g., Alexander the Great) or the Slavic heritage (e.g., Saints Cyril and Methodius). It’s a strange debate to an outsider, yet to many Macedonians and some of their Greek neighbors (who wish to claim Alexander as their own), it is one of the most fraught issues of the day.

Again, you won’t get too far on this one by debating the life and times of Alexander, whether he led aggressive or defensive wars, or by asking how many slaves he owned. It’s better to focus on which political faction you wish to see assume more authority in Macedonia, and then work backward to figure out your preferred statues.

Similarly, if Macedonians were asked to evaluate the relative moralities of historic American leaders, I hope they would consider a similar approach. I don’t find it so fruitful to debate how much Robert E. Lee does or does not have in common with George Washington  -- arguably Washington was a traitor of sorts as well, against a relatively benign British ruler, and he fought against Native Americans and owned slaves. American treatment of Native Americans makes it hard to find many truly “good guys” from that period. Still, we can ask what role Washington statues play in today’s politics; few people are using them to lord over Native Americans.

It’s also relevant that the U.S. government has a hard time making major changes. This status quo bias won’t be easy to reform, but if all you know about a statues debate is that someone wants the status quo and other parties desire change, the prima facie case is to consider the change. I wouldn’t mind having a statute of limitations for public statues and monuments, so they are to be taken down eventually, unless they are part of an essential national core, possibly designated by UNESCO. It’s not unusual for art museums to re-evaluate and rehang their collections, and local governments should consider greater flexibility as well.

So if you’re considering the worthiness of a particular statue, here are three pointers: Pretend you’re from some very distant foreign country and view the dispute through that more objective lens. Second, focus on the future, and third, don’t be afraid to make some changes.