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Editorial: What to do with statues celebrating flawed men is a question for our times

It was probably inevitable. With the decision of some Southern states to remove statues glorifying Confederate generals, there was bound to be a run on any statue that offends someone or other.

It could easily go overboard but, the fact is, the review could also be a healthy development: Who do we want to revere?
Start with the Civil War. It should be easy to accept that statues glorifying traitors – that’s what they were – and, through them, the sin of slavery would be high on the list of those to go.

What is the difference between Benedict Arnold and Robert E. Lee? We don’t build statues beatifying the Revolutionary War traitor, so why, 152 years after the end of the Civil War, is it so hard to decide that statues to the likes of Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis are similarly unworthy of Americans’ reverence?

Slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath are our national shame. If they are at all dissimilar from Germany’s Nazi past, the reason is not because one was evil and the other was not. It is our obligation to learn from, and rise above, this violation of humanity, not to exalt it.

Yet, what ought to be easy evidently isn’t. President Trump, for example, likened the laudable impulse to remove purposefully divisive statues to a theoretical effort to demolish statues to men such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, slaveholders both.

It’s a demonstrably false notion that equates the flaws of the nation’s founders – men who risked their lives to create a new country – with men who, for the basest of reasons, launched and prosecuted a catastrophic war aimed at ripping it apart. There is no equivalency.

But where do we go from there? Some in Buffalo want to take down the statue of explorer Christopher Columbus and to change the name of its namesake park. Advocates are passionate about it and will cite plausible evidence regarding his treatment of Native Americans. But he opened the way West. Are his flaws sufficient to take that step?

In New York City, there is now a push to remove a statue on the edge of Central Park honoring James Marion Sims, a gynecologist from the time of slavery. Sims was born in South Carolina and practiced in New York. The former head of the American Medical Association advanced the cause of medicine, but did so, in part, by experimenting on female slaves without anesthesia and without their permission. Do his sins overshadow his achievements?

The problem in deciding is like many others in public life. As with gun control, for example, a line exists separating permissible laws from those that are unconstitutional. The difficulty is identifying the line.

So it is with the questions about whom to celebrate with statues on public grounds. Increasingly around the South, leaders are finding the courage to acknowledge that memorials to Civil War figures are divisive, especially now when the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and others are adopting them as symbols of their racist and violent aspirations.

It will be important, and difficult, to draw distinctions. Washington, Jefferson and Sims were all slaveholders. Jefferson had an affair with at least one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. But he also wrote the Declaration of Independence, one of the most influential documents of all time. Washington led the army during the desperate fight for independence and then set the model against which we still judge our presidents.

That’s enough to set them apart from a man such as Sims. Other questions will be more challenging, but if ever there was a time to ask them, this is it.

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