In 2003, people watched on television as the U.S. military toppled a 39-foot-tall statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. Among those pleased by its destruction, there are—doubtlessly—those who today rail against the removal of statues depicting Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee, condemning what they claim is an attempt to rewrite history. But is it?
The toppling of the Hussein statue was photographed. You can find it online now. Obviously, its destruction didn’t rewrite history. It became history. And removal of statues and memorials to Confederate white supremacists here in the U.S. will, in time, be seen in the same light.
In debate surrounding Confederate monuments, many quoted Lee in 1869, expressing his belief that it would be wiser to avoid raising monuments and instead “follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife.” Some noted that Lee’s contemporaries seemed to agree with him. Many statues and monuments celebrating the Confederacy weren’t erected until after Reconstruction. Others were put up during the Civil Rights Movement—often by people who definitely wanted to rewrite history.
But rewriting history isn’t easy. From Nazi book-burning to Confederate revisionism propaganda, the past is littered with people who tried and failed to censor or erase some aspect of culture or history. That’s not to say such schemes never work—but failed attempts are the rule. Take a 3,000-year-old example. Horemheb, the final pharaoh of Egypt’s 18th dynasty, tried to erase his predecessors, including Akhenaten and Tutankhamun, from history.
On Aug. 14, USA Today reported that there are “at least 700 and possibly more than 1,000 Confederate monuments in 31 states.” Imagine if Germany were still full of monuments to Hitler and the Schutzstaffel, or Spain littered with reminders of Francisco Franco. But they’re not. The Federal Republic of Germany banned the swastika from public spaces in 1949. By the time the Spanish parliament had passed a law requiring every province in the country to remove Franco statues in 2006, most already had.
Sadly, the U.S. is far too late to lead the charge in removing reminders of injustice and inequality and terror from public view. We’re often too late to be part of the vanguard on social justice matters. But, in general, we’ve caught up—as has been the case with issues from women’s suffrage to marriage equality. We can catch up now, too.
There should be two options when it comes to Confederate monuments and statues: 1) Remove them from public spaces to museums or 2) create interpretative materials detailing the crimes of the person(s) memorialized, and require those materials to be permanently displayed alongside the monument.
We could lead by example here in Reno by removing the statue of John W. Mackay from its position overseeing the quad on the University of Nevada, Reno campus. While Mackay is not a figure directly associated with racism and injustice, the man who sculpted his statue definitely is. Gutzon Borglum, creator of Mount Rushmore, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. His art should not stand in a place of honor on UNR’s campus.