Taking that flag down was nonetheless overdue. But flags and statues are different; flags are active symbols, raised and lowered daily, while statues reflect not only what’s been commemorated but a record of the people who did the commemorating. Of course, when a society throws off tyranny or occupation, statues may well be torn down in a political statement of contempt — this happened at the end of Communism, and also when an American mob tore down the George III statue in Lower Manhattan, ultimately melting it down into bullets. But the history of iconoclastic furies against the past, from the Protestant Reformation to the Taliban dynamiting the Bamiyan Buddhas in early 2001, is full of mob rages that led to atrocities. We shouldn’t court that spirit lightly.
Going forward, there may well be some statues that should, with mature reflection, be taken down or relocated. I’m partial myself to removing standalone monuments to Jefferson Davis and John C. Calhoun, the political theorists and leaders of rebellion rather than military commanders; Davis in 1865 and after was the most conspicuous example of a Confederate leader who refused to accept that the South was beaten or should be beaten. Nathan Bedford Forrest, too, deserves close scrutiny for his foundational role in the KKK. In some cases, as was done in New Orleans in the early ’90s, the better path may be to keep statues in place while removing offensive inscriptions. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Stone Mountain, Ga., with its enormous bas-relief (the largest in the world) of Davis, Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. Stone Mountain is an artistic achievement in its own right, and it would likely be destroyed or mutilated in any effort to remove it, as Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has demanded. That would be a sad replay of what the Taliban did to the Buddhas. A wholesale eradication of Confederate statuary would eliminate the value of picking and choosing the worst offenders to single out.