Montreal statue of Sir John A. MacDonald vandalised / CBC

One thing 2017 will likely be remembered for is the war over the Charlottesville statue commemorating the best-known Confederate figure from the US Civil War, Robert E. Lee.

The Confederacy’s president, Jefferson Davis, may have less name recognition than Lee. Given that one of the secession grievances was the desire to keep African Americans enslaved, it’s no wonder that, with the passage of time, many people have begun to wonder why Lee, a slave owner, was treated as a hero. 

And the political fad for removing or vandalizing statues has spread. Recently, a statue of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, was vandalized in Montreal. MacDonald was legendary as a drunk and, like most people of his day, he held views that would not be popular now. But if Sir John A. is our idea of a world-class tyrant, something is seriously wrong with the way we learn and understand history. Before we destroy any more statues or works of art, let’s talk about some of the issues.

First, about Lee. He was honored principally for patriotism toward Virginia. Still, one must not romanticize a culture based on slavery. As Matthew J. Franck has asked here, “In what other country have the vanquished been permitted by the victors to erect public monuments to their heroes? The typical Lee or Jackson statue is an artifact of the period after the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877, when white supremacists themselves became the victors in the southern states once again.”

The short answer to Franck's question is, the United States could either heal or remain divided, which might mean eventually breaking up into possibly fifty warring nations. It is not clear how African Americans would benefit. A certain amount of glorification of Confederate heroes was, of course, tolerated for the sake of moving on. In the same way, Canadians honor rebel Louis Riel as well as MacDonald who had him hanged.

Franck is right to ask whether the veneration of Lee should be checked at this point. I suspect so. The South is now an economic engine of the United States, not an aggrieved and humiliated backwater. The late-night comics ridiculing the South have begun to sound pretty stale, especially if one is looking for a job.

However, subsequent demands that any American founder who held slaves, Washington and Jefferson for example, should be dishonored tend to come—predictably—from people who seem to have little use for a free society. As Franck reminds us, “These men gave us the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and they were leaders of the generation that built the institutions that could survive the cataclysm of the Civil War and win through to a “new birth of freedom.” Jarrett Stepman notes, “Even a plurality of black Americans also believe the statues should stay.” And they are hardly supporters of white supremacy.

In general, statues are commissioned to commemorate specific accomplishments, not to certify all aspects of the honoree’s life as worthy. To insist on saintly purity is a form of theft of history. Another brief side trip into Canada might provide a useful illustration:

Why was Sir John A’s statue vandalized? According to the CBC, “The vandalism took place ahead of a demonstration that saw hundreds take to the city’s streets to denounce racism and Bill 62, the province’s religious neutrality law requiring anyone receiving or providing public services to have an uncovered face.” In short, protesters were rallying in support of the Islamic face veil.

Doubtless, Sir John A. would have opposed requiring Canadians to deal with persons in government whose faces cannot be seen. Most Canadians today do not think that multiculturalism requires that sacrifice.

Sir John had his faults and his virtues, good calls and bad calls. But he was not a villain. For example, although accused in some quarters of racism, he was fairer than most political leaders of the day to immigrants from China. Incidentally, slavery had been abolished in Canada 30 years before the close of the US Civil War. And the cause of the defacers of his statue (public servants with face veils) is simply not supported by most Canadians.

But. given a chance, cultural defacers tend to attack anything that crosses their path. Including, as it happens, a horse.

The University of California’s football team has had a horse mascot named Traveler for nearly 60 years. A succession of Andalusians has borne a costumed cheerleader who rouses the fans in victory and defeat. This year, sensing a possible connection to Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller, “Saphia Jackson, co-director of the USC Black Student Assembly, asked students not to be quiet, and reminded that ‘white supremacy hits close to home’ and referenced the name of the Trojans mascot.

The connection exists only in some students’ minds. The history of USC fandom has no connection with slavery or the Civil War.

It’s not just horses. Sports network ESPN pulled an Asian-American sportscaster named Robert Lee from covering a University of Virginia football game earlier this year because his name resembles that of the Civil War general to whom he has no known connection. ESPN has found itself in what may be an unrelated ratings drop. On the other hand, the drop may also reflect, in a small way, the fact that most people do not want their own history and perceptions stolen and repurposed.

But the biggest problem isn’t the theft. We can all guard our own heritage and tell our own stories if they are important to us. No, the biggest problem is the moral imperialism the iconoclasts (“statue-breakers”) display, the belief that they are some apex of moral perfection.

For example, late-term abortion supporters never imagine that, as magnetic resonance imaging takes hold, they might be judged in the same way as slave owners of the 19th century are judged now. Recently, I had the chance to index two informative books that dealt with the topic of slave-owning. One was On the Pleasures of Owning Persons: The Hidden Face of American Slavery, which detailed the flogging and mutilation of slaves who stood up for their rights, and the other was Henry Foxall: Methodist, Industrialist, American, which details, among other things, the creative ways in which opponents of slavery tried to make a difference in a society where the majority of voters approved of slavery. Taking a stand against slavery mattered then in a way it doesn't now.

Taking a stand against abortion today is like taking a stand against slavery back then.

Moral imperialism makes the supporters of live baby dismemberment feel good about denying the civil liberties of protesters against the practice in the same way that 19th Century slaveowners made it illegal to help runaway slaves. Those people felt good about themselves just as pro-choicers do today.

Removing statues should be done very sparingly. Otherwise, the only history allowed will be the protesters’ history, their interpretation thereof, and whatever they choose to claim or appropriate about anyone else’s.

Denyse O’Leary is an Ottawa-based author, blogger, and journalist.

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Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...