We Used to Put Statues Up, Now We Just Tear Them Down

A statue of Major General Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square in New Orleans, Louisiana. Author provided

We used to be a country that put up statues, now we’re a country that takes them down.

It’s a thought that occurs to me as I begin my run along the Mississippi River at Jackson Square, nodding at mounted Andrew Jackson rearing up on horseback, turning down Canal Street and past the now missing Liberty Monument (whose disappearance I do not mourn), up St. Charles Avenue, past the statues of John McDonogh, Henry Clay and Benjamin Franklin and then up to Lee Circle where Robert E. Lee towers 72 feet above the traffic. By the time I am deep in Audubon Park miles later, I have passed several more plaques and monuments and seen many streets named after various heroes of the South. But most streets seem stuck in time: the most recent as far as I can tell, is Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, dedicated in 1976. The rest send a strange message, in that all they’re named after slaveholding presidents and French kings. I had always thought that the little inlet at Nashville and St. Charles was named after Rosa Parks—but it isn’t, it’s Rosa Park.

Like most reasonable people, it saddens me when I see Americans celebrating a heritage they don’t understand. It angers me to see armed defenders at the bottom of Lost Cause statues, adding a renewed threat of violence to icons that are themselves part of an ideology of violence and intimidation. Times change. Context changes. Just because something is old and a ‘part of our history’ shouldn’t mean we are forced to honor it forever. And while it is right to bemoan modern conservatism for its dogged defense of even the worst traditions, it is also symptomatic of the listlessness of today’s liberalism to gleefully take a hatchet to history and culture without proposing anything better to replace it.

As if we’re at the end of history and all that’s left is arguing over the details of which story we want to tell…

The great Rich Cohen once described New Orleans as a city that died standing on its feet (a statement more about the city’s industrial decline than its current cultural resurgence). In this case, you might say that New Orleans is also a little bit like a person with bad SEO. Looking at the city’s monuments is like a list of Google results that only reflect the terrible things they did a long time ago. While it’s reasonable to want to try to change that, any half-decent media strategist can tell you that the best way to solve an SEO problem isn’t to systematically eliminate the bad stuff. No, you add so much new good stuff that it pushes the old results to irrelevancy. And SEO, by the way, is about half as important as the story you actively tell in every other part of the brand.

That’s why I think it’s so strange that in all the protests and counter-protests and sneaky, under-the-cover-of-darkness removal of various Confederate monuments, there has been no larger discussion about monuments and what they mean. What purpose do monuments serve? What kind of people do we want to celebrate on our public spaces? What kind of virtues should they show? Why are heroes often so complicated? Who ought we—literally—put up on a pedestal? I admire Mayor Landrieu’s stand against the more offensive Confederate symbolism. I just think he’s lost an opportunity to lead the city forward from there.

Lee should come down. He lost the Civil War. Rome didn’t give triumphs to the generals who surrendered and neither should we. That’s easy to say. It’s harder to say: Lee was a complicated man who was faced with an incredibly difficult choice when Virginia seceded. It’s harder to remember that many of the men who served under him were drafted and owned no slaves, it takes empathy to understand why they saw him as a hero. It’s hard but true that many young Southerners grew up with Lee as a hero not because of his beliefs about slavery but because he was an exemplar of grace, duty and honor.

So take his statue down and put it in the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum a few blocks away. Or have a private donor pay to put it somewhere less conspicuous. First problem solved. But what goes on that pedestal instead? To me this is a much more interesting and urgent question. One that I think should be answered now, while the issue is a controversial one, while we still have time to have a good discussion about it.

New Orleans is the home of the National World War II museum. The city was the source of the Higgins boat, a brilliant naval innovation which helped carry the day at Normandy, the most successful amphibious invasion in history. So why not put General Dwight D. Eisenhower up there? He too was a great general, a complicated man under whom many drafted men served. But unlike Lee, who pulled the country apart, Eisenhower’s leadership brought America together again (the highest-ranking general killed in WWII was the son of a Confederate civil war general) in a noble cause much bigger than itself. Eisenhower was a great president, a Republican, who helped enforce the integration in the South. And while he was born in the South, he was raised in the North, he came out as neither North or South but an amiable Midwesterner, with the values of both. Washington has been unable to give Eisenhower the monument he deserves, so New Orleans can do it. He is everything we should be saying to young people, to tourists visiting this country, to residents: Be like Ike.

Or even better, what about General Russel Honoré? As the commander of the Joint Task Force Katrina, he saved the city from the disaster that befell it after the hurricane. His greatest military achievement wasn’t on some foreign battlefield but at home, rescuing and saving American citizens, as water flooded the streets around Lee’s statue. It was Honoré who admonished that soldier with his rifle up, pointed at some poor refugee, “We’re on a rescue mission damn it!” That is leadership. Honoré embodies many great things about New Orleans. Creole. American. Southern. His example deserves to tower above tourists and residents alike. We should honor people like Honoré. We should put him on a pedestal.

General Honore served as Commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, coordinating military relief efforts, after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf coast. Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The orator Demosthenes once urged his fellow Athenians to reflect on the monuments and statues and accomplishments of history. He reminded them that their “ancestors set up those trophies, not that you may gaze at them in wonder but that you may also imitate the virtues of the men who set them up.” We would do well to do the same—and to consider what we are passing on to the next generation with the names of our streets and our parks, what statues we put up, who we name our airports after. In 1949, the citizens of Chicago were so inspired by America’s naval victory in the Pacific that they got together en masse to rename the Chicago Municipal airport to Midway airport. Can you imagine something like that happening today? (I can imagine it being renamed because its implications are too violent and jingoistic). Can you imagine the political will it would take today to rename the capital of your state, as Nebraska did, because you so mourned a fallen president?

People laughed when someone set up a crowdfunding campaign to put up a Robocop statue in Detroit. I say we honor that spirit and encourage it.

It’s wonderful that the Saints put up a statue of former safety Steve Gleason in front of the Superdome but we can do better and we can do more. Moon Landrieu desegregated City Hall in New Orleans. Where is his monument? (“Moonwalk” along the river doesn’t count). A divorced single mother named Ruth Fertel bought an old restaurant in 1965 and turned it into the Ruth’s Chris Steak House chain, why isn’t there a street named after her? Why do the Hollygrove projects in New Orleans still have a street named after the French General Pierre Cambronne but not one to honor that Lil’ Wayne is from there? Why hasn’t a statue been put up in A.L Davis/Shakespeare Park of Birdman and Slim, the founders of Cash Money Records—they’re only the most successful independent music entrepreneurs in history and have been giving out thousands of turkeys on Thanksgiving in that neighborhood for 20 years. Kate Chopin lived in New Orleans and immortalized it in her works (as did Anne Rice), the famous Dorothy Dix got her start in journalism in New Orleans—these are powerful, important women who could be recognized and immortalized to inspire generations to come. Why can’t they just add an s to Rosa Park?

It would seem less inappropriate to have a bunch of streets named after slaveholders if there was also one named after George Washington Cable, the brilliant New Orleanian writer whose articles condemning segregation and racism in the late 1800’s drove him from the city (his house was on 8th Street). There is a sign at the corner of Press and Royal commemorating the famous arrest of Homer Plessy, the courageous mixed race defendant in Plessy v Ferguson, but why not change some letters around to turn Press into Plessy St? I don’t think anyone is going to complain that 8th St and Press St are “part of our history.” André Cailloux, one of the first black officers killed in the Civil War, and a former slave who had taught himself a trade and bought his own freedom, received a large funeral in occupied New Orleans in 1863, but there isn’t the political will to raise a statue in his honor 150 years later? To accept that is pathetic.

Those of you in New York City might think yourself superior to New Orleans because you don’t have an embarrassing memorial of Jefferson Davis on public property. But it wasn’t more than ten years ago the Daily News put out a call for more monuments of women in New York City…

It would be great to honor Elizabeth Ann Seton, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Dorothy Parker or Maria Callas. There’s always Mae West, Amelia Earhart, Dorothy Day, Anne Frank or Mary Ewing Outerbridge. And how about Emily Warren Roebling, Edith Wharton or the Queens-born Marie Maynard Daly and Estee Lauder? Juliette Gordon Low, Marian Anderson and Bella Abzug would make fine neighbors.

What progress have you made? While I think it’s absurd to honor the incompetent former president of the Confederate States of America, I don’t think it’s that much better to be in ignorance of the significance of the brilliant, gold statue of General Sherman on 5th Avenue. Could you tell me anything about that man? Are you anything like the proud patriotic Americans who paid to set it up? Did you even notice that years of pigeon shit had dulled it until it was almost unrecognizable? Of course not.

General Sherman on 5th Avenue. Author provided

This isn’t a New Orleanian problem or a Southern problem. It’s an American problem. We used to put up monuments, now we just argue about which ones should come down. Now we just ignore the ones we have.

The Southerners who blanketed their cities with monuments in the early 20th century did so because they believed they had a way of life that needed protecting. They were right and they were wrong. They did have a distinct and important way of life, as Walker Percy observed, it just had nothing to do with slavery or have separate drinking fountains. America has a way of life worth protecting today too. But you don’t do that just by removing all traces of Nathan Bedford Forrest (though we should). It takes something more. It takes something constructive too.

We complain that the world is going to shit, that we don’t have any good leaders anymore, that all our values have gone out of fashion. Our norms are collapsing! Yeah of course they have. We stopped memorializing them. We stopped providing models for them. We stopped honoring people who embodied them.

Is it any wonder that the average citizen forgot what they were?

Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of Ego is the Enemy. Ryan is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and you can subscribe to his posts via email. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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Want to Really Make America Great Again? Stop Reading the News.
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We Used to Put Statues Up, Now We Just Tear Them Down