A Statue, A Book, a Billboard
What does a Confederate statue and a book have in common? A lot, according to a billboard I saw today.
Pittsburgh is a fairly progressive town. It’s one of the reasons why Carey and I fit in so well here. Get just a few miles outside of the city, though, and things start to change drastically.
For my Florida friends, you can liken it to the greater Jacksonville area in North Florida. Jacksonville is a progressive urban city but barely ten minutes outside the city limits, things change dramatically. Just so in Pittsburgh.
Carey and I were driving out of the city to the closest Fiat dealership this morning to pick up her car, which we had dropped for service two days prior. As we were driving along Route 30 I saw a large billboard:
DESTROYING STATUES IS THE SAME AS BURNING BOOKS
In truth, for half a second I was thankful it was a different ignorant message than the standard pseudo-scientific anti-abortion messages I see when I leave the city. You know the ones I’m talking about.
After my initial gratitude at the newness of the message faded, I was immediately struck by how “sensible” that message would sound to people who never think beyond the surface level of every issue.
After all – we all know burning books is bad and censors and fascists have used the tactic in the past to control the population, rewrite history, and control acceptable behavior. And, let’s be honest, how often can a conservative in America feel justified in making even oblique references to Ray Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451 nowadays?
I drove in silence for a moment, while Carey shook her head sadly at the billboard. We recognized the false equivalency immediately that comprised the heart of the faulty argument the billboard was positing.
Here’s the argument the billboard is making: destroying statues is erasing history you don’t agree with, just as burning books is the same as erasing history you don’t agree with.
Simple enough to fit on a billboard, or a bumper sticker. And, as pop culture has taught us, it’s not truth if it can’t fit on the rear of your car.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The appeal of the simple equivalency makes it hard to combat because it affirms a very powerful bias in those who agree with it. A bias based in oppression, bigotry, and racism. But combat it we must.
Let’s focus on the purpose of the Confederate statues that the billboard is likening to books that should not be burned. According to Llewellyn King, an executive producer and host of a PBS show, “Punishing the memory of the great figures of history because they fail the social acceptability tests of the present is … disturbing”. He made that statement in regards to a statue of Cecil John Rhodes at Oxford – but his sentiment applies equally to the Confederate statues here.
King’s option is the prevailing opinion of those who decry the removal of these statues. They are our history, they argue, and for better or worse they need to remain. Removing them is the equivalent of re-writing history. And if we’re judging our ancestors on today’s standards why aren’t we pulling down statues of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson?
No one denies that our forefathers were flawed and imperfect men and would fail the morality tests of today. The nuance is that the statues of Washington and Jefferson were erected to celebrate the birth of a nation and of the actions of the men who created this nation.
Confederate statues were erected for different reasons. Confederate states were erected not to acknowledge history but to push an agenda.
And this is the crux of the argument, and part of the false equivalency. Confederate statues were, almost universally, erected during the era of Jim Crow laws and were a blowback against civil rights movements. They were explicitly erected to represent white supremacy and to remind us all, but black people especially, that their preferred social order was supremacy of white people through the oppression of black people.
Pulling down these statues is not erasing or re-writing history. That history is still there, and is still in our history books. These statues – on public land – were not erected to honor great men but to affirm white supremacy . The history hasn’t been changed. It has, in fact, been remembered very clearly and this is why these statues must come down. There is no place on public lands for symbols rooted in oppression of a significant portion of our population. This is the exact same reason why the Confederate flag must not be on public lands.
You want a Confederate flag or shrine to Robert E Lee on your private property? More power to you. But not on pubic lands.
But still, how is this different than burning books? After all, once a book is published it’s “out there”, right? Burning the book is censorship – is not the destruction of these statues similarly censorship?
No – is is not.
Confederate Statues on Public Lands
Statues on public land belong to all of us, not just the whites among us. Public lands need to be welcoming and non-discriminatory places for people of all races, colors, and creeds. A statue on public land erected to remind black people of “their place” in society is clearly not for ALL Americans. It is clearly antagonistic, hateful, and racist.
Sometimes, like the statue in Charlottesville, VA, the statue was originally privately funded and erected on private land that later became public land through donation. Once that land becomes public, the will of the people and not that of the individual prevails on the disposition of that monument.
Explain in the form of a Bumper Sticker, please
I know, I know – that was a long diatribe when most of you were looking for a bumper sticker response. Or rather, the Facebook Response – a zinger instead of an explanation.
I have that too.
Destroying statues and burning books are not the same because the statues are on public land and are being pulled down by the will of the people whereas the burning book comparison is used typically when the government burns books to thwart the will of the people.
This is, in short form, the reason why the comparison is flawed. The People demand the statues come down. Burning books, and the inevitable Nazi comparisons it engenders, was done at the behest of the government.
A Note to My Fellow White People
So you’re a white person who has no issue with the Confederate flag or with Confederate statues and you’re not racist. Good for you. I can argue that you are, in fact, racist but that’s not the discussion here.
What is relevant here is that just because you have no issue with the statues or flag does not mean that there is not an issue. Try a little perspective. I’m a middle-aged white guy; if I can find the perspective to understand this, surely you can too.