July 11, 2020


The Knock on Grant: Why toppling his bust in Golden Gate Park was a strange way to celebrate Juneteenth (Elizabeth D. Samet, June 27, 2020, American Scholar)

I'm suspicious of all monuments, and I believe in dismantling those that tell warped tales about our national past, suppress its horrors, and gild its errors by encasing them in tragic dignity. Monuments to the Confederacy do all this, and they ought no longer to lord it over us in public parks, town squares, or the halls of the Capitol. Even if I know that in the long run it would have been better and healthier for us to have arrived at this conclusion in an orderly and official way, I also know at first hand the intransigence of all those Americans so deeply in love with the sham chivalry--to steal Mark Twain's phrase--of Robert E. Lee and all the rest. So whenever I learn that the statue of a Confederate has been disturbed in some way during these days of unrest, I think: He certainly had that coming.

Then, on the morning after Juneteenth, a day meant to celebrate the liberation from slavery, I learned that Ulysses S. Grant had become a casualty of the long overdue war against the tyranny of misremembrance, when protestors toppled his bust in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. And my self-satisfied iconoclasm suddenly gave way, first to righteous indignation, then to confusion. Rather than surrender to Grant, Lee would have preferred dying "a thousand deaths," but surrender he did, because Grant had ground down the Army of Northern Virginia with an iron will and "a bulldog grip," as Abraham Lincoln enjoined him to do. Grant is the man who, whatever else he may have failed to do--and he failed at many things--figured out how to win the Civil War, thereby preserving the United States and securing the emancipation of four million enslaved persons.

Most monuments tend to accomplish what Bertolt Brecht accused traditional drama of doing: eroding our capacity for action rather than awakening it, leaving us with the feeling that the human being is fixed rather than capable of change. That's the source of my mistrust. A year ago, my ambivalence notwithstanding, I participated in the dedication of a new statue of Grant at his alma mater, West Point. I hoped this new monument would begin to turn the tide. The Army, just like the country at large, fell in love with those flamboyant cavaliers rendered in bronze, granite, and marble throughout the land while blithely ignoring the fact that their lost cause was "one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse."

Who judged it that? Grant, in his Personal Memoirs, written as he was dying and published posthumously in 1885.

The question for all monuments is: what is it that we are memorializing and why?  The fact is that precious few of us know. Tear them all down and let's use them as civics lessons to see which ones we want to restore and why.    

Posted by at July 11, 2020 7:42 AM