Lionel Shriver decries the demonization of Thomas Jefferson

October 28, 2021 • 9:30 am

Yes, you know by now that the statue of Thomas Jefferson that used to stand in the council chamber of New York’s City Hall has been removed, for Jefferson enslaved many other humans. No matter that his statue depicted him a writer, probably of the Declaration of Independence; his possession of slaves (around 600 of them!) was sufficient to warrant his cancellation.

The statue was scheduled to be moved to the New York Historical Society, but now its fate is uncertain. The New York Times reports that some assemblymen want it destroyed, as other Jefferson statues have been:

Some public speakers argued that the statue should remain in the Council chambers, suggesting that its placement there could facilitate the debate over his legacy.

Assemblyman Charles Barron, the former councilman who tried to get the statue removed in 2001, vehemently disagreed.

“I don’t think it should go anywhere. I don’t think it should exist,” Mr. Barron said at the hearing. “I think it should be put in storage or destroyed or whatever.”

Yes, that is erasure. A bit more:

According to experts who track monuments, several other Jefferson statues have been removed or destroyed over the last year, including ones in Georgia and Oregon. Last year, Lucian K. Truscott IV, a direct descendant of Jefferson, wrote in The New York Times that the Jefferson Memorial in Washington should be replaced by a monument of the abolitionist Harriet Tubman.

I warned you that the Jefferson Memorial, a large and lovely building on Washington’s Tidal Basis, is ripe for removal.

Now the writer Lionel Shriver has weighed in at the Times of London (she’s American but lives in London). You remember Shriver from these pages when she created a ruckus at the Brisbane Writers Festival by defending both cultural and literary appropriation, causing one Guardian writer to walk out of her talk. Since then she’s been an anti-woke activist, and though I don’t always agree with her, there’s no doubt that she has guts (see my other posts on Shriver here).  And guts is what she displays in her op-ed decrying the removal of Jefferson’s statue from New York’s City Hall.

You won’t be able to read more than a few lines by clicking below, as the piece is paywalled, but judicious inquiry will yield you a copy.

There are a few points that I consider a bit snarky in tone, but they are worth discussing. One is how far we take erasure or cancellation based on association with slavery.

Yet if involvement in slavery cancels out all positive contributions to American history, the US will be obliged to throw loads of its public statuary on the scrapheap. Multiple American founders owned slaves, such as James Madison, James Monroe, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Alexander Hamilton married into a big slave-owning family.

Expunging these seminal figures from America’s cultural landscape would mean closing the major tourist attraction of Jefferson’s home, Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia, and ploughing under the imposing Jefferson memorial in DC. Obviously, we’d have to bomb Mount Rushmore. We’d need to topple the Washington Monument, rename the federal capital, and rechristen Seattle’s state. Madison, Wisconsin, would need rebranding, likewise the plentiful towns called Jefferson, in Maine, New Hampshire, North and South Carolina, New York, Colorado, Wisconsin and Massachusetts. Road and building names such as “Franklin Street” and “Monroe House” across the nation would have to go.

Already hastily revised during the Black Lives Matter mania, even the famously multiracial Hamilton would close on Broadway. All $1, $10, and $100 notes would have to be recalled and redesigned with new faces. As it is now fashionable to smear even Abraham Lincoln, author of the Emancipation Proclamation, as a racist, let’s throw in the $5 notes as well. And wouldn’t repudiation of the founding fathers mean repudiating the American constitution itself, which these wicked men wrote?

People have been cancelled for being associate with the slave trade in only oblique ways, but George Washington actually owned slaves, as did eleven other U.S. Presidents. Ownership of another human being and making them work for you for free is reprehensible, and that ownership is doubtlessly more odious than Hamilton marrying into a slave-owning family. So surely George Washington’s statues (and those of Madison, Monroe, and so on) would have to go. I will leave that up to the people who police these kinds of things.

What concerns me more is the ineffectiveness and performative nature of these statue-topplings, and Shriver doesn’t miss that:

More germane than the practical difficulties of erasing tainted foundational luminaries is what such a puristic undertaking would achieve. I propose, in tangible terms: nothing. The removal of that Jefferson statue won’t palpably improve the lives of ordinary New Yorkers one whit. The left’s current obsession with symbolism, language and statuary, is sophomoric. It’s moral busywork in a world hardly devoid of real problems. Think Sadiq Khan doling out grants of £25,000 per locality to cover the cost of “decolonising” London street names — after which, who will be better off? That million-quid fund would be better spent on neighbourhood keg parties.

When successful, these ethically decorative initiatives only incentivise more of the same. Having won the vote on the Jefferson statue, none of those caucus members is sitting back thinking, “Good! Now we have a just society. Maybe I’ll retire.” What really drives these renaming and statue-toppling campaigns is a desire to exercise power. But as soon as the crack-high of getting what they want subsides, activists do what any addict would do: they hunt for more crack. So in New York that Jefferson statue could be just the start, while Google Maps may have a fiendish time keeping up with replacing all the “Colston Avenues” in London.

Too few people seem to realize that a lot of this activity is not designed to improve racial relations, but to show power. I can understand why repressed groups want to exert some power to change society, but I don’t agree that erasure or cancellation (in most but not all cases) is the way to do it.  You can already see fairly un-guilty figures, whose lives were a net good, being swept into the cancellation mania, because empowerment breeds, well, more power. If you want an example, try Gandhi.

In the end, Shriver appeals to nuance; people are complex, adhere to the mores of their time (how many white critics of slavery would have themselves approved the practice had they lived in the early nineteenth century?), and perhaps we can see both the good and bad sides of people at once: a concept unique to Woke Cancellers. Shriver ends with this:

Past notables are bound to fail the political litmus test of the present: they didn’t recycle their mead containers or support trans rights in 1704. And never mind our changing social mores. Given the dodgy nature of the species, if we pay tribute only to perfect people, we pay tribute to no one. Icons of the past were also real, complicated personalities. A fuller understanding of their flaws and inconsistencies makes history richer and more pertinent to the present.

The man who wrote “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence also helped to draft a constitution in which a slave counted as three-fifths of a human being. Jefferson’s hypocrisy is a reminder to look for similar hypocrisy in our own time. For example, the very parties who pushed to remove that Jefferson statue because it’s hurtful to black people are at once some of the least concerned that the murder rate in the city, largely of black New Yorkers by black New Yorkers, has risen nearly 50 per cent since 2020. [JAC: This last comment I consider largely irrelevant and not supportive of Shriver’s point.]

Trevor Phillips has drafted guidelines to protect British heritage from “temporary shifts in public sentiment”, such as the sustained racial hysteria after George Floyd’s murder. As one government source noted of Phillips’s charter, “Too many institutions are rushing to please a vocal minority.” Most Britons don’t want the larger-than-lifes they studied in school — Churchill, Nelson, Disraeli — banished from public squares. Fine, let’s all perceive the profound shortcomings of historical personages with greater clarity. But to see a man more clearly, you put on your glasses. You don’t throw him in the river.

Non-Americans who weren’t raised to revere a cast of characters from the country’s fledgling years may not realise how dumbfounding it is that we’re now removing statues of the abruptly-loathsome Jefferson. National mythologies help maintain the social fabric, which is alarmingly easy to unravel. Jefferson may embody “the most shameful parts” of my country’s history, but also the best. In moral value, all men are indeed created equal. Jefferson laid the groundwork for later generations to better realise that revelation.

h/t: Pyers

93 thoughts on “Lionel Shriver decries the demonization of Thomas Jefferson

  1. The following came from an article about Mt Rushmore:

    “The creation of Mount Rushmore is a story of struggle — and to some, desecration. The Black Hills are sacred to the Lakota Sioux, the original occupants of the area when white settlers arrived. For some, the four presidents carved in the hill are not without negative symbolism. The Sioux have never had much luck dealing with white men.

    In the Treaty of 1868, the U.S. government promised the Sioux territory that included the Black Hills in perpetuity. Perpetuity lasted only until gold was found in the mountains and prospectors migrated there in the 1870s. The federal government then forced the Sioux to relinquish the Black Hills portion of their reservation.”

    I pasted this here because Shriver mentions Mt Rushmore while defending these statues. Mt Rushmore should never have been carved in the first place. Again, I will go back to my original thought from a few days ago…..we should stop erecting statues to people who are far from perfect (as we all are far from perfect). If a wealthy person provides the money to build a hospital, college, or another philanthropic endeavor, then put up a plaque in that institution honoring/thanking him/her for the contribution. I’ve always seen statues as a waste of money when that money could be used toward a more useful and helpful purpose for society.

    1. “Again, I will go back to my original thought from a few days ago…..we should stop erecting statues to people who are far from perfect (as we all are far from perfect).”

      Then no statues would ever go up. We put up statues to commemorate the good things a person or people did, not to declare them perfect.

      1. I’d be fine with no statues going up. There are other ways to commemorate the good things a person did. There are plaques in universities that have a painting or photo of the person who donated to build that school – and there is an honorary plaque underneath explaining who they were and what they did. There are government buildings that contain paintings and photos of presidents. I realize that you disagree and think that statues are a nice gesture. And they are a nice gesture, but not everyone has the same degree of respect for that particular person. It becomes a constant reminder of the bad that they represent. And it’s out in public to see every time they walk past it.

        1. That’s the point. Statues, or any other form of commemoration, aren’t “a constant reminder of the bad that they represent.” They’re celebrating the good things the person did. There’s a reason we don’t have statues commemorating all slave owners. Because all slave owners didn’t do the good and amazing things Jefferson did. We’re not putting up the statue for his slave owning. We’re putting it up for the other things Just because we now understand that some things he did were wrong doesn’t change that.

          And what do you do when the paintings or photographs you suggest we use instead of statues get demonized because the person they commemorate isn’t perfect? Do we once again relent to the whines of the terminally offended?

          1. Doubting Thomas, that’s a very good question. When someone donates money to have a hospital or college built, a photo of the person along with a plaque is used to explain and thank the person for the donation in order for that building to exist. If someone has an issue with a “thank you for the hospital” or “thank you for the college” then they don’t have to go there if it bothers them that much….there are other hospitals and other colleges to attend. After all, the institution would not exist if it weren’t for the donated money from that individual. It’s like as if it’s the donor’s property or their house. If you don’t want to enter the person’s house or property (symbolically, of course), then you have the right to go elsewhere. Just my two cents worth. Someone else may have a better thought on this.

        2. That seems like it is sculpture that really bothers you. Assuming it isn’t just a predilection for 2-D art over 3-D, is it the space statues take up? Or the fact that they are generally placed outside where everyone is forced to look at them? I’m not saying you’re wrong but it is an interesting angle.

          1. It’s not the sculpture that is my issue. It’s the hero worship that the statue represents. When someone donates money to have a hospital, college, or other helpful institution built, it is within reason, I think, to have a photo or painting of them within that institution with a plaque underneath explaining who that person was and what their contribution was to that institution. It’s a way of thanking them, commemorating them for that kindness. It doesn’t idolize them, it’s just a way of saying “thank you, because without your generous kindness this building would not be here.”

              1. Statues are usually huge and placed on pedestals for all to see in public view. While statues can be erected as a “thank you” for a specific contribution, they are still a form of hero worship and not everyone would consider them a hero. There are statues of Stalin that some may revere, others do not. If a person’s family suffered under Stalin, it is a constant reminder of that suffering. It’s no different with our own leaders. Some of us may overlook the behaviors, or actions of a certain person if they did some good….that is, if that person didn’t cause some sort of suffering to us or our ancestors. What if a group of individuals erected a statue of Hitler for outdoor public view? How would Holocaust survivors or their families feel about that? Hitler was and is still a hero to some.

                Why do we (not just those of us in this country) have such an obsession to erect a statue to anyone? Most statues are erected after the person is deceased. So….who benefits from the statue’s existence? In the case of politicians, they are already in the history books or some other documentation explaining their contributions. There are photos of them in history books as well. I don’t understand the need or desire to erect a statue, nor do I understand the defense of their existence. In my opinion, it’s a waste of money. Use the money to help those in need.

              2. I’m fine with the person’s whole reputation being considered in a statue keep/remove discussion but, as I have explained in another comment, it is unfair to label a statue as “hero worship” without being ready to defend all that the phrase conveys. If I think Lincoln’s statue should be kept, even though he could have done more for Black people, am I really worshipping a hero? I would not put it that way.

              3. Why do we (not just those of us in this country) have such an obsession to erect a statue to anyone?

                That is our (European) culture. Why does our culture use that particular form? That’s harder to say.

            1. “It’s the hero worship that the statue represents.”

              You are the one claiming that the correct interpretation of this piece of art – a sculpture – is “hero worship”.

              Mr. Barron has also made such a claim.

              It is impossible that any piece of art can have one interpretation, let alone that any of the interpretations are somehow selected as the one true interpretation.

              1. “Hero worship” is a phrase calculated to denigrate. Worship has a religious connotation but I doubt if anyone in favor of keeping statues of Lincoln, say, consider religion to have much to do with it. Hero implies one should pattern one’s life after the person depicted. No one is really saying we should live our lives like Lincoln. Language matters.

              2. OK .. umm … [ referee whistle blows ] time out!

                Is this a challenge of the statement? That’s fine of course but I read it as an addition that I agree with, but do not see if there is another connection being made… that’s all fine but I literally do not follow…

                [ whistle ]
                [ clock restarts ]

              3. Hey – are you snooping on my music player?

                I just had a listen of Rock Lobster from that same album!

                Apologies for being silly on a serious thread but that is too much to let go!

              4. Good song! I’d forgotten about it or simply didn’t remember the title. I’m a big 52s fan but only saw them once but it was a transcendent experience. It was outside on a summer evening with everyone seated on the grass drinking beer.

            2. “Hero worship” So we should not celebrate the achievements of our ancestors/predecessors? I find celebrating Jefferson far more palatable than those who pass for “celebrities” these days!

              No statues, no trophies, no portraits, no memorial buildings: Unless everyone gets one?

              Whom do you celebrate?

              Surely civic achievements such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the people who created them, imperfect as they were, are worth celebrating? Surely Washington is worth celebrating for leading the US Army, for guiding the beginning of the USA as the first President, for refusing to be made king of the USA, for the peaceful transfer of power to John Adams in March 1797 (none of these were a given by any means!)?

              1. Hero worship. I love Michael Jordan. I think he’s the greatest basketball player of all time (and I’m sure others would disagree on that, and that’s fine). I know there are statues of Michael Jordan out there, but I find those to be a bit ridiculous too. I celebrate quite a few people. My heroes tend to be everyday people that don’t have statues, and some may have statues that I’m not aware of. I celebrate a person who is a living friend of mine (and Jerry knows her too). She is selfless, giving, and helps causes and individuals through anonymity. She actually becomes annoyed if she is thanked or acknowledged by name. She does not do good deeds in order to be recognized. She does good deeds because it is the right thing to do.

                All I’m saying is that we don’t NEED statues to celebrate someone. My celebration may not be yours. In fact, my celebration may be a reminder of your pain and suffering. If I knew that my celebration was a reminder of your pain and suffering, I wouldn’t enjoy it knowing that it caused you some sort of pain or suffering. But that’s just me.

                If you want to worship your favorite basketball player, your own politician, your own doer of good deeds without the need for a statue, go ahead. All I’m saying is that the sentiment won’t be shared by everyone and would only be a constant sore spot and possibly even a source of division by erecting a statue to them.

              2. It sounds like your problem with statues is that they represent a community’s choice which may not be everyone’s choice and, specifically, not your choice. Welcome to democracy! We just spent four years with a president that I would never have voted for in a million years so perhaps I can sympathize.

              3. So, I think I have your message: Celebrate no one with public, (semi-)permanent memorials, because we can’t all 100% agree on them.

                I note that you did not address my items in my third paragraph. Not worth celebrating. got it.

          2. I think Irena and I are on a similar page. Again, hospitals tend to be privately-owned publicly-accessible property, as are many, but not all, universities. Private owners can honor whomsoever they choose on private property. Public property (government buildings, parks, libraries) represents – and is paid for – by all of us. I’m not thrilled when private corporations try to engage in emotional manipulation (advertising, anybody), but it is their right. I have never seen governments’ attempts at emotional manipulation to be beneficial to anybody but the government itself.

              1. Paul Topping, unfortunately, we are not the government. On paper we are, but not in reality. Our government is run by wealthy corporations and I often wonder how much our votes really count if most politicians can be “persuaded” by corporate money.

                And I do agree that governments participate in emotional manipulation. It’s why propaganda seems to work with many.

              2. Yes, we should get money out of government. If I had my way, all politicians would be limited as to what they could spend on campaigns and big donors would be prevented from “owning” candidates. Still, I don’t think we should give up or they win, right?

              3. Paul, you seem to be saying ‘anti-government’ as it it were a bad thing, whether they oppose governments in China, Iran, or elsewhere. I support self-government. I don’t want any governments telling me what gods to worship or what statues to pay for. Democratic governments can be oppressive, too – especially when they get involved in games of emotions and patriotism. “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” (Misattributed to Sinclair Lewis) If a democratic majority wanted a statue of Jesus on public land, I would support it exactly as little as I support a publicly funded statue of any other public figure.

              4. Well, I’m not against all government. When someone says they don’t want to pay for any statues, it is getting close to being anti-government. We see this these days with some of the right-wing nutjobs who believe they should have the freedom to refuse vaccinations and infect anyone they want. Even in the best-run government imaginable will make decisions that some of its citizens don’t like. Some have been lulled to sleep by good-enough government for so long that they don’t seem to appreciate how bad it would be if there was no government at all. They want things as they are or better but aren’t willing to compromise. That’s not a sustainable or reasonable position, IMHO.

        3. I am no fan of the Rushmore monument. But most of the territory of the United states was conquered from the natives via demographic outcrowding, military force, ruse and settling on land that used to be the territory of someone else without asking the owners.
          So according to the logic that Rushmore shouldn’t have been carved in the first place because the mountain was taken from the Sioux, maybe the whole US should never have been there in the first place.

        4. But exactly the same arguments for removing the statue will apply to the plaque and the photos and the paintings.

    2. “The Black Hills are sacred to the Lakota Sioux, the original occupants of the area when white settlers arrived.”

      Why set why set the arrival of whites as the starting point? Yes, the whites took over the land from the Lakota, who had taken over the land from some other tribe, who had taken over the land from….. There is no point to implicate whites for something done by every other race in history.

      1. “There is no point to implicate whites for something done by every other race in history.”
        I agree! But not everyone stamped their faces on land belonging to someone else. THIS to me is wrong.

          1. But they were never “asked” for their permission to do this. That would be like my building a statue of someone that symbolized some sort of oppression to you personally on your front lawn. It’s just not the right thing to do.

            1. If by “they” you mean the Lakota, then why should they have been asked? It wasn’t (when Rushmore was carved) and isn’t their land. I’m guessing the Lakota didn’t ask the tribe they removed from the land for their permission to do so. Why hold whites to a higher standard than other groups?

              1. In this specific example it’s whites, but if we change to the general case of something like, ‘why hold our group’ to a higher standard, then the trivial answer is ‘So that perhaps we can move a step or two closer to that better future that most of us hope for.’

                In other words, attempting to hold ourselves to a higher standard is one of the primary ways that we make progress as a society. If everyone always defaulted to, ‘Well, everyone else does / has done it, so it’s okay if we do it too,’ life would be pretty shitty for pretty much everyone everywhere.

            1. The Lakota moved in an displaced other tribes who were there before them. Like the Palestinians and the Israelis, they claim primacy in time. The previous tribes aren’t around to complain.

              1. They complained at the time. I remember reading once that when Louis and Clark made their way up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, numerous tribes they encountered warned them to beware of a tribe of fierce warriors who lived to the north. Yes, that would’ve been the Lakota. And The US used Pawnee scouts while fighting the Sioux. Why did the Pawnee do this? Because they Pawnee had been enemies of the Sioux for many years. Seems that the Sioux displaced the Pawnee from land that was once theirs.

        1. > “I agree! But not everyone stamped their faces on land belonging to someone else.”

          Irena, there are literal and figurative faces. Mount Rushmore is a literal face. Planting a flag is a metaphorical one. Look how many flags people have plastered on every continent – in every ocean (seriously, there is a Russian flag on the North Pole under the Arctic Ocean) – and even on the Moon! Additionally, look at statues around the world, from the Sphinx to religious iconography in Afghanistan to the totem poles of earlier Americans. Of course, and I am not an environmentalist by any means, the land predates us; the animals on the land predate us. The land will be here billions of years after we go extinct. The land does not belong to us any more than you belong to your intestinal microbes. We are just one of a series of waves of occupation on the land. Every structure we build is on land that is not truly ours. I don’t dispute most of them; I only dislike governments trying to make us sentimental.

          1. I agree, Anonymous Sorry. Land doesn’t really belong to anyone. We invented ownership of land.

            Flags are symbolic. They can symbolize pride or patriotism. Pride is a human trait, but pride is also just abstract. It’s not something that needs to be acted upon, but it is nevertheless. Patriotism seems to be a similar concept that is acted upon even though one can be patriotic without the need to fly a flag, recite an anthem, or blow up fireworks on July 4th.

            I always liked the concept of “paying it forward.” Instead of the need to pay someone back for their kindness/help, we help someone else in need. Keeping this in mind (paying it forward), imagine that instead of commemorating someone with a statue, we are inspired by that person’s accomplishments or good deeds and do something to improve our community, someone’s life, etc. instead.

    3. But we don’t really put up statues anymore. They’re a Gilded Age thing.

      I love walking around parks and seeing the monuments to people and things that we would never honor now.

      1. The town I live puts up statues all the time. Even the school I went to recently put up a statue. What did the person do to deserve the statue, you might ask? They graduated. This might not seem like a big achievement given that just under a thousand people a year do exactly the same thing and have done so for roughly two centuries. But this one was slightly different. He graduated….and he was black. Statue worthy, indeed.

    4. Irena, thanks for writing this, my thoughts exactly. The Black Hills are gorgeous, and our country’s behavior in dealing with the Sioux has been reprehensible.

  2. No-one should ever forget the prescient words of Orwell:
    “Who controls the past controls the future/
    Who controls the present controls the past.”
    Anyone wishing to understand the courage of Shriver and the totalitarian nature of “wokeism” would do well to read Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, increasingly relevant today even though published seventy years ago and perhaps the finest book ever written by a longshoreman.

  3. “perhaps we can see both the good and bad sides of people at once: a concept unique to Woke Cancellers.”

    ‘Unique’ or ‘unknown’? Woke cancellers don’t enjoy a grand reputation for understanding nuance.

  4. Mr. Barron never argued that any council member was related to slaves owned by Thomas Jefferson.

    I just want to know if that is clear – that no evidence was presented for the direct descent of any single individual from slaves owned by Jefferson, nor was any suggestion used as a reason to do anything to the statue, by Mr. Barron or any council member past or present.

  5. Its unclear what the issue with slavery is. Slavery is not uncommon in Africa, India and the ME to this day, so if people really thought slavery was bad, we’d be focusing on stamping it out, not attacking someone from 200 years ago when the practice was accepted:

    Also, Muhammad owned slaves, the Qu’ran authorizes taking captives in war and slavery, should we ban Mosques, Islamic Studies? How can universities permit Muslims to pray and venerate Muhammad?

    Now, it is understood that the real objection is not to slavery, its only to dead descendants of Europeans who owned slaves before Europeans reached a moral consensus against slavery. However, isn’t it white supremacy to attempt to enforce a moral consensus invented by Europeans and imposed by the British Empire through colonialism? Its pretty racist to condemn Jefferson.

    1. I agree with your first paragraph, and would add a very important note: it was the values embodied by people who founded the US, who engaged in the slave trade in the UK, who weren’t slave owners but still racists because they were products of their times and places, etc. that eventually led to the abolition of slavery in Europe and the US. Slavery has been a fact of life for nearly the entirety of human history. It is only since the values of The Enlightenment and closely related movements since then that the idea of everyone being equal and, eventually, being cared for properly came into widespread existence. The very people who once owned slaves actually contributed to its abolition across wide swaths of the world by promulgating certain ideas and philosophies; in particular, they contributed to the abolition of slavery in the countries where people now condemn them and demand they be either erased or talked about only in the most contemptuous of ways.

      The Woke always want changes in thinking and actions (whether they be warranted or not, and usually it’s the latter) to take place overnight, but that’s not how people or societies work. And it’s important to recognize where the values we hold obviously true — like all people being equal — began, and how and by whom they developed and spread.

  6. I don’t agree with singling out any statue on public property (obviously, private property owners are free to erect any statues they choose). However, I don’t see why governments should be engaging in any kind of symbolism in the first place, from flags, to anthems, to statues, to national holidays. It all feels like emotional manipulation. Emotional buy-in prevents people from discussing history calmly. Look how much more divisive American politics became when people started identifying with political colors (red/blue); obviously, correlation is not causation, but symbols and emotional manipulation tend to reinforce each other. As a naturalist / atheist, I still like that many religions say ‘No graven images’; it reminds us not to idolize anyone or anything.

    1. Quick follow-up: obviously religions do it because they hate the competition. Unfortunately, they’ve kicked out all of the pedestals except the most important ones. Still, the idea is worthy. Religions, governments, corporations, and mafias all engage in monopolistic / anti-competitive action when it fits their needs, while trying to prevent others from doing the same.

    2. Politics is about handing out rewards and punishments, and who and what gets a statute signals who and what groups will get political favors, and who will get the stick. Also, democracy functions on a lowest common denominator often, so the right statute or street name can appeal to people’s ethnic narcissism, and might also get you elected mayor.

      Jefferson’s crime is not owning slaves (his enemies like slave owners if they aren’t European), but drafting the Bill of RIghts, which is the great threat to social justice. The point is to knock down Jefferson so that we can knock down the legitimacy of individual rights, the better to bring American society in accordance with the Cultural Revolution under Mao, break some omellettes, you know, rinse and repeat Communist terror and atrocities, which historically were okay, because Communists only do anti-racist mass murder of millions of people. Granted, the former Soviet Republics and China aren’t classless and raceless societies, but they just didn’t try hard enough.

    3. I agree with you completely, Anonymous Sorry. I’m an atheist as well, but I do like a few things that the bible delivers on….one of them is the idolization that you mention. This does become divisive whether we realize it or not.

    4. “However, I don’t see why governments should be engaging in any kind of symbolism in the first place”

      As Shriver wrote, “National mythologies help maintain the social fabric, which is alarmingly easy to unravel.” America was the first modern created nation and is built on a national mythology. Once that’s removed you see other ideologies fill its place, namely wokism and far-right religous authoritarianism.

    5. Without an emotional attachment, why would people fight to protect their country or their culture or their people? Up until a historical eyeblink ago, it was a dog-eat-dog world with territories shifting through warfare, and populations being dominated, enslaved, and even exterminated. (It’s still that way today in parts of the world.) It’s not at all clear that the current peace in the West will last. It’s not even clear that there is a peace as opposed to a cold war with, for example, Muslims who maintain a strong emotional attachment to their culture and way of life and, if demographic trends continue, will come to dominate Europe in the next century.

      An emotional attachment to your culture, people, and/or nation may be a necessary defense against external invasion and cultural dissolution. Eliminating it may be a form of utopian unilateral disarmament, like leaving your doors unlocked and your keys in the ignition, that will eventually lead to a collision with the real world and the real adversaries that exist in it.

    6. Governments do it because no populace can be governed or even defend itself unless it identifies as a people. That means having a history, a culture, shared values, etc.

    1. I would like to see that statue paired with Jamestown, NY’s “Scary Lucy” memorial to Lucille Ball. Google image it, if you don’t know what it looks like.

      1. OMG. Those two statues make a pair that could beat a straight flush. 🙂

        Few people have gone broke underestimating the taste of the American public, as Mr. Mencken pointed out.

  7. My state legislative building lacks almost any representative art – mostly just neo-classic imagery. One time, they put a mural in the Senate. The Senators decided it was horribly offensive (it was called The Labors of Hercules) and argued about it fiercely. Then they covered it in drapes. Then they had it removed. Our two replicates of the statues sent to statuary hall are in the building, and one will be leaving soon (the problematic Marcus Whitman). The other (Mother Joseph), I think will eventually fall out of favor as well. So, perhaps the answer is no more statues of actual people? I honestly don’t know. No one will pass everyone’s purity test.

  8. Much of what Shriver writes is irrelevant to whether the statues and other memorials of slaveholders should stay or go:

    1) “Expunging these seminal figures from America’s cultural landscape would mean closing the major tourist attraction of Jefferson’s home, Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia, and ploughing under the imposing Jefferson memorial in DC. Obviously, we’d have to bomb Mount Rushmore. We’d need to topple the Washington Monument, rename the federal capital, and rechristen Seattle’s state. Madison, Wisconsin, would need rebranding, likewise the plentiful towns called Jefferson, in Maine, New Hampshire, North and South Carolina, New York, Colorado, Wisconsin and Massachusetts. Road and building names such as “Franklin Street” and “Monroe House” across the nation would have to go.”

    This is the perfect argument for Germany not removing all the Nazi reminders after World War II – it would be too much work.

    2) “The man who wrote ‘all men are created equal’ in the Declaration of Independence also helped to draft a constitution in which a slave counted as three-fifths of a human being.”

    No. Jefferson had nothing to do with drafting the constitution. He was in Paris at the time of the Constitutional Convention and was not particularly pleased with the final version of the document. This ignorant statement by Shriver shows that her understanding of Jefferson is limited, to say the best.

    3) “National mythologies help maintain the social fabric, which is alarmingly easy to unravel.”

    Here Shriver presents the perfect argument why religion is good – it maintains the social fabric from disintegrating.

    People have the right to admire Jefferson, a man of words and not deeds regarding slavery. They can admire a man that did nothing to end slavery in the last decades of his life except repeating the mantra that it was “bad,” while arguing that Blacks were inferior to whites (not every white accepted this) and actually supporting the spread of slavery during the controversy over the Missouri question in 1820. But, Shriver’s defense of Jefferson is about as bad it could get.

    Symbols are important because they reflect the values of the society that creates them. Thus, religious symbols in public areas are items of intense debate, not because of the First Amendment, but rather the meaning people assign to them. When the values of a society change, it is perfectly reasonable to remove memorials to values no longer cherished. The drive to remove memorials to slaveholders can be called Woke, but the disposition of those on public property are decided by elected officials. If these officials were elected in free and fair elections and their actions are constitutional, then we are seeing democracy in action. Voting them out of the office is the remedy to discontent.

    1. Historian, who told you that the “values of (our) society have changed? We have fanatic anti intellectual ideologues trying their darnedest to impose them but resistance to them is growing. It is NOT reasonable to remove memorials unless and until there is a clear consensus, reached through open democratic debate and means. It is the suppression of these aspects of democracy that is being resisted. At the very least every New York City resident should have had the right to vote for or against removal of a public memorial (which is in fact a work of art….it is only a matter of time when the neo Stalinists start purging art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and others). No, NO ONE gave our elected officials the right to deface or remove art or memorials. The fact that a black city council member ended up, ethically, on the side of segregationists who claimed the right to limit the rights of blacks, should scare us all out of our wits. Stalin Lives.

      1. Very true indeed! These “woke” ideologues are certainly fanatical and anti-intellectual, as well as anti-democratic. The acolytes of the destructive and anti-rational cult of “wokeness” may be described as neo-Stalinist (not to mention neo-Lysenkoist), but perhaps the best terms are neo-Jacobin, neo-Bolshevik, and neo-Maoist.

      2. “No, NO ONE gave our elected officials the right to deface or remove art or memorials.”

        Really? Under a system of representative democracy, they have every right to do it if the memorials are on public property. If you don’t like their decisions vote them out. You also stated that you believe every resident of New York City should vote on the removal of the memorials. It is unusual to see such an advocacy of direct democracy – certainly the Founders opposed it. Are there any other powers that you would take away from elected representatives and give to the people en masse?

      3. … it is only a matter of time when the neo Stalinists start purging art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and others.

        Seems a bit hyperbolic, Lorna. And do you really want to submit exhibitions of works of art to majority vote? That would bode ill for the public exhibition of works deemed by many to be blasphemous or obscene, such as the photographs of Andres Serrano or Robert Maplethorpe.

        Let’s not have works of art held hostage to majority vote by philistines.

        1. The Art Institute of Chicago already purged its white people. Is removing art really the step they won’t take?

          1. First it will be taken down. Then it will be stored far out of sight or access. Then it will be sold to finance purchase of politically acceptable modern art, which will be displayed.

            1. “First it will be taken down. Then it will be stored far out of sight or access. Then it will be sold to finance purchase of politically acceptable modern art, which will be displayed.”

              The statues or the white people? 😉

        2. I concede your point; I did indeed contradict myself. But which is preferable? Allowing a small group (elected officials or trustees or art critics) to expunge public art? Or enabling the citizenry to determine the expression of works of art (or political opinions)? If these are the only two choices, then I opt for the latter because a public consensus does not involve
          the imposition of ideology on the rest of the public. However, personally I am a First Amendment fanatic and unlike the Soviet Union and other authoritarian states, and believe that nothing justifies or should allow the censorship or destruction of works of art. PS: the removal of symbols of Nazism or slavery (whether statues, books or public statements) seems to have been publicly approved in Germany without threatening other freedoms. But the massive campaign in the US to re=write history and purvey indoctrination to CRT (i.e. use public schools as the vehicle for promoting ideology) is far more dangerous than banning the Nazi party or expressions of anti Semitism. There is a spectrum of choices and I believe CRT has erased all of them except what favors CRT. It is the racialization of civil society that is behind this, and when it starts censoring dissent, it becomes an ally of the same mentality that guided Nazism.

    2. I agree with you, historian, that Shriver’s grasp of early US history seems to be very limited, she misunderstands the 3/4ths of a person clause as coming from the slaveholders when it is actually the slaveholding states who wanted to count slaves as full persons, and the non-slaveholding states insisted on reducing that.

      You see a similarity between removing Jefferson statues with removing Nazi symbols and Hitler photos and the like after WWII in Germany. But Nazism was a current and present danger in postwar Germany, most of the Nazi rank and file were still alive and the bureaucracies full of them, and the removal was ordered by the occupying powers as part of a reeducation effort. There is absolutely no danger of slavery being re-established in the United States today. Also, the Nazis massacred millions of people within the space of just a few years for the sake of getting rid of human beings they did not want in their empire because of their race, while slaves in the US were not materially worse off than menial agricultural and industrial workers in Europe at the time (as Robert Fogel and coauthor convincingly show).

  9. I think the solution to this problem is to make everything about the statue changeable. Put wheels on the suckers! Make the plaque display digital text! This way we can edit them to suit the arguments of the day. A sort of Wiki-statuary.

    1. I think this is a great idea. We could have Mr Potato Head like statues with interchangeable parts. New hero? New face. The only problem is that Mr Potato Head has been canceled due to it not being inclusive enough.

      NEW YORK (AP) — Is it Mr. Potato Head or not?

      Hasbro created confusion Thursday when it announced that it would drop the “Mr.” from the brand’s name in order to be more inclusive and so all could feel “welcome in the Potato Head world.” It also said it would sell a new playset this fall without the Mr. and Mrs. designations that will let kids create their own type of potato families, including two moms or two dads.

  10. I didn’t know that this hysteria had reached the stage of “decolonizing” by renaming streets in London. If every association of the historic British Empire with, uhhh, “empire” is to be cancelled, the Brits have plenty of work in store. To start with, Victoria Station and similarly named locations will have to go, considering that the namesake was declared Empress of India in 1876. And the adjective “Victorian” to describe an era will have to be removed from the English language. Will Canada follow suit, and do something about the name of the capital of British Columbia? Oh dear, the latter name refers back to that imperialist mariner who started the Spanish Empire. Why, the heavy work of renaming will prevent any further attention to anything else, such as contemporary politics, or the salaries of executives who pay so much attention to the association of names, statues, or rocks with past wrongthink.

  11. I find the whole idea so juvenile and stupid, maybe it is about power to some. The reason half of our current congress exist is for power and nothing else. They have already thrown away their virtue and any believe they had in democracy is under the bus. All they have left is their cult and their g*d sitting down in Florida calling the shots. If the one party left in this county does not soon come to their senses it will not matter what statues they remove. Voting will no longer be wanted and the outcome will be determined. People won’t need to remember last year, let alone what happened 250 years ago and more importantly, they won’t care.

  12. I really enjoy this site, everyone. I look forward to checking it each day. Everyone whose comments I’ve read seems intelligent and very scientifically literate. I don’t agree with some of the ideas expressed by some, including our Esteemed Host–but who cares? It’s good I see things and read things that don’t quite resonate. Anyway, thanks for this site and the interesting debates.

    1. Very true, I enjoy it too. I’d love to check in more often, but I am happy that the site lets me subscribe to articles via email. I pop in when I see something interesting in my inbox and I want to check out the comments. Well, and comics. Every time I see a new comic posted, I have to swing by, too.

  13. At this point I think we (or just “I”) need to know when and how the statue got there and for which reasons, and possibly who made it happen for which individuals.

    Because I do not recall this info.

  14. Count me among those who feel that statues, murals, and other monuments are vitally necessary to a good society. Time and Da Roolz won’t allow me to elaborate, but we humans need μύθος as much as, or maybe more than, we need λόγος. We irreligious shouldn’t be shy about using myth. Though we should strive to be rational, at core we are irrational animals. Myth employs narrative, art, and music, among other devices, to activate our instincts, appeal to our emotions, and rouse us to action. Consider the dominant myths in American society today: The authoritarian Right lives in the Myth of the God-King Trump, and the totalitarian Left lives in the Myth of the Woke Elect. We who live in neither myth need a strong one of our own, one motivating us to endorse and fight for liberal democracy, but this is lacking at the moment, so we are back on our heels and losing the day.

    1. > Time and Da Roolz won’t allow me to elaborate, but we humans need μύθος as much as, or maybe more than, we need λόγος.

      I understand that you want to make a point that this site won’t let you make, but that other sites will.

      > We who live in neither myth need a strong one of our own

      No, we don’t. We’ve seen too many godless national myths that have also hurt humanity, while too often being used as the raison d’être for empires. I have not seen any evidence that specifically national myth can be beneficial. If you want to embrace myth, you as an individual are free to do so without implementing it as a national myth. I have found much more beauty in non-national myths, from Discordianism to Star Wars.

      1. Let me clarify: I invoke Da Roolz not because I’m afraid Prof. Coyne won’t let me make my point– He and I have had an affable online relationship for years–but because Da Roolz forbid excessive or lengthy postings, and to fully elaborate on my point would require a lengthy post.
        You and I, then, must agree to disagree about the necessity of myth. I feel that we neglect the myths that nourish our society, and, to your point, our collective humanity, to our great detriment.

        1. I do find that society’s myths can be entertaining and enlightening, everything from Spongebob to Gilligan’s Island. We just don’t need governments reinforcing them on public land. If I want to embrace my childhood mythologies, I’ll go to Disney World. There are thousands of mythologies we can learn from; there is no reason for a government to support a specific subset. I enjoy mythology – but I know when to back away from it and engage in calm, rational dialog.

  15. I read up on Sadiq Khan giving out grants of 25 000 pounds each to activists wanting to change street names in London. Many of the statue toppling and street name changing activists cited in the article sound like unbalanced hate mongers to me.

  16. One thing is to argue for NOT erecting statues in the first place. Another quite different one is what to do with those that already exist. I can agree (or not) with the arguments for refraining from erecting new ones while at the same time rejecting the propositions (or the actual deed) of removing and/or destroying the existing ones. Some people here argue strenously for the first as if it was a good argument for the second. It is not.
    I will just state my own opinion: first: being “offended” is not the same as being “harmed” and I will not fall for that trick. Second: there is no intrinsic right not to be “offended” in a free society. Third: since “offense” can be of such subjective nature, it cannot be (most of the time) a very useful criterion for these kinds of social actions. virtually anything and everything will offend someone at any given time. What if the iconoclasts offend ME? It is jus a power play: some “offended” parties have (want to have) the power to make their “offense” count and inflicted upon the rest of society. Others “offended” parties are not supposed to count. Since these relations of power may be fluid, there can be no end to quarrels whenever subjectivity-lived experience-truth relativity-post rationality-woke puritanism is the law of the land.
    Third: No person is perfect. Whenever this things arise, I wonder “What would I (or any other current person) have done had I lived in those times?”. Today, saying that slavery is bad is a banality that requires zero moral fortitude. Having thought, said and fought for that centuries ago was a matter of heroism. The great(?) Aristotle once wrote that slavery was the most natural of things. Would these present day iconoclasts activists-heroes have held the same current values and acted upong them had they lived in the times the statues they want removed were erected? I don’t think so.
    Again, just my (surely offensive) opinion.

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