If you’ve ever seen the Stone Mountain carving of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson in Georgia, you’ll never forget it. I saw it as a boy, having no idea what it meant or much knowledge about the trio it celebrated, but it has stuck in my mind like few sites I’ve ever seen. It is the largest bas-relief on the planet. The scale of it can’t be registered except by seeing it in person. Nothing else in this country compares except maybe Mount Rushmore.
My friend and boss Rich Lowry writes that conservatives should take no interest in the fate of monuments to the Confederacy because it was a wicked cause led by traitors to their nation. I’m a Yankee going back generations who has never felt any emotional investment whatsoever in the Southern cause. But by what principle should Confederate monuments be taken down from their public places while the most notable, most gigantic display of them all stays up? If we grant the argument that any public work that celebrates the Confederacy is a celebration of slavery, and that works celebrating slavery should (at best) be removed from public squares and cordoned off in museums, with appropriate instruction to place them in their proper context, shouldn’t we agree with Stacey Abrams, who argued in 2017 that the images of Lee, Jackson, and Davis should be blasted off the face of Stone Mountain? That might make us a bit Taliban-like, but at least we’d be Talibanning for the cause of anti-racism.
Not all slopes are slippery, but the one we find ourselves on is a plane of ice, covered with an oil slick, that is being shaken by seismic activity. Giving mobs space to destroy rarely placates them; instead, it whets the appetite. Once you’ve signaled that the mob is morally justified, you may find yourself ignored when you blow the whistle and say, “That’s enough, guys.” Just after Rich published his column, protesters pulled down a statue of George Washington and burned an American flag in Oregon.
Rich thinks Confederate statues should be removed not by angry mobs but lawfully, with due process. That’s like saying the death penalty should be realized by medical injection rather than bloody guillotine. The end result isn’t much different. Once it’s open season on monuments, any man of marble or granite has cause to tremble. Statues of Winston Churchill, Mohandas Gandhi, and the Pennsylvania abolitionist Matthias Baldwin have all come under attack.
Rich and others draw the distinction that Americans whose fame relies solely on treachery and taking the morally wrong side in the most destructive war in our history should be denied statues and other public honors. Since we agree with our friends on the left, and even rioting mobs, that Lee and the other Confederates betrayed their country, we should agree with them that these statues need to come down, though delicately instead of riotously.
But the crime of which the Confederates stand guilty in the eyes of the mob is not treachery; “rebel,” “transgressive,” and “iconoclast” are the highest of compliments on the left. If you’re tearing down statues of George Washington while burning the American flag, loyalty to the United States of America is not what’s on your mind. No, the crime the Confederates committed that is today unspeakable was racism, not treason. That is the same crime of which Washington, Jefferson, Churchill, Gandhi, Columbus, and many other historical figures can (fairly) be accused. Three-quarters of Mount Rushmore is tainted, along with its sculptor — the same artist who was initially hired to sculpt Stone Mountain.
But racism is so interwoven with our history that there is simply no escaping it. If we have to confirm our opposition to racism and slavery by removing all figures associated with these evils, we can’t stop until the Washington and Jefferson memorials are taken down, or at least renamed. We can’t stop until most of the early presidents are removed from the currency, their statues stored away, and all of the places named after them renamed. How does it make sense to remove a statue of Columbus in Columbus, Ohio? Which of these honors is more visible and hence more offensive — a single hunk of stone or the very name of Ohio’s capital city? All of the places named after Columbus, from the capital of Ohio to the District of Columbia to the Ivy League university in Upper Manhattan, would also have to be renamed.
There would be such a cacophony of sandblasting, removing, and rewriting from coast to coast that we’d all soon be overwhelmed by the scale of the project, at which point there would be a collective sense that this was all a folly. We’d all stop and realize that no matter how satisfying it may be to pretend it lies within our power to declare it’s Year One, none of these revisionist acts would be doing anything about the underlying fact, which is that there is a lot of racism in American history.
You may find the Stone Mountain carving either horribly magnificent or magnificently horrible, but the grandeur of it tells us something about ourselves and our past. How can it be that it was so recently the case that these men were considered heroes? The relief wasn’t completed until the civil-rights revolution was well underway. Just to add one more shocking insult to the whole sordid saga: It opened in 1965 on the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Yet the Stone Mountain memorial is, finally, just speech, albeit speech in service of a moral outrage. The response to misguided speech should be more speech, corrective speech. As Rich says, these monuments “deserve to be reevaluated,” and so they are. That is well underway. The Stone Mountain memorial and other Confederate monuments are today an opportunity to teach our children about racism. If we remove them, future generations will scarcely comprehend just how powerful and enduring racist iconography was, just how attached Southern leaders were to the Lost Cause for an entire century afterward. We should be brave enough to face up to our collective past rather than sweep it under the rug.