U.S. President Donald Trump has tweeted he is “sad” to see United States’ history torn apart by the removal of “our beautiful statues and monuments,” echoing a popular refrain of white supremacist groups that oppose the removal of Confederate monuments.
This got me thinking about the power of monuments, and why we erect them and then at some point — decades or even centuries later — sometimes want to tear them down.
It’s happened before, or course. The so-called Islamic State has made it part of its mission to destroy ancient monuments like they did in Palmyra, Syria. They do it because they see them as an insult and a violation of their extreme interpretation of Islam.
WATCH: Drone footage shows famous Palmyra ruins retaken from ISIS (March 2016)
The Taliban did it in Afghanistan, blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the statues carved into the cliffs back in the 4th and 5th centuries. The Taliban considered them offensive to their religious beliefs.
We consider it the destruction of the world’s cultural heritage. We think of those ancient monuments as precious and believe they should be preserved. President Trump seems to believes something similar — that once you’ve got it, you keep it.
So what is the value of a statue? Is it really about the statue or monument itself, something erected so long ago that — let’s face it — many people no longer even recognize the person or know the full history. They evolve into symbols, and in some cases can be powerful symbols of wrongs committed in the past.
That’s the case with the Confederate statues and monuments erected in the United States after the Civil War. Some say they mark history and honour heritage. Others say they are racist reminders of America’s dark history of slavery and belief by some in white supremacy.
At the heart of the violence in Charlottesville, Va. was the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. It was erected in 1924, 59 years after the end of the Civil War, and during what had been a time of extreme racial violence.
WATCH: Trump defends Confederate monuments as more come down
Southern whites pushed back against what little progress had been made by African-Americans in the decades after the Civil War. The body count of black men, women and children who were lynched went up the same time as many Confederate monuments did.
Lee himself — who died just five years after the Civil War — resisted efforts to build monuments in his honour and instead wanted the nation to move on from the Civil War. He was clear about what he thought of memorials to failed insurrections.
“I think it wiser,” he wrote in an 1869 letter, “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”
The great-great grandson of Lee said this week he doesn’t mind if the statue comes down. He told CNN that his family “feels strongly that General Lee would never stand for that sort of violence.” And he added that “maybe it’s appropriate to have them in museums or to put them in some sort of historical context.”
That seems wise.
History is certainly a great teacher and in our fast-paced modern world driven by the distraction of clickbait, we tend not to have time for it. We ignore it at our peril.
The problem today isn’t really the symbols, however — it’s the attitudes and lack of knowledge about history. The removal of statues won’t heal what’s wrong in the United States. ISIS and the Taliban ripping down and blowing up world heritage sites may have made them feel powerful, but it hasn’t aided their cause or helped spread their beliefs.
And if all the Confederate memorials were ripped down this week, the problems with race and inequality will still exist within the United States.
Dawna Friesen is the anchor of Global National, the flagship national newscast for Global News.