It’s Time to Change the Statue Statute

Amidst the arguments (see Andrew Schwartz) and worse (see Rob Schilling) regarding the fate of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue, one item caught my eye – a bizarre state law that bans cities from ever removing war memorials once erected (Washington Post).

In Charlottesville, the council’s vote may ultimately be nothing more than symbolic. Those opposed to the statue’s removal intend to file a lawsuit in the coming days, and they’ve pointed to a state statute that says Virginia towns have no authority over the war memorials they inherited from past generations.

“If such are erected,” the law reads, “it shall be unlawful for the authorities of the locality, or any other person or persons, to disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected.”

Indeed, that is exactly what the law states (LIS Virginia), and with all due respect, that law should be changed.

The notion that Richmond can tell a locality what it can or cannot have as a memorial is bad enough – although, one could argue Richmond is merely acting to defend said localities past decisions. That does not, however, make the law any less tyrannous – it merely compounds the problem by imposing a tyranny of the past upon the present.

Usually it is the reverse (known as presentism) that gets our attention. Indeed, the aforementioned Mr. Schwartz’s post takes direct aim at it. I would humbly submit, however, that fighting tyranny with tyranny is unwise, either in time or space.

More to the point, this law – enacted first in 1950, and now being used in defense of a statue commissioned in 1917 – does not even “defend” the mid-19th century, but rather an early 20th century interpretation. One can argue the need to defend past history from presentism, but defend past historiography, which is the real subject at hand here, is far less convincing.

Lest we forget, our arguments about the past almost always come from the past itself. General Lee’s supposed veneration was hardly universal in Virginia even during 1917 – let alone during the War of the Rebellion. One could argue – and indeed, I would argue – that much of the Confederate venerations (Lee included) came from a post-Reconstruction whitewash (literally and figuratively) of the Rebellion itself.

That may seem harsh, until one remembers the near complete absence of memorials to Confederate officers who chose to oppose the Master Race Democracy of the 1870s and 1880s. James Longstreet, William Mahone, and John Sergeant Wise have far fewer monuments to them than Lee, Jefferson Davis, and many others. I hardly think that’s a coincidence.

Wherever one stands in this debate, I hope we can all agree it is a debate worth having, and should not be short-circuited by statute. It’s time the law be amended to allow these statues to be removed, if the localities wish that.