Nearly every city, no matter how small, has at least one public monument. These artifacts commemorate a vast range of subjects—fallen soldiers, national heroes, famous battles, city founders, rebels, religious leaders, martyrs, countercultural icons, artists, abstract ideals like freedom, and more. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are recent; others, ancient. They have only one thing in common: they depict something that someone, or some group in power, at a given point in time believed was worthy of commemoration.
Read an argument in favor of removing Confederate statues: “The Slag Heap of History”
Among the monuments that I have strolled past in San Francisco over the last half century, three stand out in my mind, for very different reasons. The first was the bronze statue of Christopher Columbus at the base of Coit Tower, atop Telegraph Hill. I live nearby, so I walked past this statue all the time. As familiar objects do, it became something like an old friend. It should go without saying (although it doesn’t anymore) that this doesn’t mean that I had entirely positive feelings about Columbus, his legacy, or what he represented. Like everyone who got past sixth grade in California, I knew that Columbus was both a towering figure in world history and a deeply flawed one. I also knew that his statue was erected as a symbol of ethnic pride in 1957 by San Francisco’s Italian American community, which for the better part of a century was centered in North Beach. All of that knowledge informed my feelings about the old statue.
The second work was the Francis Scott Key monument, which was installed in 1888 on the eastern end of the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park. I couldn’t give much of a damn about the guy who wrote the national anthem: I’m not that big on enforced patriotism, and whatever red-white-and-blue feelings Key’s song inspired were dampened by a lifetime of quasi-mandatory obeisance to it before sporting events. But I was fond of his monument because it inspired a perverse little sing-along that my daughter and I engaged in whenever we walked by it. On the monument’s base were inscribed the four verses of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Few people know any of the national anthem’s verses except the first, but it turns out that the third verse is remarkably harsh and hateful toward the British invaders, filled with phrases like “Their blood has washed out / Their foul footsteps’ pollution.” We would sing this verse, cracking up at the contrast between the absurdly vitriolic lyrics and the flag-waving melody.
The third monument was an 1894 statuary group called Early Days, which formed part of the Pioneer Monument on Fulton Street, just north of the main branch of the library. Early Days depicts a hooded Spanish priest pointing to heaven and looming over a muscular, reclining Native man (inappropriately represented as a Plains Indian), who looks up in passive, childlike awe while a debonair dismounted vaquero, a Mexican-era Californio in full riding costume, stands off to the side, holding up his hand as if twirling a lariat or summoning guests to a fandango. I was fascinated by this work because its depiction of the encounter between the priest and the Native man was so weirdly Gothic and because it was the only monument in San Francisco I know of that honors a Californio.
None of them could be classified as great art, but they each contributed their own unique note to the city symphony.
Today, all three of these monuments, and many others, are gone. Some were removed by the city; others were toppled by protesters, carted away by officials, and not returned.
This should never have happened. It’s time to ask ourselves why it did—and to start a candid discussion to prevent it from happening again.
San Francisco was one of the earlier American cities to subject its public art to moral cleansing—Early Days was removed in 2018. But in the aftermath of the protests and riots that followed George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, cities across the country began scouring their public art collections, removing works that officials deemed offensive. Across the South, dozens of monuments to Confederate generals and soldiers were taken down. On the West Coast, statues fell from San Diego to Seattle. In Los Angeles, protesters toppled a likeness of Junípero Serra. A statue of John Sutter was removed from a Sacramento hospital. In Portland, activists knocked over memorials to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt and vandalized and burned The Promised Land, a monument depicting a pioneer family. In San Francisco, protesters in Golden Gate Park tore down statues of Serra, Ulysses S. Grant, and the aforementioned Key. For good measure, they tossed red paint on the statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza kneeling before Miguel de Cervantes, apparently either mistaking Cervantes for a colonialist overlord or urging fictional characters to rise up against their oppressive creators.
Under normal circumstances, this abrupt and violent assault on venerable city monuments would have aroused considerable opposition, from many quarters—arts and park officials, free speech advocates, preservationists, historians, those disturbed by destructive mobs, and, simply, lovers of the rich fabric of urban life. But because the crusade marched under the banner of social justice and purported to be giving a voice to the marginalized, and because it took place during the national upheaval that followed the killing of George Floyd, criticizing it was tantamount to declaring oneself racially unenlightened, if not an outright bigot. In city after city, officials lined up with the protesters. San Francisco was no exception. The city’s Arts Commission said the Columbus statue, which was taken down on June 18, 2020, was removed “because it doesn’t align with San Francisco’s values or its commitment to racial justice.” The day after the Golden Gate Park rampage, Mayor London Breed called for a review of all the city’s public art to make sure it “reflected” the city’s “values.” And, then as now, few San Franciscans spoke out in protest.
For anti-monument activists, the righteous cause of empowering previously marginalized groups and striking a symbolic blow against racism outweighs other considerations. As for those who are ambivalent about the crusade, or even opposed to it, conversations with a number of San Franciscans indicate that their reluctance to speak out is the result of not wanting to appear to be against the cause of racial justice when the stakes seem relatively low. How much does it really matter, after all, if a few statues disappear from public places?
It actually matters a lot, for a variety of reasons. Since George Floyd’s murder, there has been little open discussion of these issues. But more than two and a half years after the “reckoning,” to use the term frequently used to characterize the national convulsion that followed Floyd’s death, it should be possible to have a more dispassionate conversation about some of the actions taken in the name of social justice. The reckoning itself needs a reckoning.
The protesters who toppled the statues in San Francisco and Portland, to choose just two cities, claimed that the historical misdeeds of the figures depicted made them unworthy of being memorialized. Columbus treated Native people with appalling cruelty, Key and Washington were slave owners, Early Days portrayed California’s Indigenous people as passively subjugated, Lincoln signed the death warrant for 38 Sioux fighters who were executed in 1862 (the largest mass execution in U.S. history), and Roosevelt disparaged Native people and held eugenicist beliefs.
All of these charges are true. But that doesn’t justify the removal of the statues.
The new iconoclasts use three criteria, all fundamentally flawed, to judge historical figures. First, they embrace a “one sin and you’re out” standard, refusing to weigh people’s shortcomings against their achievements. Second, they assess leaders from the past by contemporary standards—a rudimentary error known as “presentism.” Finally, they refuse to consider whether individuals’ problematic beliefs were widely held during their time—another basic mistake in historical evaluation.
An equally fundamental error is the activists’ assumption that monuments have the same effect on viewers now that they did when they were installed. This assumption fails to recognize that monuments are historical artifacts, and the way many people receive them changes with the passage of time. Consider San Francisco’s Pioneer Monument. Even if a large part of its original message was propagandistic, the way we read that message today is not the same way people read it in 1894. Its meaning has been inherently transformed by the passing years. The work originally glorified the pioneers, but because San Francisco and the world are different places now, that glorification is distanced, and the monument inspires reflections on that distance. Like all monuments of a certain age, it has become a commentary on itself—a meta-monument.
In addition, monuments are often considerably more complex and multidimensional than their critics assert. Again, think about Early Days. There’s something ominous, perhaps sinister, about that looming priest and something noble in the majestic physiognomy of the Indigenous man; there’s reason to think the work’s artist may have had as much sympathy for the Native person as for the colonizer—maybe more. This would not have been a heterodox view at the time. Helen Hunt Jackson’s hugely influential novel Ramona, which drew attention to the tragic plight of California’s Native people, was published in 1884, 10 years before Early Days was installed. And then there’s the third figure, the stylish Californio vaquero—the only celebration of the Latinos of early California in a 19th-century San Francisco statuary work, as far as I know. Even if we accept the activists’ accusations regarding the other two figures, should a work that uniquely recognizes the forebears of the state’s Latino population be canceled?
The new iconoclasts also assume that the existence of an objectionable monument means that the city endorses the views it represents. This is obviously not true. The city of San Francisco, where every meeting of the board of supervisors is preceded by an acknowledgment that the meeting is taking place on Ramaytush Ohlone land, clearly does not endorse the Spanish colonial project or the destruction of Indigenous peoples and cultures (and as we’ve seen, Early Days itself does not necessarily do so, either). For decades, nearly every major power center in American society—governmental, corporate, academic, in the media, in the arts—has promoted antiracism messages. If the anti-monument activists are trying to win over those institutions, they are fighting an enemy that does not exist.
These fundamental errors reduce the entire anti-monument crusade to a crudely gestural form of civic discourse, closer to displaying heads of heretics on the city walls than to reasoned debate. But to the protesters and their supporters, that doesn’t matter. It all comes down to power: Because they claim to be victims of the monuments, they get to decide what to do with them. They, and only they, have standing, in the legal sense.
Arguments made from standing have acquired almost sacrosanct status in the current political climate. Yet these arguments are actually quite dangerous because they give inordinate power to claims of victimization. Claims that civic monuments are deeply hurtful often have an artificial, ginned-up feeling, reminiscent of the joke about the old lady who called the police because, she said, the people across the road were having sex in public view. The police officer looked out the old lady’s window and said, “I don’t see anything.” The old lady replied, “You have to climb up on this ladder!”
Once claims of victimization become the benchmark for deciding what to do with public art, simply the act of protesting, or vandalizing, confers veto power. In Portland, an ordinance was passed stipulating that statues can be removed if they become the target of “overwhelming public objection,” including “social justice–oriented graffiti,” for at least two years. Want to get rid of that statue? Get out your Magic Marker!
Further, basing power on standing—that is, handing total control over an important public decision to a given group, even a previously marginalized one—is antidemocratic and just plain wrong. Of course the opponents of the monuments should have a voice, but so should every other stakeholder—which means every resident of San Francisco or Portland or Los Angeles or any place where these civic disputes are occurring. No one denies that white men once enjoyed hegemonic status in the United States. But two wrongs don’t make a right, and replacing the hegemony of one group with that of another is not progress. It ultimately disempowers citizens of all races, ethnicities, genders, or classes, and it enshrines identity politics, which is essentially separatist. The idea that being a member of a given group confers some special privilege is antithetical to the notion of a color-blind society dreamed of by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Fighting to preserve historic monuments may not appear to be worth the effort. After all, why risk being accused of being a reactionary or racist over a few old statues? But it's a fight worth engaging in, for two related reasons. First, monuments themselves are a form of free speech. They are part of the marketplace of ideas. To remove them is to restrict public discourse and literally to erase history. Second, monuments provide a rare and invaluable insight into what a given group, and to different degrees society at the time as a whole, thought about various subjects. San Francisco is a diminished place because it no longer has a public monument that reveals what many Californians in 1894 thought about the Spanish colonial project, Indigenous people, and the Californios.
Monuments are a vital part of the intellectual, historical, and aesthetic texture of a place. It may be easier to grasp this by considering other cities. Imagine Paris, Madrid, Rome, or London without their monuments—many if not most of them depicting figures that would abjectly fail the virtue test imposed by our new cultural commissars. What a loss! Are we Americans really so fragile, so aggrieved, so one-dimensionally moralistic, so easily manipulated by guilt that we cannot live with reminders of our flawed, complicated, and glorious past?
Finally, public monuments offer the best opportunity to educate citizens about the very historical injustices those monuments are said to embody and perpetuate. They are invaluable teaching opportunities. By dismantling statues of figures they deem objectionable, activists claim to be enlightening the public about racism, colonialism, misogyny, and so on. But the lesson taught by simply removing the monuments is like the message sent by a Stalinist show trial: crude, Manichaean, and intolerant. A far more effective lesson would make use of the monument itself. For example, what could be a more vivid and evocative site than Early Days for students to learn about the tragic impact on the Native people of all three colonialist groups in California: the Spanish, Mexicans, and, in this case, genocidal Americans?
It will be objected that some monuments commemorate figures or events that are so offensive that they cannot be allowed to exist. Should a statue of Adolph Hitler be allowed to stand in a town square in Germany? Or Saddam Hussein in Iraq? Or Pol Pot in Cambodia? And what about the statues of Confederate figures, many of them erected in the 1920s and 1930s by virulently racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan? If those monuments are taken down, on what basis can one argue against removing others that are considered unacceptable, such as the ones discussed already?
It’s not easy to defend allowing a statue of a monster like Hitler, Hussein, or Pol Pot to stand. But if somehow such a statue were to be found (monuments to murderous tyrants are invariably destroyed by the people they victimized), it could legitimately be preserved as a history lesson and cautionary tale. The same holds true for monuments of Confederate figures. A statue of Robert E. Lee could be balanced by one of a Black hero of the time, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, or Abraham Galloway, along with a nuanced historical evaluation of Lee. A society able to accept the existence of such monuments would be a mature society, one able to face the complexity of its past.
With monuments, as with free speech in general, the answer should be more, not less. Don’t remove Early Days because it (accurately) depicts Indigenous people of California as subjugated by American colonizers. Instead, commission a statue of Estanislao, the Yokuts leader who fiercely resisted defeat, fighting Mexican troops to a standstill in what would become the county named after him.
Unfortunately, today’s righteous slayers of statues, and their official abettors, are likely to continue their wrongheaded and destructive crusade, not least because it is one of the only ones they can win. Unable to rectify the actual, and tragic, race-related problems that afflict the United States, they seize upon low-hanging fruit, chasing substitute “victories” that are little more than virtue signaling.
That virtue signaling has a civic cost. As I walk by the empty spaces where Early Days and the Christopher Columbus statue and the Francis Scott Key monument once stood, those gaps appear as mute testaments not to social justice and racial progress but to self-righteous folly.•