Absence and present values: A thought on monuments

I’ve just been reading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, and came upon this passage, that is relevant to current debates about maintaining monuments to once-admired figures who have now fallen into disrepute:

[The Republican Party] did gain the support of General James Longstreet, whose example inspired some Confederate veterans to follow in his footsteps… General Longstreet’s decision to join the Republican Party made him an object of hatred among Southern Democrats for the remainder of his life. When he died, in 1903, the United Daughters of the Confederacy voted not to send flowers to his funeral, and unlike other Confederate generals, no statues of Longstreet graced the southern landscape.

It’s incredibly naïve to say, monuments should stay as they are because they are part of history. They’re not. History is history, but monuments are present expressions of an attitude toward history. Sure, the statue of Robert E. Lee that was recently taken down in New Orleans was itself a historical artifact, and part of (a certain period of) city history, but the curatorial choice of what to keep is a statement about our current values. To the untrained eye, the statue was not a monument to 1884, when it was put up, but to 1863.

If you really want it to be a monument to 1884, and the intervening time when it has stood, so that the public could appreciate the “history” represented by the erection of a statue of Robert E. Lee (or of Cecil Rhodes), you would need to be able to make them see not only the statue that is present, but also the statue that is absent (of General Longstreet, say, or Olive Schreiner). But an absence can never compete with a presence in its impact on the viewer. So Lee and Rhodes must fall.