Privatize the statues

In an age where there is no consensus on which historical figures should be honored by public monuments – except maybe Dolly Parton, and I’m sure someone will find a reason to cancel even her before long – J.D. Tucille of Reason says the state should get out of the statue business altogether and leave it to private organizations to honour whomever they wish:

What all of these statues had in common is that they offended members of the public at a time when everything is up for grabs and Americans agree on exactly nothing, including the proper balance of virtues and flaws in fallible human beings. The majority of statues torn down were erected at taxpayers’ expense, maintained on land paid for with money extracted from everybody’s pockets, and offended (rightly or wrongly) people who resent being represented by them.

Less controversial has been the decision by the American Museum of Natural History to remove a statue of Teddy Roosevelt from its front entrance. While the statue is officially on public land, it clearly is intended as part of the museum and is seen as such. The museum is a private entity and is no longer comfortable with the way the statue represents the organization—a decision it has the right to make.

Much the same is true of the statue in Seattle of Vladimir Lenin, the communist dictator of the Soviet Union. While Lenin was a totalitarian and a thug, the statue is located (hilariously, given the subject’s militant socialism) on private property, leaving its fate in the hands of its owners.

And that, in an age in which there are few shared values or heroes, is the best way to deal with monuments. We no longer agree—if we ever did—on which qualities should be celebrated and what failings should be overlooked. We’re increasingly vocal about such disagreements, to the point that people are willing to tear down statues that offend them, and any future images are bound to cause more offense.

A statue on private property, erected with funds only from supporters, dragoons no unwilling parties into the message it expresses. Nobody need feel that they’re being forced to share in the celebration of people or ideals they oppose. A private construction can be left up as long as it pleases the owners or pulled down at their whim. And anybody who damages or destroys the monument without permission is an obvious vandal, subject to appropriate punishment.


If the confinement of monument construction to a private activity sounds like we’re giving up on the idea that we have much in common to celebrate, that’s probably true. But agreements of the past were overstated anyway. African-Americans didn’t just recently start resenting paying for statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest—they’ve had reason to loathe him from the beginning.

Now, the old disagreements are just more visible than ever and new ones set us ever-further at odds.

To give us less reason to fight, make all statues private projects, to be erected and maintained at the expense of the willing. Private funding of monuments won’t eliminate our disagreements, but it should help keep the resulting conflicts out of the streets.

I think this idea actually has a lot of merit, if you assume people are willing to respect your right to keep what you want on your private property.


One thought on “Privatize the statues

  1. M says:

    I think realistically this isn’t going to come down to a single solution. Seeing some monuments come down simply because a mob wants to tear something apart, without stopping to ask questions about whether it made sense, has drawn attention and begun to garner constructive input such as the article you cite above and an article in the Bulwark. It started with a thought that made sense – taking down monuments which should have gone to a museum long ago, preferably with historical context so people could learn from them. With enough input from intelligent, thoughtful people, which is starting to happen, this will gel into something sensible in the end. I doubt we’ll see an end to public monuments altogether. Given a bit of time, people will step up with creative ideas that reshape our ideas around public monuments. It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with.

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