You can change the way a place looks, but you can’t change the history that made it that way.
That’s a reality that the tragedy in Charlottesville, and the current uproar about Civil War monuments throughout the United States, can’t transform.
Viscerally, I understand the confused, angry feelings of an African-American child staring up at a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, or any of the 1,500 similar monuments throughout the country.
And I understand the white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen and bigots who feel justified and supported in their inexcusable racism by the existence of those monuments. But those irreconcilable differences in American life will continue even if – and after – all those 1,500 statues are torn down.
The United States has been taking down statues since five days after the Declaration of Independence was ratified, when soldiers and citizens pulled down the Statue of King George III in Manhattan. The famous painting below documented the moment:
The same futile strategy has been used around the world, for centuries. There were many examples in both the Old and New Testament. Medieval Christians smashed sculptures of Ancient Rome. Spanish conquerors destroyed temples of the Aztecs and the Incas.
Survivors of the Second World War destroyed representations of Hitler:
In 2001, the Taliban destroyed giant statues of the Buddha in central Afghanistan.
In 2011, Libyan protesters took over the Tripoli palace of Muammar el-Qaddafi, demolishing a bust of his head, and toppling another statue of a golden fist crushing a fighter plane. Mr. Qaddafi was killed two months later, but Libya is still in chaos.
And this year, Islamic State militants destroyed ancient remnants of the civilization of Palmyra, Syria.
The vindictive need to keep destroying images of our “enemies” – and our enemies themselves – is deep-seated in humans. But there’s a basic level of humanity expressed by Rodney King in 1992 and that so many people continue to feel: “Can we all get along?”
Thirty years before Rodney King, Jane Jacobs was writing about urban parks, like Lee/Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, but her thoughts are relevant for Charlottesville, Baltimore, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Louisville and hundreds of other communities, large and small:
“Neighborhood parks fail to substitute in any way for plentiful city diversity. Those that are successful never serve as barriers or as interruptions to the intricate functioning of the city around them. Rather, they help to knit together diverse surrounding functions by giving them a pleasant joint facility; in the process they add another appreciated element to the diversity and give something back to their surroundings.”
We can’t change history, no matter what we do, but even the white supremacists and neo-Nazis can try to come to terms with it, and with diversity.