As Statue Removal Drags on, Robert E. Lee Arguments Get Dumber by the Day

Jim Schutze
Jerrel Sustaita is painting the Lee memorial in what we assume are its last moments. But how long will its last moments last?
All this online nattering about how much money the Dallas mayor and City Council are wasting on taking down the Robert E. Lee memorial is just insipid. True, the takedown, estimated to cost about $500,000, is taking too long. But the delays have been unavoidable, and the penny-pinching argument is transparently insincere anyway.

Speaking only to the Robert E. Lee pinch-pennies now: You did see the Charlottesville, Virginia, riot on TV and online, did you not? You do understand that Mayor Mike Rawlings and the council are trying to avoid exactly that kind of horrible black eye for the city?

And you did notice, I hope, that all of this was stirred up in the first place by the ultra-right-wing, neo-Nazi, white nationalist people. When you’re done pinching pennies at City Hall, are you going to hold the race-baiters to account for any of that cost? Why not?

Otherwise, I wonder if you know what all of your bitching about the cost of taking down the statue looks like. It looks like straining and straining, bending over backward to find some pretext to cover the fact that you’re on the side of the white nationalists in this. If so, hike up your drawers and spit it out.

That also goes ]for the argument I’m seeing online and hearing on my frequent trips to Lee Park: Taking down the statue, some people say, won’t change anything.

It’ll change one thing. There won’t be anything here for the Nazis to march around at night with their Home Depot tiki torches.

You know, I see some pissed-off, middle-aged white guy stalking off from the barricades at Lee Park with his wife in tow, bellowing back downhill at her, “I DON’T SEE HOW TAKING THAT STATUE DOWN IS GOING TO CHANGE ONE DAMN THING!”

No. It’s not going to change him. Nobody thought it would. The vote of the Dallas City Council last week was not to take down the massive double-equestrian statue at Lee Park in order to change the minds of people set in their ways.

The vote was to take down the Lee statue in order to deprive the white nationalist movement of a focal point in Dallas, to provide a lesson and message for the kids who will be the future leaders of the city, and to make a statement about the kind of city this is.

When I see the guy stalking off, uttering oaths about how taking down the statue won’t change one thing, I hear him saying that nothing will change his personal view of race in the society. That’s what this is about. Race. Why is it about race? Because the white nationalist movement is making it about race. It's making everything about race.

Did anyone honestly imagine that people would be able to stand up in this society in this day and age and preach racism and not expect a powerful reaction? In Turkey, in Russia, in China, in Germany, in Cambodia, in Rwanda, in Bosnia-Herzegovina: All over the globe throughout the 20th century, humankind witnessed the horrific slaughter that ensues like clockwork when preachers of ethnic and religious hatred get into positions of influence and control.

And, yes, racial pride does equal race hatred. Basing your innermost identity on anything so stupid and artificial and nonexistent as race is the first step down the steep and slippery path to Klandom.

And, yes, again, we do hate it. We despise it. The rest of us revile it. We look down on it — way, way, way down. And we want to get that message across.

I have spoken with lots of perfectly reasonable people who have qualms about the removal of the Robert E. Lee equestrian monument from Lee Park. I have changed my mind about it at least once. Some people have qualms based on the monument's value as a work of art. Karen Gavis wrote an objective piece for us on the art value question last week.

click to enlarge
William Barret Travis was a slave hunter before he was a hero at the Alamo.
painting by Henry McArdle
Dallas Morning News art critic Rick Bretell made a more partisan pitch for keeping the statue in place, based mainly on his contention that the sculptor, Alexander Phimister Proctor (1860-1950), was not racist. The thing I noticed missing from Bretell’s piece — the one thing he would have been better qualified to speak to than just about anybody — was how important Proctor was as an artist.

Bretell talked a lot about how popular the artist was in his time and how many big commissions he got. But what about the work? Is it so original, so important artistically that its artistic value outweighs the racist baggage heaped on it when it was commissioned and again by the neo-Nazis? That would take one big heap of artistic importance.

Another argument I get from people is that nobody thinks about the statue. White people don’t think about it. Black people don’t think about it. Worrying about Robert E. Lee seems like an Old South thing to do, and this is Texas.

Yes, but that’s only because Texans, white and black, tend to be so stupendously and blithely unaware of their history. Texas was created for and about slavery. Texas fought Mexico for independence six years after Mexico outlawed the importation of slaves into Texas in 1830. William Barret Travis was arrested by Mexican authorities as a slave hunter years before he died at the Alamo.

Nineteenth century accounts of slavery and the shared recollections decades later of the last living former slaves painted slavery in Texas as more savage and brutal than in the Old South. Well into the mid-20th century, black people continued to work on cotton plantations in Texas in a condition of debt-peonage only technically different from chattel slavery.

Bretell’s piece tells us that the sculptor of the Lee monument called his autobiography Sculptor in Buckskin, a title that conjures up what is maybe the most powerful moral camouflage in western American and Texas history — buckskin. It’s as if anybody clad in animal hide can’t be all bad. I have always wondered why on earth anyone believes that.

At least the arguments from art and from history are sincere, however insufficient. I can’t say the same for the penny pinchers. At a time like this, with racial issues dominating our national political dialogue, does somebody really believe the important thing is how much it will cost to pull down a statue?

I don’t think they do. Unlike art and history, the penny-pinching argument is a thin disguise — thinner even than buckskin — for people whose sympathies lie closer to white nationalism than they are willing to admit, even to themselves.