Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says that the Trump Administration will not remove Confederate monuments from federal lands out of consideration for the feelings of “native Indians.”
“Where do you start and where do you stop?” Zinke asked a Breitbart reporter in an interview published Sunday. “It’s a slippery slope. If you’re a native Indian, I can tell you, you’re not very happy about the history of General Sherman or perhaps President Grant.”
This is a mildly innovative take on the “where do you draw the line?” argument that various members of the Trump administration — and countless conservative commentators — have been rehearsing, ad nauseam, since a bunch of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville successfully revived the defense of Confederate monuments as a national political issue. But Zinke’s iteration of the question isn’t any harder to answer than its predecessors.
It simply isn’t very difficult to find a limiting principle that would allow one to take down statues of Confederate generals, while preserving most other monuments to key figures in American history. Here are two:
1) Is the individual in question historically noteworthy primarily for their service to an evil cause? In other words, was their contribution to said cause their principal legacy?
2) Was the monument in question erected with the explicit intention of celebrating that evil cause?
William Sherman was a racist who participated in what we would now call ethnic cleansing operations against Native American tribes. But this is not what he is primarily remembered for, nor is it his principal contribution to our nation’s history. Rather, Sherman is best known for helping to preserve the union — and thus, end American slavery — by bringing total war to the American South. That Ulysses S. Grant is not primarily remembered for his (terrible) treatment of the Plains Indians would seem to go without saying.
By contrast, Robert E. Lee’s principal historical legacy was taking up arms against the United States in defense of the Southern elite’s right to enslave — which is to say, rape, beat, breed, and kill — human beings with dark skin, at will.
To see the absurdity of Zinke’s rhetorical question, imagine a German official saying that it would be misguided to take down a statue of Adolf Hitler, because then the Chinese might start complaining about statues to Kaiser Wilhelm, who instructed German troops to “mercilessly” put down the Boxer Rebellion.
Now, this is not to say that one shouldn’t judge historical figures by their treatment of Native Americans. But the fact that Grant and Sherman made other significant contributions to our history means that when American communities memorialize them with statues, they do not, typically, do so as a means of celebrating the mistreatment of indigenous peoples.
And here lies the most important distinction between statues of Confederate generals and those of Union ones: The latter were not typically built during the Jim Crow era, to celebrate the restoration of White Supremacy after the end of Reconstruction; the former, typically were.
In his Breitbart interview, Zinke said, “When you try to erase history, what happens is you also erase how it happened and why it happened and the ability to learn from it.”
But when Zinke suggests there is no distinction between monuments to Union and Confederate generals, he erases how the latter were erected — and why.