Tag Archives: Robert E. Lee

an obliterated artwork … jejune writing

Robert E. Lee – NY Times 10-27-2023



“The Most Controversial Statue in America Surrenders to the Furnace”

By Erin Thompson

The New York Times

October 27, 2023


The piece is verbose, bloated, windy; and is way too long for an op-ed.

Generic writing characterized by simplistic formulations that are foreseen as sounding good to the target audience, but which, in themselves are simplistic and nonsensical. It’s equivalent to the type of writing (in different venues) known as psychobabble.

One can imagine (the writer is a professor) the writers of such essays being products of the educational system predominant now and which seems to have existed since the 1970s, in which English composition classes were watered down — and anything purporting to be a statement of a student’s views was judged to be worthy of an A, despite questions of intellectual rigor and what our English teachers in the 1960s told us to avoid: fuzzy writing and generalities.

Some of the broad, sweeping, meaningless assertions — devoid of any informational content or substance — are highlighted by me below in bold. The quotations are from Professor Thompson’s op-ed.



Last Saturday in a small foundry, a man in heat-resistant attire pulled down his gold-plated visor, turned on his plasma torch and sliced into the face of Robert E. Lee. The hollow bronze head glowed green and purple as the flame burned through layers of patina and wax. Drops of molten red metal cascaded to the ground.

[Roger W. Smith: re “Drops of molten red metal cascaded to the ground.” I highlighted this sentence because it is meant to affect us with a profound sensation as a poet or novelist might do — or, if not quite that — to achieve a rhetorical affect. like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

Here it is bathos.]

I stood next to Andrea Douglas and Jalane Schmidt, who had invited me to witness the last moments of the figure that had gazed down on Charlottesville, Va., from atop a massive steed from 1924, when it was installed, until 2021, when it was removed by the City Council. Dr. Douglas and Dr. Schmidt are the founders of the Swords Into Plowshares project, a community group that led a campaign to melt the statue down and use the metal to make a new public artwork. ,,,

Lee’s journey to the melting pot began more than seven years and two lawsuits ago, when a Charlottesville high school student, Zyahna Bryant, started a petition to remove the monument. “I am offended every time I pass it,” she wrote. “I am reminded over and over again of the pain of my ancestors.” The Charlottesville City Council voted to move the statue, but a lawsuit was quickly filed by a coalition of Confederate heritage supporters to keep it in place. A series of rallies by Klan members, white nationalists and others sought to protect the “world of gods and heroes like Robert E. Lee,” as Richard Spencer put it while leading a tiki-torch-lit march. …

Yet we never reached any consensus about what should become of these artifacts. Some were reinstalled with additional historical context or placed in private hands, but many simply disappeared into storage. I like to think of them as America’s strategic racism reserve.

What should we do with them? Just leaving them there for some future generation to deal with dishonors the intensity of emotions for all involved. But each possible outcome has costs and consequences. Each carries important symbolic weight. And no, we can’t just give them all to the Smithsonian.

The way our communities dispose of these artifacts may influence America’s racial dynamic over the next century, just as erecting them did for the hundred-year period now ending. Three years after George Floyd’s death, seven years after Ms. Bryant’s petition, 99 years after the monument’s installation and 158 years after the end of the Civil War, it’s high time we start figuring this out.


… Dr. Schmidt … described the Lee monument as “a lie from the time it was put in.” More than half of the residents of Charlottesville and the surrounding county were enslaved during the Civil War, meaning that “the majority of our community was elated when the Union troops came.” …

But as her perspective evolved, Dr. Schmidt no longer wanted to put Lee in a museum. She was thinking of something much more primal.

Confederate monuments bear what the anthropological theorist Michael Taussig would call a public secret: something that is privately known but collectively denied. It does no good to simply reveal the secret — in this case, to tell people that most of the Confederate monuments were erected not at the end of the Civil War, to honor those who fought, but at the height of Jim Crow, to entrench a system of racial hierarchy. That’s already part of their appeal. Dr. Taussig has argued that public secrets don’t lose their power unless they are transformed in a manner that does justice to the scale of the secret. He compares the process to desecration. How can you expect people to stop believing in their gods without providing some other way of making sense of this world and our future?

Swords Into Plowshares might have been the first to propose melting, but other communities are working out their own creative visions for Lee’s afterlife. …

Covering this story over the past few years, I’ve come to realize two things. First, when a monument disappears without a ceremony to mark why it is coming down, a community has no chance to recognize that it has itself changed. (Ideally the ceremony is public, but because of safety concerns, the melting I attended was not.) Second, if you are outraged that something’s happening to your community’s heroic statue of Lee, you’re not going to be any less outraged if the statue is moved to some hidden storeroom than if it’s thrown into a landfill. So if all changes, large or small, will be resisted, why not go for the ones with the most symbolic resonance?

[Roger W. Smith: “the melting”: this is new jargon indeed, a neologism that is ridiculous … what is “a melting?: .. is it of the same order of words as a christening or a seance?]

That’s why the idea to melt Lee down, as violent as it might initially seem, struck me as so apt. Confederate monuments went up with rich, emotional ceremonies that created historical memory and solidified group identity. The way we remove them should be just as emotional, striking and memorable. Instead of quietly tucking statues away, we can use monuments one final time to bind ourselves together into new communities. …


A very different process is consuming the world’s largest Lee, who rides, 76 feet tall, across the granite cliff face of Stone Mountain, just outside Atlanta. …

Lee’s face was the last piece to go into the crucible. Given how often the monument and its ideals were celebrated with flames — from Klansmen’s torches to the tiki torches of white nationalists in 2017 — it seemed fitting for flames to close over the monument.

— posted by Roger W. Smith

October 2023




The Washington Post also published on op-ed:

“Lee’s statue is gone. What it unleashed remains.”

By Theresa Vargas

October 28, 2023


Reader comments touched upon the question of destroying a work of art. I feel that this is regrettable and depressing to contemplate. It’s similar in my mind to the removal of the Theodore Roosevelt Statue from in front of the Museum of Natural History three years ago.

A few random comments from the current Washington Post article:


* * *

What you’re missing is that it’s a work of art. Shall we destroy paintings of [Lee] and other people in history that we disdain today? A statue is no different. Did you read the story of Napoleon’s statue? He was forced out of France into exile. But the statue is art.

* * *

Somehow your reasoning feels disingenuous. When art causes maltreatment of another, it needs to be done away with.

* * *

The Lee statue was not a work of art. Art informs. Art brings joy and peace. Art is inclusive. This statue was erected during the height of the Jim Crow era to intimidate Black Charlottesville residents. Learn your history. And don’t begin that journey by looking at statues.

* * *

Are you aware that the National Portrait Gallery in Washington has a portrait of Benedict Arnold hanging on its walls? What’s the difference here? It’s a work of art, my friend. Put it in the Smithsonian.

* * *

You mean blasting off the images, like the Taliban did to the Buddha statues at Bamiyan?



See also my posts:


“I like it the way it is.”

“I like it the way it is.”


pompous pontificating, clumsy locutions, a tissue of generalities; doublespeak … how NOT to write

pompous pontificating, clumsy locutions, a tissue of generalities; doublespeak … how NOT to write


how to say nothing in 1,035 words … generic writing II

how to say nothing in 1,035 words … generic writing II

“After Racist Rage, Statues Fall”


“For more than a year, members of the Baltimore City Council, like officials in many communities across the nation, had drifted indecisively about the fate of the city’s increasingly controversial Confederate monuments. Then, last weekend, white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., violently resurrected the frightening ghosts of the Civil War.

“That settled the issue in Baltimore: On Monday night, the Council voted unanimously to take down the statues. On Tuesday night, in an unannounced, unceremonious action, four statues were torn from their pedestals as the city slept, with no throng of witnesses or protesters in attendance.

” ‘It’s done,’ Mayor Catherine Pugh told her city on Wednesday morning. She explained, ‘With the climate of this nation, that I think it’s very important that we move quickly and quietly.’

“That is sound advice. The racist rage in Virginia and President Trump’s shamefully sympathetic response have prompted local and state politicians to encourage community peace by weighing the future of Confederate monuments civilly and unapologetically, even if the president has not.”

New York Times editorial, August 17, 2017



My thoughts.

It wasn’t “sound advice.”

But, then, the New York Times editorial board is distinguished (meant sarcastically) for churning out soporific, boring, tone deaf, and not particularly well written editorials — most of all, boring — that demonstrate almost no original thought and provide no insight.

The editorials proclaim the liberal party line with no thought or consideration of what other viewpoints might possibly be entertained. You can almost see a “thought checker” (think fact checker) going through them line by line to make sure they are doctrinally correct.

Nihil obstat.

They sermonize. Nuanced thought is not in evidence.

Often, it seems to be the case, the editorials get written before they are actually written — that is, the Times policy wonks put their heads together and decide what the ideologically correct position should be. After that, writing a few paragraphs is a breeze; anyone with reasonable competence in writing could do just as well.



Regarding this particular editorial.

What about (omg — can I really be saying this! I’ll be called alt-right!) the statues, monuments, colleges, cities even, named after Saint George (Washington) and his companion in stone on Mount Rushmore Thomas Jefferson? Slaveholders both. They were both great men and are iconic figures. They were also (perish the thought!) imperfect, as happens to be true of mankind en masse and taken as individuals: you and I; larger than life figures and the rest of the humanity. Of Saint Augustine and William Jefferson Clinton. Of myself and my next door neighbor. Should memorials to historical figures be destroyed to remove the cloud of racism?

Why not take down statues of Andrew Jackson? Slaveholder, oppressor of Native Americans. Why not GOD? (Removing all public monuments in his honor will involve a massive public works program.) After all, he acted like a tyrant; he was always smiting some group or other in the Old Testament. And, why do Washington and Jefferson get a free pass? All slaveholders are evil, it would appear, but some are more evil than others.



Feelings, concern, sympathy for the “great unwashed,” aka “deplorables” (on the part of the Times, that is) for the Common Man? Fuhgeddaboudit. The Common Man has not been venerated since the Great Depression induced writers such as John Steinbeck and composers such as Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson to pen and compose songs of praise. The Times hews to current intellectual fashions. The Common Man is not in fashion any more — in fact, he has become an embarrassment to those who consider themselves enlightened and superior in views and taste — except among Trump supporters.

All the Times Editorial Board cares about is its core audience of readers: what they think, about the consensus of “enlightened” liberal opinion. Ergo, they have nothing new, interesting, or enlightening to say. But, then, they’re policy wonks, not good writers or deep thinkers. I would be willing to bet that Edmund Burke couldn’t get hired, for sure; he wouldn’t have passed an ideological litmus test.



Who was it who said that hindsight is 20/20? History should be studied, but it shouldn’t and can’t be scrubbed clean in the name of correcting past wrongs.



Perhaps ISIS could be hired as subcontractors to take their sledgehammers to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. After all, they’ve had experience.

— Roger W. Smith

  August 17, 2017; updated September 6, 2017



Note: The Times editorial reads: “She explained, ‘With the climate of this nation, that I think it’s very important that we move quickly and quietly.’ “ [italics added].

This seems to be a typo. But, then, the Times has fired almost all of its copyeditors. Not a good move. The Executive Editor, in his wisdom, and his underlings apparently decided that they weren’t necessary. As a former proofreader, copyeditor, and freelance reporter, I know how essential they always were and still are.




To the Editor:

Re “After Violent Weekend, Calls Beyond Virginia to Remove Civil War Statues” (news article, Aug. 15): Robert E. Lee would have been appalled by anything honoring the Confederacy or his service to it. He worked very hard to bring the country back together and actively opposed all the “the South will rise again” movements.

Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln would be equally horrified by the desecration of memorials to Confederate war dead, as both considered them to be Americans (even if misguided). Grant stopped he dishonoring of Confederate dead after several battles and ordered that they be treated with the same respect as the Union dead.

The South lost, and its sons and daughters have bled and died for the United States in every war since. It’s way past time to move on. We are all Americans, and we need to look at the serious internal problems (economy, infrastructure, jobs) and external problems (North Korea, China, Russia, Venezuela) facing our country.

— Chris Daly, Yucaipa, Calif.; letter to the editor, The New York Times, August 17, 2017


To the Editor:

Has anyone considered that those engaged in tearing down images of certain icons of the past are following the barbaric examples of the Taliban and ISIS, whose practice it has been to destroy relics of the past that they have found to be offensive to their particular sensibilities? Let’s put a lid on the frenzy.

— William M. Green, letter to editor, The New York Times, September 2, 2017




“He’s [said of New York City mayor Bill de Blasio] going to create some kind of star chamber to see who’s politically correct and who’s not,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, a historian who edited The Encyclopedia of New York City, echoing other historians who have cautioned against the rush to remove statues and monuments.

“It’s almost like McCarthyism of a reverse sort: Let’s find out who has got something in their closet that they should be ashamed of. I don’t think we need this,” he said.

“Ordering Review of Statues Puts de Blasio in Tricky Spot,” The New York Times, August 30, 2017




St. Augustine’s father, Patricius, had slaves. His vineyards in Thagaste in Northern Africa were worked by slaves. As a boy, Augustine (Aurelius Augustinus) had a slave attendant who took him to school.

As a young man, Augustine, a professional (his occupation was rhetorician), and later in his mature years, had, as would any well born Roman of his class, numerous slaves in his household, some of whom would accompany him on his travels when required (to, say, transport things a traveler needed in those days, and perhaps also his manuscripts).

A question. Augustine is merely one example, but can we expect demands for Augustine to be perhaps stripped of his sainthood or lowered in status and reverence due him should it come to be known that he was, in effect, a slaveholder?

The question may seem ludicrous, but I think it can be fairly asked, how far back is one prepared to go in an attempt to cleanse history and, supposedly, to “redress wrongs” by demoting revered figures now standing on virtual pedestals? And, how does one make choices about who is out and who is in (perhaps not entirely “clean,” but for some reason not to be punished with what might be called “unperson” status” in this recasting of history by self appointed revisionists, a polite way of saying historical thought police”)?



Responses to “After Racist Rage, Statues Fall”


Tom Riggio says:

August 17, 2017

You get no argument from me, Roger. Or the ACLU, which has taken sides with the right of the supporters of keeping the statues, with the idea that the Constitution and Bill of Rights guarantees the freedom to express one opinions, even if others find them horrific. Of course, the guy who killed the young women is a murderer and should be punished severely for his crime. If both “sides” would abide by this constitutional right, there would be two sides to the question but not violence in the streets. The parents of the dead women sent the right message, refusing to hate the killer of their daughter, though not condoning the act and the ideology behind it. We get this sort of reaction in the case of abortion as well: there are those who criminalize the abortionists and those who criminalize the pro-life people. Same sort of idiocy.


Roger W. Smith says:

August 17, 2017

Thanks much for taking the time, to comment, Tom.

Of course, my post was focused on the destruction of statues.

You may find relevant my post “is it possible (or desirable) to hold two divergent opinions at the same time?”



P.S. I listened carefully to what people who were at the rallies in Charlottesville had to say. I believe them and not Trump. But, I agreed with Trump when he said that we should not go around dismantling statues, and what he said about Washington and Jefferson.


Carol Hay says:

August 18, 2017

There’s a big difference between Robert E. Lee, who fought to preserve slavery and who fought to tear this country apart, and the founding fathers who created our government. Should statues of Hitler and Nazi monuments be preserved because they are part of history?


Roger W. Smith says:

August 18, 2017

Regarding the last sentence of what you said above, Carol, that is a good question which bears thinking more about (which I will). However, I don’t think it simply invalidates what I said in my post: many of my other points and the fact that Washington and Jefferson, slaveholders both, are treated so differently than defenders of slavery such as Robert E. Lee and John C. Calhoun (who wasn’t mentioned in this post).


Roger W. Smith says:

August 31, 2017

Carol — I think what I said in my post “is it possible (or desirable) to hold two divergent opinions at the same time?”



is relevant here.

You can always find exceptions, egregious cases, but that doesn’t invalidate what I am saying here about the mass hysteria that has become rampant to cleanse history by getting rid of any vestige or taint of attitudes now considered racist or otherwise reprehensible by modern day standards.

There have been times when statues of dictators were being toppled, and I found myself cheering in absentia: say, if a statue of Stalin gets removed in Russia, and I didn’t much care when I saw news footage of a crowd toppling a statue of Saddam Hussein, around which they had wound a rope they pulled it down with.

As Walt Whitman put it: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself.”

Of course, “the revisionists” who want to tear down all sorts of statues and monuments and rename buildings contradict themselves as well: Andrew Jackson, a slaveholder, for some reason seems to get a pass; so do Washington and Jefferson. The argument that Washington and Jefferson were Founding Fathers and were on the right side of most issues (meaning on the right side of history, so they came out smelling like a rose, their sins forgiven) doesn’t wash. They should be held to the same strict standards as the others are, if we are going to enforce rigid political correctness retrospectively.