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Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

Opinion

Should Trump resign? A Confederate statue come down? BLM rethink its targets?

King St. Louis IX statue in St. Louis.
Ryan Ashelin/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

Some quick comments about hot current events.

The President's tweets

It was reprehensible for President Donald Trump to retweet a video where a Florida supporter yelled, "White Power." He quickly deleted the tweet. Did the president knowingly share the offensive slogan -- or was he not paying attention to the video's content? If he knew it was there and still sent it, he should apologize and resign. Let Mike Pence take charge. (Update: A White House spokesperson said, "He [President Trump] did not hear the one statement made on the video.")

Black-on-Black shootings

Black Lives Matter protesters gathered at the Cape Girardeau County courthouse over the weekend to demand "justice" for Madison Robinson, a 15-year old Cape Girardeau girl who was murdered last year. Witnesses originally identified a 29-year old man, who was quoted as threatening those who might testify against him. The witnesses are no longer cooperating. Both the victim and alleged perpetrator are Black. Local BLM fails the credibility test by blaming police and the justice system for the lack of progress in this investigation, and it is perverse of them to use Robinson's death out of context to incite impressionable young people. Activism for activism's sake is no virtue, especially when it sows hatred and disunity.

The problem of Black shooting deaths in Cape is certainly not because of excessive use of force by law enforcement, and to their credit, some local protesters have identified Cape PD's positive and sustained outreach over the years. But there is a shooting problem in our town, and it is drug- and gang-related. It is also mainly Black-on-Black. This scourge costs more Black lives than what BLM is protesting.

Move the statue

Being asked about the erection of a memorial to the Confederacy, Gen. Robert E. Lee once wrote: "I think it wiser... not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered."

Lee was wrong about wanting to erase history, but he was right to caution about memorializing civil strife in monuments. Too often, Confederate statues -- which harken the subjugation of men and women in slavery -- merely keep open the sores of racism.

In Cape Girardeau, a Confederate soldiers' memorial sits on the grounds of what will be the future City Hall. It was originally dedicated near the river during a time in our country's history -- nearly 70 years after the end of the war -- when some in the South sought to recast history away from the stain of slavery. Or worse, to intimidate Blacks. The memorial has no historical tie to its current location where it was moved in 1995 with a total lack of foresight (or even aesthetic positioning) by county administrators at the time. Or if it does have a historical connection, it is a tragic and devastating one: It is near an area that was once used for slave auctions.

The monument should be moved. It should go to a museum and placed in context. Or moved to a cemetery, befitting its marker to those who died. But it is not something that should be glorified at what will be a new City Hall of a good and charitable town. Recently, the Cape Girardeau Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously (8-0) to immediately remove and place the monument in storage, then strategically and historically review its placement. The City Council would be wise -- and courageous -- to follow that recommendation at its meeting on July 6.

Vandalism is wrong and counterproductive

Meanwhile, two individuals -- as caught on videotape -- vandalized the memorial with a "Black Lives Matter" slogan. How stupid. There is a reason "Black lives matter" has resonance, but the activist organization "BLM" turns so many people off with its threats and bellicose rhetoric. And worse, its national support of vandalism, looting and arson is destructive and counterproductive.

What also undercuts the movement are the acts of those who tear down and vandalize statues. Do many of them even know the histories of some of those they target, or are they just fueled by indiscriminate rage (or intoxicated in the moment)? In all cases: better to petition for change (a Constitutional right) and persuade (not extort) the Democracy, rather than to foment mob justice, which rarely ends well.

Assessing public statues of individuals

Here is my personal recommendation for assessing statues. First, what was the reason for erecting the statue originally, and how does that purpose stand relevant today? In some cases, the cause will be so far distant and removed from present life that the statue is largely irrelevant beyond its aesthetics. (For example, how many people actually associate Yale and Stanford Universities with their namesakes? Or have problems with the statue -- Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture -- atop the Missouri capitol dome)? In other cases, the purposes were dark and meant to intimidate -- for example, Confederate statues erected during the Jim Crow era -- that still have repercussions today.

Second, what aspect was being honored? And how does that relate to the rest of the individual? For example, we do not honor Thomas Jefferson because he was a slaveholder -- or that it is likely he fathered six children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, all but her whom he freed in his lifetime. Statues of Jefferson honor him for writing the Declaration of Independence (described by Martin Luther King, Jr., as a "promissory note"), which gave us the Constitutional tools and high-minded ideals that have empowered our nation's aspirations for equality, freedom and justice. As president, Jefferson doubled the size of the country through the Louisiana Purchase, among many other accomplishments. It is for these -- and not his failures and flaws -- that statues were erected, schools named and countless children -- including Black children -- christened.

If all statues were to be assessed only by the individual's worst aspects -- and compounded by ignoring historical context -- then few humans would qualify.

Then there are statues of historic figures who fall in both the above categories, for example: the namesake of the city of St. Louis. Pulling down the King Louis monument in front of the art museum there -- as a mob sought to do over the weekend -- would accomplish little but a short-term, narcissistic thrill, while creating a huge backlash. There is nothing just about destroying beloved, non-ideological art in such a way. And the attempt to do so should not be met mainly by the protection of private individuals (who confronted vicious verbal attacks while repeating the rosary), but by city government and the police. Saint Louis, by the way, if you do not know his history, is quite remarkable for his good deeds.

Finally, and this I will admit is a bias that I have, which others might not share. The artistic merits of a statue should also be taken into consideration. It alone is not reason to keep something in a glorified position if it dramatically fails other tests. But art, too, has value and great art deserves its own reckoning (by adding context if needed, rather than removal). Tearing it down or blowing it up out of ideological pique draws perilously close to becoming the Taliban or Isis.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian.

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