The city of Memphis recently took down two Confederate statues, prompting retaliation from the Tennessee state legislature. While this Republican driven imposition on local government seems to be within the law, there is also the question of whether the removal is right or not. While there are various arguments advanced to defend keeping Confederate monuments in place, I will consider two: the appeal to heritage and the appeal to history. While the two are similar, they are distinct enough to warrant considering them separately.
Heritage is something inherited from the past and, in this context, it would be a feature of the culture. While the term usually has a positive connotation, it is neutral in actual meaning since a heritage might include terrible things. In terms of how heritage differs from history, a heritage belongs to a specific group and is thus limited. History, though it is about particulars, belongs to everyone and more will be said about this latter.
The appeal to heritage argument is typically quite simple: Confederate statues are part of the heritage of certain people, heritage should be preserved, so these statues should be preserved. The obvious challenge is showing that this sort of heritage should be preserved.
One way to do this is to own the evil of the Confederacy, specifically the fact that it existed to defend slavery. This is, of course, part of the heritage of the United States as whole. This approach obviously justifies the preservation of such monuments to evil as Auschwitz. Unfortunately for this approach, these statues praise their subjects rather than condemning their misdeeds and memorializing their victims. Obviously enough, defenders of these monuments generally do not own the evil that is the heritage of America as such they are advancing a narrative that is contrary to the facts of history and more will be said about this later. As such, the heritage argument only has merit if the truth of the heritage is owned. To embrace a sanitized version is to reject the facts of history. This, appropriately enough, takes us to the appeal to history.
History, in the sense of Herodotus, is not merely the recording of events but their analysis. History, as an academic discipline, is supposed to be as neutral as possible. Unlike heritage, which is inherited by specific people, history is for everyone. As should come as no surprise, appealing to historical value can be a very reasonable way to argue for preservation of artifacts.
It is easy enough to make a case for preserving artifacts of terrible and evil events. As noted above, Auschwitz is rightly preserved as an historical site—it is a place of great significance. The same is true of memorials to victims of lynching. These examples show that historical value is consistent with moral value judgments, so the Confederate monuments could be defended on the grounds that keeping them preserves history.
In terms of preserving these monuments, the key concern is the justification of the preservation. It could be claimed that the monuments are being preserved in a neutral manner: they are simply historical artifacts preserved because they are old and supposedly significant. While some monuments to the dead were constructed after the war, the vast majority of Confederate monuments were raised during the Jim Crow era and obviously intended to send a statement to African Americans. As such, claims about historical value have little merit—unless the argument is that the tools of intimidation from the Jim Crow era should be preserved as relics of evil.
A rather obvious problem with arguing that these monuments are neutral historical artifacts is that they clearly honor the subjects—while a statue can have historical value, merely representing an historical figure is obviously not a good reason to preserve them. We do not, for example, have statues for Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer or mass shooters simply because they are historically important. Interestingly, there is a statue for Benedict Arnold that honors his heroism before he became a traitor.
If the statues are defended in terms of moral values, it would have to be claimed that slavery, treason and racism are good and should be honored. This is absurd on the face of it, though certainly appealing to modern racists.
One interesting variation on the appeal to history argument is the erasing history argument. This argument is that the monuments should not be removed because doing so would erase history. There is usually an analogy made to ISIS and how they endeavored to destroy various historical sites.
While historical artifacts should be preserved, this argument is easy enough to counter. As already noted above, the monuments are not historically significant in the sense being claimed. They were constructed during the Jim Crow era to send a message to African Americans. As such, they would be worthy of preservation in a manner similar to having monuments on the site of a lynching—they are artifacts of something awful. There is also the rather important point that keeping them in place means that they continue to function as intended: as statements of racism and instruments of intimidation.
In terms of erasing history, removing a monument that honors the Confederacy does not erase history: the artifacts will, in general, be preserved and the historical record remains. While there have been attempts to revise the history to make it about things other than slavery, the history of the South remains recorded. As such, removing the statues does not erase history. Rather, it expresses a rejection of the values of racism and slavery.