Fountain arrest

Helena resident Trisha Sorenson was arrested Aug. 18 after refusing an officer's order to move away from the Confederate fountain, which was removed from a city-owned park in Helena later that day.

Thom Bridge, Helena Independent Record

About the only monument I can find being removed in Billings is a tin cup attached to a county courthouse monument honoring slain Yellowstone County Sheriff James T. Webb.

No one is quite sure when the tin cup on a chain went missing, but the cup served as a drinking tin for the water fountain meant to honor a law enforcement officer killed while pursuing a bad guy.

Most think the communal drinking cup went missing during one of the flu epidemics in the 1910s.

Apparently, no one thought much of the missing monument piece because, well, everyone drinking from the same cup does seem a bit gross.

I suppose you could also count a Ronald McDonald statue that briefly went AWOL only to be found in a tree at Pioneer Park a missing Billings monument.

But those are nothing like the monument debate that continues to swirl around the Confederate memorials. Even far north Montana is not immune to the controversy. This summer, Helena removed a Confederate statue from a city-owned park.

As someone who has written books and articles on history, I get heartburn when it comes to the idea of sanitizing or whitewashing history. Most of human history can be viewed as a testament to at least one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

However, history is a clever, almost cunning distraction in the monument debate. 

It's easy for largely white, middle-class men to miss that all of those statues of Confederate heroes are more than just re-creations, they're incredibly powerful symbols. And those statues honor men who were born into privilege and even after being defeated in war, continued to maintain a stranglehold on power in the South.

I have Confederates in my family tree, and yet I don't believe anyone is trying to rob me of history or heritage. I also have another side of my family history that has taught me about monuments.

One of the more disturbing things I've seen is television accounts of Russians holding up pictures of Josef Stalin or arguing to save statues of arguably history's most brutal tyrant. It turns out that some Russians long for the good ol' days of Uncle Joe whose planned society was so much easier than the uncertainty of capitalism today.

But I cringe because many of my relatives who were left behind in Russia were never heard from again because of Stalin's paranoid purges that killed the remaining Volga Germans who didn't seek refuge in places like the Yellowstone Valley. 

Like those great-great-grandchildren of Confederates, I never knew the family left behind in Russia, but I nonetheless feel sorrow for a heritage and cultural connection that was erased and oppressed.

In that way, pictures and statues of Stalin become more than just items bearing his image. They become reminders of murder, oppression and brutality. They remind people like me -- half a world away, generations later -- that my family had to flee to survive or be killed.

When people argue that knocking down statues of Confederates is an attempt at erasing history, that strains credulity. After all, do those who would drape themselves in the "Stars and Bars" really believe that America will cease to teach the Civil War? Will we forget that slavery was the key issue that touched off the bloody conflict? Unlikely. 

Just as Germany scrubbing every vestige of the Third Reich hasn't stopped the country from teaching World War II, toppling a couple of Stonewall Jackson statues won't cause a collective amnesia.

What we may fail to appreciate is that those statues are more than just bronze replicas. Statues and monuments -- the kind put up in public parks -- are more than just names. They are also permanent reminders of what values we hold dear. In the case of the Confederacy, I'm afraid we're doing more than just remembering those soldiers who died for their brief, backward country. Those monuments stand as a testament to terror, slavery and against the cherished American idea that all men are created equal.

Surely, we have better -- more American -- ideals that are worthy of chiseling into granite. 

Monuments to the Confederacy send the wrong message -- not just now, but to every successive generation which comes along.

If I am wrong -- if monuments are only some kind of neutral depiction of the past, like a photograph in marble -- then that must mean the Lincoln Memorial is little more than a marble mausoleum to the 16th President, or that the Statue of Liberty was just some gift from France.