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Real people are more important than statues

Columbus’s days in Boston may be numbered. The time to remove statues of Confederate traitors elsewhere is long overdue.

A damaged Christopher Columbus statue stood in Boston's North End neighborhood last week before it was removed.
A damaged Christopher Columbus statue stood in Boston's North End neighborhood last week before it was removed.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Al fresco dining has returned to the North End.

So have vandals.

Somebody decapitated the Christopher Columbus statue last week, the latest act of vandalism carried out by people who consider Columbus a genocidal maniac.

My grandmother, a native of Connemara, always insisted St. Brendan got here before Columbus and didn’t hurt anyone. But that’s another story.

The Columbus statue has been frequently targeted since it went up 41 years ago. Somebody chopped its head off 14 years ago, and over the years it’s seen more paint than my house.

Some Native Americans resent the glorification of Columbus, seeing him not as some noble explorer but a racist opportunist bankrolled by an imperialist queen to exploit indigenous people.

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Americans of Italian descent take exception to that characterization, seeing Columbus as a hero who inspired them and others to come to these shores.

This is a slippery slope. Native Americans have some valid points about Columbus, but mob rule is not the ideal way to resolve disputes over what belongs in the public square. There should be some democratic process, or else it’s open season on anything and everything. What’s to stop some aggrieved Knicks fan from dousing Red Auerbach’s statue in Quincy Market with blue and orange paint?

Mayor Marty Walsh says the city opposes vandals taking matters into their own hands. He and others are trying to figure out what to do with the currently headless Columbus, not to mention the weirdly paternalistic statue in Park Square depicting Abraham Lincoln towering over a submissive slave.

Whether or not Boston says Goodbye Columbus, it’s healthy to reexamine history and reevaluate how we pick who we honor with statues, how long we keep them, and what to do when we find out they had feet of clay.

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Some statues never should have gone up. Most are down South. Respectful memorials to the Civil War war dead of both sides is one thing. Showing Confederate leaders on horseback as heroic idealists? Please.

Calling someone who opposes the president you voted for a traitor is an opinion. But it is a fact that every supporter of the Confederacy was a traitor, especially the military and political leaders. They took up arms against the United States to defend an economy and society built on slavery. Confederate generals are not worthy of statues. They led mostly dirt-poor southerners to slaughter against an enemy they never could defeat.

It’s always jarring to see ostentatious tributes to Robert E. Lee and company down South. It would be like walking on The Mall in London and coming across a statue of Hermann Göring, who as head of the Luftwaffe ordered the Blitz, or finding on the Champs-Elysees a bust of Otto von Stülpnagel, the German general who led the Nazi occupation of France.

It has always struck me as bewildering that this country allowed the formal honoring of those who tried to destroy it.

The biggest myth is the idea that Lee was some noble guy whom fate placed on the wrong side of history. Lee was an unapologetic racist and slave-holder, who held the same Christian-based, “it’s God’s will" about Black people that English aristocrats had when it came to millions of Irish people starving to death during the potato blight of the 1840s.

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Before he wrote his magisterial biography of Frederick Douglass, David Blight, a professor of history at Yale, wrote a book called “Race and Reunion: The Civil War and American Memory,” which argued that this country chose the wrong people to embrace in a rush to bind up the nation’s wounds. We did not embrace the freed slaves. We embraced their enslavers, the traitors.

We prioritized white reconciliation at the expense of Black justice. We allowed traitors to replace slavery with Jim Crow, to lynch Black people, to create an American apartheid, perpetuating injustices that we continue to pay for to this day. Northern complicity facilitated Southern secession by another name.

It’s long past time to focus on real people, not statues of mythical ones.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.