Letter: A lost opportunity for the Vance Monument

Graphic by Lori Deaton

Despite being sympathetic to citizens of color who were somehow offended by the existence of a stack of stones named for a man no one alive today ever met, I applaud Milton Ready’s wise (and certainly, to some, controversial) opinion piece regarding the ill-conceived and poorly executed decision to remove the Vance Monument [“Down by Law: The Monumental Toppling of Zeb Vance,” June 21, Xpress].

In a time when this city desperately needs money to raise salaries of teachers and police officers — as well as to address the myriad challenges afflicting the very people who often clamor the loudest in our community for housing and help — I find the exorbitant expense and waste of tax dollars to be a shortsighted and appalling act of performance activism — and just plain bad business. The even greater loss, it seems to me, is the squandered, intangible opportunity to keep the historic work of art and use it as a teachable moment.

I believe that a simple, tasteful plaque acknowledging our city’s (and country’s) complicated past would have done wonders to heal wounds and begin to explain what “diversity” truly means. I believe that visitors and resident children alike might have gleaned a great deal of wisdom and healing from such a transparently bold and authentic move. I also believe that we weaken our position politically when we knock down monuments beloved by one group and then try to lobby that group for handouts when we find ourselves low on funds. At present, the far right and the far left have become so shrill, inept and divisive that all they really do is aggravate reasonable humans and cancel each other out.

I’m a white man who lived for years in Africa and am engaged to marry a Black woman. I’m an independent who grew up in a family of Republicans but have never voted for one. I believe I’ve developed a reasonably balanced perspective, and so I ask: What’s to become of Asheville, this rapidly growing city named for a former slave owner? What are we to do with Patton Avenue, that busy thoroughfare named for a famous slaveholder, that cuts through the middle of our wonderful, confusing, cool, green, sensitive/insensitive city of sanctimonious souls? Where are the cries to rename our offensively named home and its many racially insensitive streets? Why aren’t our incongruous hypocrisies advertised to the world, along with natural beauty and beer?

Could we all agree that our challenges are overlapping and complex? Could we unite, find common ground and perhaps sign some sort of community peace and reconciliation treaty agreeing to be more frugal with our finite resources, get focused on infrastructure and, from this day forward, never ever to name monuments for any human, living or dead?

— Robert McGee


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16 thoughts on “Letter: A lost opportunity for the Vance Monument

  1. Peter Robbins

    A few questions to reflect upon:

    As a practical matter, the Vance Monument is gone. Why dredge up old (and hardly original) schemes for “contextualizing” it now? Isn’t that like hiring a mechanic to fix the transmission after you’ve traded in the car?

    Empirical evidence indicates that informational plaques, such as the one Robert envisions, do practically nothing to change people’s minds about controversial statues, monuments and historical sites. What evidence suggests that Robert’s proposed plaque would work any better? See https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/why-just-adding-context-controversial-monument-may-not-change-minds.

    What would the Magic Plaque say anyhow? Who would write the consensus narrative when opinions are so divided?

    What is the fundamental purpose of erecting a monument in the public square – to honor exemplary people or merely to identify celebrities who died in the past? Reflect on what’s wrong with Zebulon Vance that makes an explanatory plaque necessary in the first place. If the plaque told the story of Vance’s toxic racism honestly and fearlessly, wouldn’t it make the tribute to him look bizarre and make the townsfolk who are still paying homage to him look insane?

  2. Peter Robbins

    A few more questions:

    What difference does it make that no one alive today ever met Zebulon Vance? I never met Charles Manson, but I know what I think of him. Why is Robert’s sympathy for folks who were bothered by the former monument limited to “citizens of color?” Does he assume that citizens of whiteness were fine with Vance’s record or does he just not care about them?

    How much would it have cost, going forward, to maintain and protect the monument (which was subject, at the time of its demise, to regular vandalism)? Is that annual expense, which presumably would grow year by year, really less than the one-time cost of demolition (around $100,000)? How does the demolition cost compare with the $3 million grant from a private foundation that the city has just won to improve Pack Square Plaza (including the old monument grounds)? I’m not an accountant, but I think there’s something wrong with Robert’s math calculations.

    Psychological studies show that people tend to overvalue things they possess and undervalue things they could have in the future (hence the saying about a bird in the hand). How does anyone know that the Pack Square renovations won’t be a thousand times better and more consensus-building than the old obelisk ever was? Maybe it’s time to forget the past, so to speak, and move on.

  3. Mike Rains

    The whole thing is yet another example of a city that somehow has lost its focus on basic priorities. There are people in this world that have to right every injustice or inequity and expect (these days demand) everyone else should too. They view ALL problems as caused by injustice and inequity without fully understanding the human condition or the limits of society. The concept of the greater good has been thrown in the trash heap and replaced with everyone’s right to a wonderful life without struggle or hard work.

  4. Peter Robbins

    Point of clarification, Mike: Who are the ones trying to right an injustice here — the ones who wanted to get rid of the monument or the ones now complaining that the monument is gone? In my opinion, the answer is neither. Both sides are merely arguing over the wisest use of scarce and valuable public space, and that’s one way good citizens help to promote the common good. A soothing and harmonious but complacent consensus often works against the public good.

    • Mike R.

      Clearly, I was speaking of those that wanted the monument removed.
      Again, the whole thing is a giant waste of energy and resources to make a few people feel good about their beliefs.

      And again, as I’ve stated before…… where does it end?? The US Capitol was buiilt largely with slave labor. Oh, you didn’t know that?? Tear that down too? Please give me a cogent and rational solution to that sticky question.

      • Peter Robbins

        If it were clear about whom you were speaking, I wouldn’t have asked. I knew enslaved labor was used to build the Capitol. I do not favor tearing it down, although some of the former president’s supporters apparently had a different opinion. I don’t know exactly where the process of revising commemorative landscapes will end, but that’s okay because I don’t think I need to draw a line or could enforce any line that I drew.

        If I can be of further assistance (with punctuation perhaps?), let me know.

  5. Lou

    Ewwww Robert, so cringe. You could have just cut to the chase and said “I’m not a racist, I’m engaged to a black woman”. YIKES.

  6. therealduckie

    “somehow offended”

    Your opening line says it all. You have no sympathy at all for the hardships many People of Color STILL face, daily.

    I stopped reading, after that. Did not deserve any more of my time, outside of this reply.

  7. Roy mccorkle

    Concerning “Lost Opportunity . . .
    Many “Independents” live with indecision relative to right/wrong, truth/deceit and other important things that divide us. This article begins with the idea that a”stack of stones “ erected in HONOR of a man that “we never met” was not worth the cost of removing from the center of our wonderful town. The heavily Republican Christian church, as an example, on any other day would argue that a “stack of stones” in honor of man “they never met” was worth a lifetime of worship. The passing of time has no place in this conversation. The financial cost of removal is irrelevant and would have been minimal if not for the years long fight by racists to preserve it.

    The stated idea that a”simple, tasteful plaque” placed on the intact monument “acknowledging our country’s complicated past” is absurd. What few words could be on that plaque to explain to a person of color why we continue to value accomplishment over character?

    I’m a white man born in Georgia. I’m a leftist who grew up in a family of Republicans who still use offensive racial language and never stop working to keep things as they always have been in our country. So my perspective is real time.

    The idea that we need to meet on “common ground” continues to be an “Independent” thing. I’m trying to find the place I can meet on “common ground” with those that vote against Equal Rights for women and equality for those they fear, who continue to work to deny our country’s past history, who are removing books from schools and libraries to hide the truth, who continue to traumatize children and adults in the LBGQT community and so much more. Common ground does not exist on those and many other subjects.

    The idea that if we had not wasted money removing the Vance monument more money would have been available
    for “the very people who clamor the loudest in our community for housing and help” is . . . we’ll, we all know what it is.

  8. Taxpayer

    You present excellent points. Too bad our city manager, mayor and council steered their steering committee right where they wanted them. They are incapable of sitting in the hot seats without folding for just about any demand from any group. Heck, they can’t even handle lukewarm seats. The clown car: “which way do I go, what do i do, which way do I go? I need a consultant to tell me what to do.” 🤣

  9. joelharder

    The first Confederate Memorial Monument removed from its installed location was located in Helena, Montana. In response to the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, the American Indian Caucus wrote an Op-Ed calling for removal of the Fountain. “Please send a message that there is no hate in our state by removing this divisive memorabilia from the capital city.”

    History on this Confederate Memorial Monument. Donation cost: $2,000 in 1916.

    The Confederate Monument was removed and replaced with the Equity Fountain. The intent of the 2020 landmark is to emphasize equality, tolerance, and justice. The Daughters of the American Revolution has requested the Confederate Statue.

    Asheville needs to learn from other cities on how to handle change.

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