Letter: Putting the Vance Monument in perspective

Graphic by Lori Deaton

The decision of the Asheville City Council to tear down the Vance Monument has left a bitter taste in certain mouths, some of which have gotten quite loud. Here’s a thought experiment that might help put things in perspective:

Long ago, let’s say 1897, the people of Buncombeville erected a 65-foot statue in the shape of a gigantic fish and dedicated it to “Jesus Christ: Savior. Healer. Orator. Rebel. Winemaker.”

At the time, most people thought the structure was an eye-pleasing reflection of community values. The theme was subtle, but everyone knew there was an important symbolic connection between religion and fish. But that, they said, wasn’t the main point. They just thought the sculpture looked cool, and they liked the guy in whose honor it was built. Pretty much everybody did, unless they belonged to a religious minority.

Some people thought the thing was kitsch, despite having been designed by a famous architect, and objected that the shape was so vague it was practically abstract art.

A few grumblers complained that religion should be a private matter, but, as one would expect, they kept that theory to themselves.

Decades later, the Supreme Court declared that the establishment clause applied to municipal governments under the 14th Amendment. Although people resented the idea of outsiders meddling in local affairs, and although they bristled at the implication that they had been doing something wrong all this time, and although they insisted that, in this modern era, folks had gotten so fed up with religious abuses that they no longer cared much about the sacred significance of the sculpture, and although they were deeply suspicious of political correctness in any form, a consensus eventually arose that something must be done about the Christ Monument.

Six members of the City Council wanted to tear down the fish and haul it away. They felt that the establishment of religion no longer represented the best values of the community, if it ever did, and it was time to make a clean break with the past.

One member proposed to deep-six the inscription but keep the stone structure standing and rename it “The Scales of Justice.” This approach, she said, would give the statue a secular purpose, free up the demolition money for more tangible needs and keep religious fanatics from taking revenge on the minority in the community who supported the Constitution.

That’s the end of the fable. Now it’s time for the moral, which you must work out for yourself.

Does the dissenting City Council member, well-meaning as she may be, go far enough in her efforts to cleanse an unacceptable religious taint from the public square? Does merely removing the reference to Jesus Christ really obliterate the association with the sacred that Buncombeville’s landmark has always had? Isn’t it worth spending a few bucks to make sure the job gets done right, once and for all?

And on whose counsel, moreover, should we rely for an answer? Shouldn’t we give some deference to the collective judgment of the elected representatives? After all, they must face the voters if they get the balance of interests wrong.

Why should we pay any attention to a handful of fishy enthusiasts on social media who have done an about-face, seemingly out of nowhere, and decided that the association of the statue with religion was always repugnant to them, but nonrepresentational art for art’s sake is still the bomb? I almost get the feeling that some of these converts secretly harbor sympathies for the old superstitions. What do you think?

Please keep your answers short and, if possible, respectful.

— Peter Robbins


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32 thoughts on “Letter: Putting the Vance Monument in perspective

  1. Voirdire

    I harbor no sympathies for the “lost cause”, but am more than convinced that the re-purposing of the monument was not only feasible…. but entirely plausible. I dare say even, progressive…. shocking, and incomprehensible, I know. Alas, the -always at the forefront beating their drums- zealots (along with the acquiescence of more than a few following/ cowering politicians… sigh) could not fathom nor stomach such heresy. We all lose in this one…. or to quote the eminently quotable philosopher Bertrand Russell: All movements go too far. So, onward… without further ludicrous parables, please ;)

    • Peter Robbins

      If you’re going to invoke Bertram Russell, at least show some respect for reason. The question has never been whether the obelisk (cleansed of the Vance name) could be renovated and reused in some way that is “feasible,” “plausible” or “progressive.” Obviously, that was an option. And not a bad one, by the way. The question before the City Council was more narrow, boring even: whether demolition of the existing structure is a better Vance-cleansing option when the costs and the benefits are compared. The fact that you are passionately “convinced” that there is only one rational answer to such a mundane question – and without even discussing the relevant factors – is neither “shocking” nor “incomprehensible.” But it is amusing to watch you stomp around the grounds.

      To effect the option you favor, the city would have to remove Zeb’s name from all four sides of the monument base, change the inscriptions to “Unity Tower” (or whatever), and landscape the grounds to fit the new use. Those things cost money. Plus, there would be an ongoing financial obligation for maintenance and for protection from disgruntled vandals (you know, those zealots who always go too far?) Would all that be cheaper than a one-time demolition? I’m skeptical, but the burden is on you to demonstrate that.

      Even if renovation were cheaper, however, that option would yield less benefit because it wouldn’t make anywhere near as clear and dramatic statement about the new day in racial attitudes. If one attaches (as I do) relatively little aesthetic significance value to the stack of stones itself, the benefit side of the analysis gives the clear edge to demolition. (And remember, even if you’ve grown fond the obelisk, its aesthetic value would have to be discounted by the value of whatever new artwork is put in its place).

      So let’s do the math, shall we? Something that (a) arguably costs less and (b) unarguably does the same job better might strike some folks as the better option. You know the kind of people I’m talking about. Good, solid, prudent people. The kind who think before they mouth off. The kind who do their homework. The kind who deserve to be treated with respect, even when you don’t think they made the best choice. Try a more thoughtful and less pugnacious approach next time you venture into the public sphere. You might get more pleasing results. At least you’ll be emotionally situated to cope with a loss, and you won’t need a spiritual adviser like me to guide you through the transition.

      • Voirdire

        oh, okay,… a spiritual adviser like yourself….. Wow. You really are out there/ a bit out of it, aren’t you? Delusion, it seems to be an affliction that feels almost as rampant as the covid itself of late… regardless of one’s political leanings…. sigh. There does seem to be a strong correlation in regard to age/ aging though. We’ve all seen that pretty clearly. And do you vacillate between sincerity and insincerity on a regular basis? Hummm… well gosh, listen, I’m so sorry. Best of luck to you.

        • Peter Robbins

          Hee hee. There isn’t a Buncombeville either, but I got that one right past you.

  2. KW

    If only Jesus could come back with an extra $200k to feed the famished and heal their afflictions…what do ye of little brains and failing faith say ye that Jesus would do?

    • Peter Robbins

      Hard to say. Jesus was a fan of church-state separation (render unto Caesar and all that), so doing nothing about the fish statue would not be an option. But some people claim he was more into private charity than welfare-state socialism, so it’s possible he wouldn’t want to spend public money to improve the material condition of the masses. Then again, he did like the idea of reparations for past sins. So maybe he’d go that route after all.

  3. Hawkins Stan

    William Jennings Bryan quote: “The Rock of Ages is more important than the age of rocks.”

    How many “rocky” sequels must we endure?

    • Peter Robbins

      As many as I can beguile you into consuming. But I promise not to force you to read them, except as a last resort. We must preserve the illusion of free will.

      • Hawkins Stan

        Well; good luck with that. You know; us Southern Boys mainly just read headlines and such – not much botherin with the what have you.

        Better time spent – to listen to a used car salesman trying to keep that car (hint pile of stones philosophy analogyism) sold when the premise of the sell is just what it has always been. Just another shiny object, quality to be determined later.

        I like Rocky (notice big R) the movie sequels though; I think I’ll go watch him duke it out with that dang Russian. :)

  4. bsummers

    “Please keep your answers short and, if possible, respectful.”

    1. Peter – XPress commentors. Xpress commentors – Peter.
    2. You ain’t da boss o’ me.
    3. You do know that way more people will read that in print than online, right?

    • Peter Robbins

      1. It’s called irony, dear boy.
      2. Now you tell me.
      3. Of course I knew that. In print, people will understand that my interest in their thoughts is insincere.

      • Voirdire

        oh, and Peter… thank you for your insincerity. It explains a lot… and I mean a lot. Maybe it’s time to give up the troll life? You think??

  5. Peter Robbins

    Do you really need this explained to you? The piece ends with a series of leading questions to which there is only one answer. It then asks the reader what she thinks. At this point, the intelligent reader has gotten the joke. She knows I don’t really expect her to answer the questions one by one. That is true in both the print and electronic versions.

    In the print version, I went on to ask the reader to submit a short answer, knowing that there was no physical means to do so. The piece thereby ends as it began – with an unexpected and (one hopes) amusing twist. The electronic version does have a mechanism for answers, and therefore a different kind of ironic twist had to be employed. So I also asked the reader to submit a respectful answer, knowing that the standard was hopelessly unattainable in present company and that it would be only a short time before one of usual suspects came along to prove it. And here we are. I have to admit I didn’t expect quite this level of performance so quickly, and I appreciate the extra effort. Well done, mon ami.

    • Hawkins Stan

      Whew; I’m dang glad I decided not to write an epistle. I had a sneaking “Rebel” suspicion you might be up to something. Maybe I get credit for that paid ahead.

      On a more serious note, last year or two I tried to get some folks to look into some matters at Providence, RI. Probably didn’t mention it to you; but I read that hanging in the mess hall or library at Brown University is a portrait of one of the Brown sons (father was a minister). The son, as the piece detailed, was the son (Brown) who captained a slave trading ship out of Rhode Island, making over 100 voyages to West Africa – returning slaves to Rhode Island or the Jamaica area.

      Now I know we Rebels were the instigators of the rebellion and received the Slim Pickens reply; but it just sticks in my craw that we still have a university named Brown. There are other similar irregularities amongst the Ivey League history. Do “northern sins” qualify for some higher degree of forgiveness?

      Maybe when you get time you can give us your take on these questions. The Rock of Ages is bipartisan.

      • Peter Robbins

        A quick search turned up this: https://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/23/opinion/23mon3.html;
        http://brown.edu/Research/Slavery_Justice/documents/memorials.pdf. My initial take is that you have a point; Brown University has a big problem and may not have done enough to address it. But the university did look into the issue seriously and didn’t hide behind the those-were-just-the-times defense. Beyond that, I’m going to have to plead ignorance. I know Yale removed John C. Calhoun from a residential college and Princeton removed Woodrow Wilson from its public-policy school, but that’s not exactly the same as the Brown thing.

        As a general matter, the North obviously does not get a pass for its racism – now or in the past – and has much to answer for. See https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-myth-liberal-north-erases-long-history-white-violence-180975661/. I’m not sure, though, that it does much good to compare regional infamies as if they were trading cards. They’re all bad (though not equally so; a civil war and legacy of racial intimidation are kinda singularly bad). Problematic names, statutes, honors, etc., should be addressed on a case-by-case basis. And, of course, that’s not the end of line. There is an enormous problem of structural inequality that only seems to be getting worse, and obviously that’s not going to solved by a nice, new green space in the center of Asheville.

        But that’s also getting a little beyond the scope of what was supposed to be a light-hearted letter to the editor written in the aftermath of a sometimes emotionally draining struggle over the Vance Monument. Whew is right! Some people can’t take a joke even after you explain it to them, present company excepted. It’s a good thing I’m so generous and even tempered.

        • Stan Hawkins

          Thank you for your attention to the questions. And as you say, the treatment of Africans / African Americans was the forever blight on our nation. Maybe and hopefully the many involved have received grace and mercy, regardless of their geography.

          It is just my opinion, and naturally with a good bit of Southern doubt in the popular story line, that the Northern States failed to “walk their talk” of emancipation doctrines until such time that factories, infrastructure, educational investments, and global connections for commerce were built and strengthened enough to accommodate wage based labor for freed slaves. When it was convenient for the very wealthy and well connected Northerners, then the gradual phase out progressed, while Southern slavery was growing for competitive commerce. However, still the problem existed above and below the Mason-Dixon line in 1860; many parties with shame, greed, and suffering on their hands.

          When a parent tells their children not to drink, smoke, cuss, and abuse a group of people, it is a good idea that they do so earnestly. But, and you knew I would have a but – when the parent continues to exhibit those acts, or hides the fact that they have participated in and banked fortunes as a result, credibility is then a tall order.

          This should explain why Southerners are highly skeptical of the suggestion that our sins are worse than Northern sins. Perhaps, we just don’t like being cornered in that way. Who would? I suspect that most of us understand the question of stones and mortar mixed to commemorate a soldier, even though he may have been just doing his duty, can be and is offensive.

          The grilling of current citizens including the persona of the name on a stone structure or street sign should not be necessary to raise the issue properly. We do kinda get it. In our media environment, that is a tall order, and it seems they thrive on the lowest common denominator in each of us.

          We surrendered, our flags should have come down long ago. I would prefer all the statues reside at Gettysburg. Books about Grant, Lee, Sherman, and my favorite Stonewall should be sufficient enough for history. We are not the same people as they’ve were then. Amazing Grace was sung at many of their death beds or at their funerals.

          • Phillip Williams

            I note that Woodrow Wilson and John C. Calhoun were mentioned by Mr. Robbins as examples of names being removed – in Calhoun’s case, a large column erected to him was also demolished last year in Charleston, SC.

            Neither Wilson nor Calhoun were Confederates – but they both left mixed legacies, as many Americans have done right up to the present day. And so this brings up a point I’ve wondered about in the past. Where will/should the erasure or “cancellation” of the memory of complex, flawed, yet historically significant, human beings end? When everything that is offensive to everyone is gone and our history is nice and bland?

            A mob has many heads but no brain that I can tell….there have been statues not only of Confederate leaders and common soldiers, Christopher Columbus, etc., defaced and vandalized and officially removed, but also memorials to President Abraham Lincoln, General/President Ulysses S. Grant, Colonel Hans Christiaan Heg (Union Soldier and abolitionist, KIA at Chickamauga), Frederick Douglass – and even one to Major General William Lee, father of the US Army Airborne – idiots didn’t only get the wrong General Lee but the wrong damn war! These folks remind me of the mob in “Julius Caesar”, when, in a moment of dark comic relief, they murder the poet Cinna, for sharing the name of a conspirator – crying “Tear him for his bad verses!”

            I am past arguing about it anymore – just sincerely wondering. The Wokus-Fokus can crap in their collective hat and wear it backwards for all of me – I reckon they will do whatever they will do – and looks like they got their way on Vance. Just wondering what they will do now that they’ve slain this dragon. Will they be like Alexander, weeping because there were no more worlds to conquer?


        For that matter, Elihu Yale made a good deal of his fortune from the slave trade. But perhaps since he was a British subject his entire life and died before the United States came into being, he is excused for his part in America’s original sin? Anyhow, I haven’t heard any calls to rename the university or knock over his statue – but I haven’t really listened for any, although I think Princeton has studied the idea of erasing Woodrow Wilson’s legacy there. Ah well, I imagine the Wokus-Fokus will get round to all of it sooner or later.

        • Stan Hawkins

          Phillip, I get your angst completely and share your frustration in the over reach we are witnessing. While some goals are fine, many have poisonous aspects to our society.

          I just finished a book, “The Fourth Turning” written in late 90’s, a bit of a hard read but explains a lot about what we see today. As is written in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun; and this book speaks to that over centuries of generational change.

          An enlightening aspect of the premise of the book, is that it is the over reach / the zealot induced abnormal acts – that prompts the pendulum to swing back to society norms. Although, each generation seems to tolerate a more liberal society as a trade off, we see the present day risks to this time.

          We simply must persist and recognize that it will most likely be the generation behind me that will largely pull that pendulum back. They will need our calm support and encouragement without being too judgmental I suspect.

          Thanks Phillip – I am going to visit my Great Great Grandfather’s grave site at Petersburg Military Cemetery later this spring. He died there in 1862. I visited his son’s grave (my Great Grandfather – born 1860) in Greenville SC just the other day.

          Be well.

          • Peter Robbins

            Well, there you go, Stan. A post-defeat strategy was there for you all along, just waiting to be repurposed. After a brief period of humiliation, the grumps can reassure each other that they only lost because of the enemy’s greater numbers, institutional advantages and technological superiority. Soon a new mythology will emerge phoenix-like from the ruins to reclaim the narrative. The opportunities for resentment will be endless. Tomorrow is another day!

          • Phillip Williams

            Stan, I wouldn’t say that I carry about much “angst” over this or anything else – it is mostly bemusement peppered with a little aggravation. I too have a fairly good memory, and the quote I remember from Mr. Robbins was a statement to the effect that anyone with any decency (not gumption) would agree with his assessment of Zebulon Vance and the obelisk erected (by a northerner) to his memory.

            I long ago offered my thoughts on Vance, the Confederacy, Old Asheville, etc. etc. etc., and found that some folks are fine with your opinion as long as it lines up with theirs – otherwise, your intelligence, character and personal appearance are called into question. And some publications are fine with free speech so long as it meets their community standards. In any case, I never got much rational or civil discussion on the issue from those who disagreed with me – usually insults at worst or attempts to be cute at best. One of the most active contributors went by the handle “Boatrocker” – and he has disappeared unless he is under a new nom de plume.

            I also had several relatives who fought for the south – my GG Grandad and his 2 brothers joined the same regiment, survived the entire conflict, and returned to WNC where they lived within earshot of each other, all dying as old men with long gray beards in the late 20’s and early 30’s! They are all interred in the Bethel Community Cemetery in Haywood County.

            You be well too – hope your spring and summer are glorious!

          • Peter Robbins

            Just a closing note to keep the record clean. The full quote that has stuck so dimly in Phil Williams’ memory reads as follows: “First off, let’s agree that anybody with an ounce of decency must feel a bit embarrassed that Asheville has given its top award for excellence to a man like Zebulon Baird Vance — a slaveholder; a Confederate officer and governor who took up arms against his country in support of an ignoble cause; an unrepentant racist who could be counted on to use his oratorical skills to whip up hatred toward African-Americans whenever his party called; and a political opportunist who dedicated his public life to returning the freed slaves, to the extent he could get away with it, to a condition of servitude long after The Rebellion was over.” I’m flattered that folks are fond of repeating it, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that some people never got to the end. Brevity, as they say, is wit. But shouldn’t my critics feel just a bit embarrassed that they have to garble both the words and the tune to make their own counterpoint? Or is that just my quirky sense of decency making another unwelcome appearance?

          • Phillip Williams

            Well, Stan – there you have it. Mr. Robbins, gadfly extraordinaire, who seems to fancy himself as WNC’s own combination of Clarence Darrow, H.L. Mencken, Mike Royko and Jiminy Cricket, has cleared it up for us and all is revealed. He confirms that one has at least an ounce of decency only if one agrees with his assessment of Colonel/Governor/Senator Vance.

            Although we may have garbled “the words and the tune”, I think we had the gist of the song itself pretty well straight. Unity and agreement – but only on his terms – seems to be a recurring theme in these days. I will definitely agree that his sense of his own decency is definitely quirky – and occasionally unwelcome to some.

            He seems to think that you and I are still fighting the War Between the States – and that we are on the Confederate side – I actually had the late “Boatrocker” to tell me “Get over it, Johnny Reb – you lost!” during a spirited exchange….I don’t know about you, but although I may look decrepit, I did not participate in the Late Unpleasantness, and have thus far rendered all my allegiance and actual service to the Stars and Stripes.

            Ah, but was this indeed a “closing note”? Somehow I doubt it. Another of Mr. Robbins’ quirks is his everlasting desire to get in the last word. I’ll bet he can’t resist it!


            And behold – as dim as my memory may be, I am still a fairly accurate observer of human nature – especially for certain individuals I’ve met during my walk thru life!

            Yes, Petrovich, even Colonel Sanders gets it right oncet in a while, even if he occasionally writes “treacly homilies” that appeal to the better angels of our nature.

          • Peter Robbins

            There is no sweeter way to conclude a match than by letting the loser raise his own hand in triumph.

  6. Jason Williams

    Tearing down the “Fish” statue will not feed 5000 starving people.

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