Saturday, August 19, 2017

Time to Go

It is time for the Confederate statues and monuments to go. Actually, it is long past time. They should have been removed long ago. Better yet, they should never have been erected in the first place. Whatever else may be said about Robert E. Lee and his fellow Confederates, whatever else may be said about their motivations and the motivations of those who persist in honoring them, the first and most obvious thing about them is that they were traitors against the United States, who literally waged war against the United States in order to destroy it. That they waged this destructive war in order to preserve an oppressive, slave-based society only adds to their opprobrium. As historical artifacts, as objects of historical significance and interest, some statues might appropriately be preserved in historical museums where all sorts of things, good and bad, are preserved to illustrate our past, but not as objects of public honor. Likewise, historical markers, which commemorate the fact that somebody did something or something happened in particular place, can be a valued contribution to historical knowledge, something we need more of not less! The monuments at issue, however, are at issue precisely because their purpose is not primarily to inform but to honor

All sorts of specious arguments have been advanced suggesting that there is no terminus to this, that getting rid of Robert E. Lee leads inexorably to getting rid of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, for example. Apparently, one White House lawyer has allegedly been quoted as saying: “You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington,” and “there literally is no difference between the two men.” 

Actually there was plenty of difference between them, and there is even more difference  in the reasons for honoring them. Granted. both men were slave owners. There were actually lots of slave owners in colonial America and until the Civil War - among them four of our first five presidents. But we don't honor Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe because they owned slaves. We honor them for the other things they did. No political actor, statesman, or military leader is so unambiguously virtuous as to be beyond any possible criticism. But, while we do honor those who have made major contributions to our history, in spite of their limits and personal faults, we ought not to honor those who went to battle deliberately to destroy this country (motivated moreover by an ideology of racial oppression and enslavement).The cases are clearly different, and it is tendentious at best to equate them

Of course, from the late 18th-century British point of view, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and the rest of our "Founding Fathers" were traitors too. It would certainly have been odd for anyone in Britain to have erected statues in their honor! On the other hand, Britain accepted and recognized American independence in 1783, and the two nations made peace and established ordinary diplomatic relations, and even eventually (much later) became close allies. I don't know of any British statues of George Washington, and we all know that King George III's famous statue in New York City was never restored. But such monuments, if eventually erected or restored, would presumably have been seen as acts of mutual reconciliation between former enemies now allies - again not necessarily as endorsements of everything those individuals did in life.

Magnanimity in victory is a virtue. But real reconciliation between former enemies is always a two-sided process. In the 20th century, Germany and Japan recognized the reality of their defeat and accepted the fact that they had surrendered - and they altered their behavior accordingly. The erection of Confederate statues and monuments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, was the exact opposite. It was a defiant demonstration of non-acceptance of defeat and surrender. That statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were eventually erected even in the U.S. Capitol (despite strenuous protests at the time) demonstrates the complicity of the Federal Government in permitting the perpetuation of Confederate ideology - more importantly and tragically through its failure to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Had those Amendments been enforced, history would have been very different, and we would not as a nation be in the situation we are today. Even now, the enforcement of those Amendments is not what it was intended to be - witness the Supreme Court's evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder (2013).

The refusal of many to respect the result of the Civil War and the passive complicity of many others (not to mention the cynical "Southern Strategy" employed by President Nixon and continued by his party) have resulted in a polarized society so divided by mutual hatred and incomprehension that progress on almost any front - let alone real national reconciliation - seems beyond our ability as a nation. One small step, however, would be the elimination of those statues and monuments whose very purpose has been to legitimize that polarization by honoring and celebrating slavery and treason. Effectively accomplished, that one small step might become the giant leap  our nation needs so desperately to begin the work of national reconciliation and reconstruction.

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