Saturday, August 26, 2017

Removing Confederate Monuments

The issue is a winner for Trump.  Being right is irrelevant.

The issue of statue removal fans the flames of white racial resentment and anxiety.  Blacks and "politically correct" whites and pushy northern hypocrites are taking something away.   It is change.  It is picking at the scabs of old wounds.  Trump wins.

As this blog wrote while I was in Vietnam, the people of Vietnam appear to have moved on.  They had a war of independence and a united Vietnam was the result.  Meanwhile, in the USA, the Civil War continues, 160 years later.   The enduring issue is race.  

For two centuries the slavery of black skinned people was justified by Southern Christians by defining blacks as a separate and inferior class of people, not persons but chattel.  The South lost the battle battle of slavery, but it won the war over race with the ascension of Andrew Johnson to succeed Lincoln and the election of Rutherford B. Hayes.  The South re-institutionalized black subservience and created an imagined ante-bellum history of gentility and tranquility, one that fought for independence and tradition, not slavery.

It was a better memory and it stuck.

In the aftermath of the Civil War and the re-instituton of Black Codes and institutionalized segregation the South put up heroic monuments to Confederate leaders.  Federal troops were gone.  It celebrated the new idea, the South fighting for tradition, honor, and the specialness of a state and region.  We lost, but we were heroic.

A factually accurate way to think of heroic monuments to Confederate politicians and generals is to consider them monuments to traitors who took up arms against our country.  They were Benedict Arnold.  They called themselves foreign enemies, not domestic ones, and America knows such people: King George of England, Adolf Hitler more recently.  There are no celebratory statues of King George,  Benedict Arnold, or Adolph Hitler in America.

Benedict Arnold's boot
There is in fact a monument to Benedict Arnold, who, before he turned traitor was a heroic soldier.  He broke a leg in battle.  The monument shows his boot, but does not mention his name.

Celebratory memorial statues are political.  A statue of Adolph Hitler or Herman Gobbles, placed in Manhattan, would not be a politically neutral act, if placed by a local majority of people eager to reaffirm that they still agreed with the Nazi policy regarding Jews, notwithstanding a war lost.  It would be a statement of defiance.  Southern Blacks--and Southern Whites--know what the celebratory statues of Jefferson Davis stand for. The lost cause.

That is why this is such a great issue for Donald Trump.   The issue makes Whites uncomfortable.   That works for Trump.

No one likes to be reminded of past misbehaviors.  Every American carries the benefits and detriments of the past.  This includes the injustices to Native Americans and Blacks and the Chinese, but also the heroism of soldiers in World War 2, and for that matter the heroism of Union soldiers in the Civil War.  Good and bad, we carry the inheritance.  There is noway to repay the debts or recapture the losses, since both were incurred by our predecessors long dead.

The only practical solution is to look at the present and future and be better.  The battle over statues is a bit like rubbing a dog's nose in a piddle spot, to try to shame it and teach it a lesson.  Or it is like telling an overweight person he or she is too fat.  Or telling a contender for a promotion that their work isn't as good as someone else's.   It  is unwelcome.  The fact that it might be objectively correct does not make it better.  It makes it worse.  No one likes to be judged  People resent it.  It is natural to hunt for mitigations and ways to deny:

  Black slaves were actually treated pretty well, compared to the Caribbean.
  Black slavery was present in Africa anyway.
  The war was really about states rights, not slavery.
  The statues celebrate "heroism", not slavery.
  The statues celebrate "heritage", not racism.
  The statues are beautiful art, without political meaning.
  The statues are old and represent the old way of thinking, not current thinking.   We don't tear down old buildings just because they are not ADA compliant.
And then there is the underlying, bigger effect:  that this is one more example of "politically correct" people trying to tell me to feel a certain way when I don't really feel that way, and trying to make me feel guilty when I don't and should not have to.    

That is an emotion that helped carry Trump into the White House.   The statue issue might well keep him there.

Democrats need to be strategic.  Do they want to shame Whites over the past, or win the future.  

I received a very useful communication from a reader in Virginia, a transplanted Yankee from New England, who brought an outsider's perspective to the South and its monuments.

Guest Comment:   Peter Coster

I live outside Richmond, VA, the former capital of the South.  There is a street downtown called Monument Avenue.  It's a beautiful street lined with very old expensive homes, large leafy trees, and a manicured grass medium strip.  It has an Old South feel to it.  Along the street at every corner is a large monument dedicated to the heroes of the Civil War or, as they call it, the War of Yankee Aggression.  Men like Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson ride their bronze horses along the street.  The statues are huge.  The joke is that it's the largest collection of second place trophies.  The City Council is proposing to take them down, but I doubt that will happen.   On the far end of the street is a statue of Arthur Ashe, the black tennis star.  It's much smaller than the rest and it sits at the far end of the street.  As in, he knows his place.

There is also a restaurant called The Traveler's which, during the war, was the stable where Lee kept his horse.  If you close your eyes, you can still smell Silver, or whatever his name was.

When I first came down to Virginia from Massachusetts, I met a guy at a party.  He looked me in the eye and said "'I hate Yankees".  I looked him back and said "I hate Yankees, too.  I'm a Red Sox fan".   I like it when their eyes kind of glaze over.

1 comment:

  1. Stated differently, it's not statues that help Trump, it's Democrats' nationalizing the issue into yet another losing political correctness cause celeb. Thankfully, Chuck Schumer has urged Nancy Pelosi not to needlessly lead us into that self-inflicted quagmire. See "Call to Remove Confederate Statues From Capitol Divides Democrats", New York Times, Aug 17, 2017,


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