Not Just "Objects of Remembrance"

August 28, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

One of the (many) canards I hear in our political discourse these days is the one that says monuments to Confederate soldiers, particularly Gen. Robert E. Lee, are simply inoffensive reminders of history. Bringing them down, we are told, would needlessly deprive people of their "heritage." Just last week in Alabama, someone erected a new Confederate monument and predictably assured the media that it had nothing to do with race, or politics. It was just a matter of respect for ancestors.

If you believe that, you probably believed that Cersei was going to send the Lannister army up north to fight alongside Jon and Danerys. 

The reliably mendacious ("our new election laws are not trying to keep Democrats from voting, they're just trying to stop fraud") North Carolina legislature recently passed this lie into law. It said that local governments in the Tar Heel state were prohibited from removing "objects of remembrance," including Confederate memorials. This was akin to combining baloney with horse manure, because it also exposed another right-wing lie, the oft-espoused principle that conservatives believe that the government closest to the people, i.e., local government, is the one that's best suited to make decisions that affect those people. In truth, conservatives like local government when they control local government. When they don't control it, they'll use whatever level of government they do control to impose their views.

But I digress. The topic is monuments and whether they are merely "objects of remembrance." And the truth is, they are not. Monuments in public places invariably are intended to support a point of view. They silently tell us to respect, even venerate, the person or cause depicted in bronze or marble. If they were simply objects of history and remembrance, there would still be monuments to King George III in the public squares of our original 13 states, and Russia would still have thousands of statues of Josef Stalin. There aren't, and Russia doesn't.

Last week I took my bicycle and a point-and-shoot camera for a ride around Washington to see if I could find even one memorial that didn't fit the "respect-and-venerate" model. I could not.

Washington has lots of monuments to generals who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. (They don't even have to be particularly astute or courageous generals.) These monuments are saying, in effect, that Washington was the capital of the Union and the Union's cause was not only victorious, but just.  You might agree or disagree with that message, but I don't think you can reasonably deny that the message exists.

For much the same reason, you will not, as far as I could tell, find any Confederate memorials in Washington, DC. That's because the powers that be in Washington, whether local or federal, would not approve a statue that said, in effect, "The Confederate cause was noble and it ought to be revered," which is the obvious message of Confederate memorials. 

Because Washington is home to many foreign embassies, it is also home to many foreigners' statues. They, too, have their messages. There's a statue of Winston Churchill near the sidewalk outside the British Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. The symbolism here is explained by a little plaque on the plinth. Churchill has one foot on British Embassy property (and symbolic British soil) and one foot on American land.  That's supposed to represent both his ancestry (his mother was American), and the idea that Britain and the United States are inextricably linked.

Other countries play this game along Massachusetts Avenue. Directly across the street from Churchill, the South African embassy has a new statue of Nelson Mandela. He is brandishing a fist at Churchill. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the South African government which erected the Mandela statue intended to remind us that whatever else Churchill may have accomplished during his career, he did not end apartheid in South Africa when it was a British dominion.  A little further down the avenue, there are statues of Mohandas Gandhi and Robert Emmett, who also had their issues with the British.

Massachusetts Avenue has a statue and small garden dedicated to Kahlil Gibran, the Arab-American poet and author of "The Prophet." It, too, has a message. The Arab-Americans who paid for it wanted to promote religious tolerance. On one of the stones in the monument, they engraved these words from the poet:

"I love you, my brother, whoever you are, whether you worship in your church, kneel in your temple or pray in your mosque..."

The Gibran monument, by the way, is only a few blocks from the house that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are renting. It would be nice to think that someday they'll be out walking the dog, see the words, and say, "Gee, maybe we should bring Dad here to read this."  Unfortunately, Dad is probably too busy promoting another monumental canard, the one saying that if the Lee statues have to come down, the Washington and Jefferson memorials must be next, because they were all slave owners, right?

Yes, they were. Lee, according to several accounts I have read, was an especially cruel one. His slaves were flogged when they didn't perform to his specifications, and he didn't hesitate to split up slave families by selling some family members to other owners. But to think that Washington, Jefferson and Lee must be treated equally because they all owned slaves is to illustrate the veracity of Ralph Waldo Emerson's observation that "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of weak minds." Washington and Jefferson were not saints. They did own slaves. But that must be weighed against their contributions. Washington led the American forces in the Revolutionary War and was our first elected leader. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, made the Louisiana Purchase and founded the University of Virginia.  Lee chose to side with the states rebelling to preserve slavery. He was a traitor to the duly elected government of his country.

And the silent message of Lee statues is that this was all forgivable, because black people aren't really equal. That was the message of the statues erected during the time when Jim Crow rules governed the South. It is the message of the Confederate memorial erected in Alabama last week.

So I don't have a problem of principle with removing Lee statues, any more than I had a problem with the Russians and Eastern Europeans who tore down statues of Lenin and Stalin. To the extent that they have historical or artistic value, the Lee statues can be kept in museums, where perhaps people will ponder what motivated the people who insisted they belonged on the public square. 

I do have some reservations about the tactics. American liberals are prone to spend their political capital on symbols rather than on policies and laws that will actually benefit society. Removing Lee statues will do nothing to help secure people's right to vote, or their health care, or good public schools, or decent jobs. But it will antagonize a certain number of middle-of-the-road voters who still buy the history-and-heritage argument about Confederate memorials. 

Is it worth the fight? I don't know. Maybe it would be smarter to go to every American park or town square that has a Lee statue and erect a distinctly larger copy of the Nelson Mandela statue on Massachusetts Avenue, brandishing that fist.  

(If you've read this far, you deserve a reward, and here it is. The first reader who sends me an email identifying each of the statues in this post, from top to bottom, wins a free portrait session at my studio in Chevy Chase, MD. Use if for yourself or give it as a gift. I'll even give you a hint. The statue at the top honors Kahlil Gibran.)

 


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