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Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017 12:26 am

Monumental folly

Southern soldiers fall again

A view of the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee at Robert E. Lee Park in the Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas on August 16, 2017. The statue was unveiled by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 12, 1936. Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings called for a
PHOTO BY ANDY JACOBSOHN/TNS

 

Not since Chancellorsville have so many rebel soldiers fallen in battle. Across the U.S., statues and other memorials to Confederate heroes from the Civil War are being driven from their pedestals, decried as symbols of a white supremacist creed that has come to be regarded as odious.

The problem of whether and how to honor the Southern cause came up in these pages in 2015. (See “Should Illinois honor the now-dishonored dead?” from July 9, 2015.) The question of that day was whether the names of government facilities and entities in Illinois should reflect historical incidents, doctrines or individuals now discredited. One such is South Carolinian senator John C. Calhoun, namesake of Calhoun County, who in his later years was an apologist for slavery and a preacher of secession.

In that column I noted that the way to come to terms with a state’s unpleasant past is to understand it, not deny that it ever happened. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said something like that earlier this year, when his city removed several of its Confederate memorials. Confederate soldiers posed as heroes, he said, “is an inaccurate recitation of our full past,” not an expression of Southern history but of a particular Southern myth. With that in mind, some have suggested moving the offending statues into museums, shifting the context of their display so that what are now artifacts of propaganda become teaching tools.

Deciding whose heroes get applauded is much more than a matter of civic propriety. That odious little man in the White House says the removal of Confederate statues is “ripping apart U.S. culture.” The culture is already ripped; that’s why he’s in the White House. The founders stitched over the tear in the Constitution, and it was sewed up again in 1865 and 1965, but it keeps opening up, a wound that won’t heal.

Eric Zorn of the Trib writes, “To compare these propagandistic installations to the Washington Monument or the Jefferson Memorial is either profoundly ignorant or deviously brazen.” But only if you agree that slavery was wrong. Millions of Americans do not agree, or are not sure, or think that if it was wrong it was not as wrong as everybody says. A few years ago remember, the Texas Board of Education approved revisions to its social studies curriculum to require future textbooks and teaching standards in that state to explore the positive aspects of American slavery.

As I noted in 2015, the usual way to settle such disputes in this country is not to determine who is correct or incorrect, but to determine the people’s opinion via an open vote and declare the majority’s opinion to be wise, whatever the facts. A survey by The Economist and YouGov earlier this week found that, by more than 2 to 1, Americans believe that Confederate monuments are symbols of Southern pride rather than of white supremacy. As you might expect, that view is most common among older whites, but very nearly half of even liberals think so.

The statue controversy is just a new skirmish in an old war. The Civil War did not stop in 1865 but is still being fought on new battlefields with different weapons. Today the political generals of a new elected army of Confederates who control Congress and most state governments in the South and their colonial outposts in the West and Southwest are pushing to establish Jim Crow in the whole country. They hope to do this by suppressing African-American voters, by redirecting public moneys to white-only private schools (“Christian academies” in the 1960s, charter schools today), by ending social safety net programs such as food stamps that disproportionately benefit poor black people, by keeping blacks off the streets by means of drug laws and by turning blind eyes to police repression based on race. While liberals tear down statues, neo-Confederates are tearing down Reconstruction.

All that said, I remain uneasy about victors’ history in which the loser’s culture is obliterated, driving it underground where it can fester as the white supremacist movement has festered since the 1960s. The forced removal of the statues honoring the slave South uncomfortably recalls the Protestant Roundheads’ smashing of idols of popery in English churches in the mid-1600s during their civil war.

Oh well. Being an American these days is all about being uncomfortable. So take down the statues by all means, but only after due public debate that addresses not only white South’s nostalgia about Jim Crow but white North’s amnesia about using different means to achieve the same ends. No one should think that anything will be settled.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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