Monday, May 16, 2016

Statuary isn’t History

Closet Confederates make the most moronic arguments against removing their monuments.

Their strongest argument is that monument removal is somehow "erasing history" or trying to "sanitize the past." They compare it to burning books or to Stalin having his old rivals airbrushed out of official photographs. It's not the greatest argument, but it is the best they've got.

nfortunately, the argument hooks a lot of good folks who think such statues act as valuable reminders of our nation’s sins and follies. They say, "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." This version of the argument is often well-intentioned but wrongheaded because these monuments obviously do the opposite: They reinforce the militant ignorance of bigots who deny our society has ever done anything wrong. Or, if they perfunctorily admit any wrongdoing, they disassociate self-evident connections to quickly close the discussion. “Yes, slavery and racism are bad - BUT the Civil War was not about that.”

Except it most definitely was. There is no honestly denying that the Civil War was fought over slavery because the Confederates had said so themselves in their twisted imitations of the Declaration of Independence: the Articles of Secession. Like the Declaration, these documents presented a laundry list of perceived grievances - and Yankee agitation against slavery is unquestionably their number one complaint. Click on the link above and search the page for the word "slave." It appears again and again. These smoking gun documents amount to a terrorist martyr video. Their motive is known. Case closed. 

Also note that the link above is to an organization dedicated to preserving Civil War battlefields, so they are hardly trying to erase history or sanitize the past. Bottom line: If these statues actually educated anyone their admirers would make smarter arguments. They might at least abandoned long-debunked ones
This issue isn’t rocket science. When we rebelled from England in 1776, we tore down statues of King George III. Did we forget we were once colonies as a result? Of course not. After the French Revolution, they did the same with their king's public statues (but they preserved the palaces). Likewise, they have not forgotten their monarchist past. This isn't Pol Pot's "Year Zero." Monuments are meant to celebrate things we are proud of. When we are no longer proud of them, we logically take them down. This is not just to spare ourselves embarrassment but because we do not want our citizens to celebrate terrible behavior.

But reactionaries cannot grasp this. Recently, they threw a hissy-fit over the Treasury Department's plans to redesign the twenty dollar bill and replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman. This was not just a question representing more women and people of color – which racists portrayed as “pandering to blacks.” Jackson was a genocidal maniac who was pretty casual about killing people - including his fellow whites. Although I approve of replacing Jackson with Tubman, getting him off our money was necessary and long overdue no matter whom we replaced him with. Common sense says we should not honor our worst leaders. There are more great Americans than practical denominations of bills. Mediocrities like Salmon P. Chase should be replaced, but we should start with the monsters.

Again, this isn’t rocket science. Ask yourself this: Were Russians wrong to take down statues of Stalin? What about all those statues and murals of Saddam Hussien that were all over Iraq? There's that Orwellian-named Victory Arch that Saddam made for the fallen Iraqi soldiers of the Iran-Iraq War, which of course nobody won. It's dismantling was arrested and reversed. But that's okay because I'm sure it cannot possibly be politicized or used to fuel future militarism or hatred. Perhaps you think Germany would have been wiser to keep its Nazi monuments. But I think not.

I did not make that last analogy lightly. My father came over from Germany in the mid 1960s, so I obviously had family members who served in the Wehrmacht in World War II. This begs the question: What if some Nazi monument was still standing and I made the same arguments as Confederate monument lovers to prevent its removal? You would reasonably suspect me of having Nazi sympathies.

You may say it’s not the same, but it is. Otherwise, the same arguments could not be made in both cases:

In war, people get drafted into a cause they may or may not support. Some might even be reflective enough to recognize they are the baddies and be ambivalent - or actively subvert the war effort, such as the students involved in the White Rose group in Nazi Germany. As James W. Loewen noted in Lies My Teacher Told Me, a lot of Southerners sabotaged or fought against the Confederacy. We should be celebrating them.

And when death is faced there is bravery as well as cowardice, even if it is for an evil system. Seriously, I have to ask these Confederate apologists how do they make that argument without realizing how easily it can be flipped to defend any evil system? How is their pet heritage the exception that proves the rule?

Finally, aggressors may later find themselves on the defensive and then say they are “fighting for their homes and families,” as Germans were told without irony when the Red Army was rolling toward Berlin. (Also, when Germany invaded Poland, they claimed that Poland had invaded Germany.) And recall that the Civil War started when the Confederates fired the first shot on Fort Sumner. Yes, most of the war was fought in the South - but not at first. That changed when they started to lose, which was also about the time of Morgan's Raid through the Midwest. Therefore, the "War of Northern Aggression" wasn't.

If I had made any of these arguments about “bravely defending their homeland” to defend a monument to the German army, you could and should say that I am missing the point: A heroic-looking monument to the bravery of the Wehrmacht would obviously and correctly be perceived as glorifying Nazism.

But closet Confederates are oblivious to the obvious: Trying to confuse monuments with museums, more than one online opponent has asked me, "Why have 7 concentration camps been preserved in Europe???" (Always with superfluous punctuation. It must be important to the talking point.) Clearly, the camps are preserved as museums to show that genocide is evil and horrific, not to honor fallen Nazis. Their respective purposes are completely different: The first educates, the second celebrates. But I am probably arguing with people who thought that President Ronald Reagan's Bitburg cemetery visit was a brilliant idea.

I will explore that parallel more on that in the next post.

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