Thursday, May 25, 2017

Monuments

There has been some news recently about the city of New Orleans removing some Confederate monuments.  This kind of thing rears it's head periodically and generates some news, depending on the region and the interest.  Here in San Diego we had an elementary school named Robert E. Lee School.  No one seemed to think much about it until the horrific murders of black parishioners in a church in Charleston, S.C.  Amidst all the reaction, removing and changing tributes to the Confederacy seemed to be something that people thought was important and would make a difference.  South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from State Capital grounds and there was reaction both ways.  When the Robert E. Lee Elementary School was renamed Pacific View Leadership Elementary School it made the news but I didn't hear impassioned pleas to keep it.  I'm sure it had to do with where we are and how far removed we are (both geographically and culturally) from the South.  

But the removal of monuments in New Orleans received quite a different reaction.  There were sighs of relief and protests against political correctness run amok.  Mayor Mitch Landreiu gave what I thought was a pretty eloquent speech defending and explaining the removal.  


If you don't want to watch the video, you can get the text here.

I've given this subject some thought and have to admit that I continue to be of two minds about this painful subject.  On the one hand, there was extensive community involvement, discussion, and votes to determine the fate of the monuments.  Given this is their community and has a huge black population, it is probably not surprising that the outcome was removal.
After decades of public debate, of anger, of anxiety, of anticipation, of humiliation and of frustration. After public hearings and approvals from three separate community led commissions. After two robust public hearings and a 6-1 vote by the duly elected New Orleans City Council. After review by 13 different federal and state judges. The full weight of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government has been brought to bear and the monuments in accordance with the law have been removed.
On the other hand, I could see how these monuments could rationally be seen as monuments not to slavery, but to so many other things represented by the South.  Dedication to home, protection of a way of life, rural values vs big city values, industrialized America vs agricultural America, and on and on.  I'm not from the South, but my Dad was a very, very proud Alabamian and projected his loyalty to that state to his dying day, which was only a few years ago.  He loved his country...but he also was a true blue Southerner.  If he had lived in the 1860's, I have little doubt for which side he would have fought.  And it wouldn't have been to protect slavery.  It would have been to protect his home.  There are so, so many things to admire and love about the South.  The people are as genuine as you'll find anywhere.  It is a simple and yet complicated place.  It's history is both beautiful and tortured.  It is varied and dynamic.  And it has risen again, despite the epic beating it took oh so many years ago.  

And then there is the "how far do we go with this" argument.  Do we take down the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Monument because they owned slaves?  Close Mt Vernon and Monticello?  Rename all the streets, schools, buildings, and anything else named after someone who was on the wrong side of history?  I guess that sounds far fetched, but in this age of political correctness, it is most likely on the minds of some.  

But on the other hand...slavery was a scourge, an abomination.  It is easily the most shameful thing that this country has ever participated in.  And it is even worse if you read the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence.  Given the principles that this country was founded on, slavery is something that is uniquely horrific.  I've become quite a student of the Civil War and have heard people say and have read that the war wasn't all about slavery.  That it was about states rights, the industrial North vs the agricultural South, protection of their homes, and many other things as well as slavery.  Well...there is some truth to that, but it's backwards.  At the heart of everything was slavery.  The other issues were important and played a role, but at the heart of everything was slavery.  And to have monuments to those that fought to protect slavery (as well as other reasons) is hard pill to swallow.  At least for me it is.  And I have to ask myself, what would the answer be if we went almost anywhere in America and asked to erect a new monument to any of the Southern Generals today.  I think we know the answer to that.  I also know that we are still dealing with slavery and human trafficking on a wide spread scale.  What does it say about our efforts to attack that problem if we continue to have these statues in the public square?

But then we see things like this little quote that has been moving around the Internet today.  The objection to removing things from history that we find objectionable is valid.  You know the old saying...those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  So if we remove all those monuments, how do we remember, how do we learn?  Aren't they a good teaching tool?  Can't we use them to explain to our children about the Civil War, why it was fought and what the issues were, including the central issue of slavery?  I guess there is some truth to that but then I ask how statues of Generals are going to contribute to the story.  And depending on who's telling it, the facts get altered.  Badly altered.  I would strongly favor (and hope) that those monuments go somewhere where they can be a part of the story.  Because the story needs to be told.  Accurately.  Truthfully.  Painfully.  

As for me...I come down on the side of removal.  Of course, as a guy living in SoCal I don't have a big dog in the fight, other than my opinion as an American.  The truth is that I see this an more of an academic exercise than one that I feel passionately about.  So the passion I feel when thinking of this is the unbeliveable pain and suffering that some of the ancestors of black people who might live among us, share our values, and are just as much citizens of this great land as I am.  And I just don't see the need to inflict the pain of memories of slavery that these monuments surely invoke.  I guess that, although the danger is always there, I don't really buy the slippery slope of removing other historical artifacts.  I understand all the arguments that true Southerners make in defense of the monuments.  But those defenses simply don't overcome what these statues represent to some of our fellow citizens.  Ask yourself, what if you were a black family visiting a location with one of these monuments and you had to explain to your kids what they represent.  If I were a white family standing next to them, I'd be ashamed that our country engaged in that practice to our fellow man.  And I'm not even sure that most people even realize just how bad it was.  The movies and folklore have softened the reality.  Do some studying about slavery.  The reality was horrific.  And it's not something we should be holding up.
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