Who Lives? Who Dies? Who Tells Your Story?
Let me first divert to a non-controversial topic before I get to my main point.
I love the musical Hamilton. As a history-loving, patriotic government-studying American, I love the subject matter. I love the unabashed nerdiness of cabinet rap battles. I love how it has given more knowledge of history to millions than any classroom could. I love how it dives into ideas: building a foundation for future generations and of the arbitrariness of life’s sorrows. I also love a central theme of the musical and of Hamilton’s story: You do not have to be perfect in order to be great. Also, one of the most painful fates is to be burned out of the memory of those who come later.
I love the absolutely quotable lines throughout that seem to have been written for current events. For example, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Aaron Burr, in self-governing fury, give what I believe is the best summation of the TEA-Party sentiment in their political-party-creating ode, “Washington on Your Side,” —
“Let’s show these Federalists who they’re up against. Southern M______ F______ Democratic-Republicans.”
As a former heavy participant in a local TEA Party, I can assure you that this is what people were feeling, even if they were too polite to use those exact words. With the new Trump phenomenon blowing away politeness with the winds of populism, it might just be the new motto of the GOP.
And even though it garnered some controversy, I love that there was an explicit desire to have non-white cast members (even though this is nearly unquestionably illegal under current law), because our founding American story and ideals transcend race. Were our founders white? Pretty much. Does this matter? No. If takes a non-white person for non-white people to realize that, then I’d like that non-white person to communicate that.
Which brings me to the present issue of removing Confederate-friendly monuments.
Coming To Grips With Our History
What is Currently Happening
Back in December of 2015, the City Council of New Orleans voted to remove four Confederate States of America-related monuments in the city. As CNN reported at the time, this move was described as “one of the strongest gestures yet by an American city to remove symbols of Confederate history.” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, “courageous decision to turn a page on our divisive past and chart the course for a more inclusive future.” And one city council-woman said it was time to stop living “underneath the shadows” of monuments of people who supported slavery.
There were unsuccessful legal challenges, and eventually the plan went forward. New Orleans would remove the Robert E. Lee Monument, the Jefferson Davis Monument, the monument for General P. G. T. Beauregard, and the Liberty Place Monument. They are presently coming down.
Each of these monuments has a significant connection to New Orleans, and three of the four involve people of serious historical significance.
Robert E. Lee is one of the most significant figures in American History. His skill as a commander is almost unarguably stellar based on results alone, and his relationship and thoughts leading to the war and about slavery are deep, nuanced, sometimes unclear, and complicated. Reasonable people may disagree on how it is appropriate to remember and judge him, but it is crazy from a historical perspective not to remember him. A monument in one of the largest Southern cities is fairly natural. If Simon Bolivar has a monument in Washington, D.C., I do not understand why Robert E. Lee wouldn’t have one in New Orleans.
Jefferson Davis was also a significant figure in the history of the United States, being the president of the “wrong side” of that war. Though he lacks some of the virtues commonly attributed to Robert E. Lee, he died in New Orleans, making a monument to him in that city fairly natural.
General P. G. T. Beauregard is also a significant figure in the civil war, ordering the first shots of the war at Fort Sumter, and playing a significant military role throughout. He was from New Orleans, and is not as well known as the other two individuals. His monument is also a quite natural thing from a purely historical perspective.
The Liberty Place Monument is perhaps the strangest of the bunch, being erected in remembrance of an unsuccessful revolt against an integrated police and other trappings of a Reconstructionist South. The original inscription of the monument read:
United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election in November 1876 recognized white supremacy and gave us our state. McEnery and Penn, having been elected governor and lieutenant governor by the white people, were duly installed by the overthrow of the carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers Gov. Kellogg (white) and Lt. Gov. Antoine (colored).
Wow! That inscription may need its own historical marker to explain the sentiment of the time. The inscription was changed, removing the “carpetbagger” language and acknowledging those who died “on both sides”:
In honor of those Americans on both sides who died in the Battle of Liberty Place
Members of the Metropolitan Police:
[Names of the Fallen Policemen]
A conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.
[Additional Names of Participants Appear on Other Edifices of the Monument.]
A fairly diplomatic inscription for 1932, if you ask me.
Why This Does Not Look Like A Good Thing
There is nothing good or bad about any particular monument at any particular place. No one’s life will be any less fulfilled because a city green space with a monument will suddenly become a city green space with a park bench. But this is not an unhealthy move because of WHAT is happening; it is bad because of WHY it is happening.
CNN states it is an effort to “ remove symbols of Confederate history.” Note, it wasn’t Confederate “philosophy,” or Confederate “power,” or Confederate “ideals.” It was Confederate “history.” Hm…. I don’t think CNN meant to make that as loaded as it was, but it was that loaded.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu says that this turns “a page on our divisive past and chart the course for a more inclusive future.” Well, how’s that working? When police snipers are surrounding the construction site and workers are wearing masks to hide their identity and kevlar vests, that is hardly seems like an “inclusive future” it seems like a divisive present. Inclusion doesn’t count when it is achieved by excluding all who might disagree.
And a city councilwoman stated that it is time to stop living “underneath the shadows” of monuments of people who supported slavery? Does she realize that she lives among people who are the descendants of people who supported slavery? As a person who lives in the greater DC area, this is a rather strange and possibly wildly controversial statement, unless we separate slave-ownership from slavery-support.
We need a better way to do this. We need to come to grips with our history.
Coming to grips with our history does not mean re-writing it. It means understanding it, and writing it correctly. Does this mean we must have a moral lens to look at history? Of course. But does this mean we must find the bad, label the bad, purge the bad, and valiantly label ourselves on the side of “the good.” Absolutely not.
What does it mean to erase the evil from our past? If the progressive-liberal “make the world safe for Democracy” President Woodrow Wilson is not safe from the purge of memory, who is? Is our great literature safe? I’m afraid not. We are separating ourselves from our own history. And if this is the pattern, who will bother to undertake great tasks today? Only those who have no shame and no fear of hurting those close to him? Will we be remembered, ourselves? What monuments will we raise? Who will tear them down?
This is not coming to grips with our history. This is running from it.
There Must Be A Better Way
Why do children love their parents? Is it because their parents are good? Not at all. Most parents are good to their children. But even parents who are not good receive love from their children. Even children who never met their parents long for them. Even children who are abused by their parents feel the tug of something deeper. You love your parents because they are your parents.
There is no reason. It only is. And we need it to be that way. We must first have love before we can truly live in peace. There is no “earning.” Such a system is doomed to failure. When the love of a child does not flow to a parent, when the love of a parent does not flow to a child, when the patriotism of a citizen does not flow to his country, and when the identity, patriotism, and love of a nation is tied deeply to its history, we will fail.
To malign someone’s parents is to malign them. To make a child acknowledge how his father is mistreating him, even if true, invites pain and trouble. It is the same with a country. It is the same with “the South.” We cannot just label the bad and retreat to the good. We must realize: You do not have to be perfect in order to be great. You can’t wish things away.
We do not need to cut ourselves off from that which is bad. We must resolve, that E Pluribus Unum, and from this day forward, and every day that follows, we will live in a just society that welcomes all within it.
The descendants of the Confederacy will always be the descendants of the Confederacy. And the United States, founded on the inalienable rights of mankind, includes both them and the descendants of the Union. It includes black and white, immigrant and native, rich and poor, young and old, socialists and libertarians. It includes racists, social-justice warriors, criminals, corporate titans, the greedy, and the bitter. It includes the indifferent, the zealous, the close-minded, and plenty of windbags. All of these are Americans.
If we say we love America, but we don’t love Americans, do we really? If we love America, but cut ourselves off from the shadow of its history, what are we?
Why do we love our country? Because it is ours. Our nation was found on a high ideal. It convicts all who live underneath it. If we condemn those who came before, because they did not change their corrupt system built on the backs of others, how will future generations view us? Are we that confident in our own justice and our own system?
I am not. Are you?
Please do not condemn. Please do not preach. Remember that Martin Luther King’s dream was not just about the sons of slaves coming to the table of brotherhood, but the sons of slave-owners, too. Be as those at the dedication of the Liberty Place Monument, who, struggling to come to grips with their own history and after changing the text of the plaque, came together. “[T]hese speakers characterized the battle as a fight against tyranny, downplayed racial tension, and left out the White League’s white supremacist motivations.”
Remember the good. Downplay the bad. Work for justice today. Give respect where it was absent. And always remember that you do not have to be perfect in order to be good. We are America. We are not perfect. But we are still great.
There is good news. Those who have come before have given a guide and example. Thankfully, our words outshine our deeds. This is not hypocrisy. This is idealism.
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among. ourselves and with all nations.
We have a challenge. Let’s face it.