The Curse of the Confederacy: A Plague on Both Your Houses

As I try to think through both sides (and come to terms with my own ambivalence), I don’t see any good guys in the debate about removing the Confederate monuments in New Orleans. I share the underlying politics of the “removal” side – let’s call them the liberals. Namely, the values of the Confederacy in no way reflect our values today. In fact, the vast majority of people (white and black) I have known in my 50 years in New Orleans agree with that. Thus, removing purely political markers like the Liberty Monument makes sense. Changing selected street names or removing flags – no problem. But I am uncomfortable with the cleansing of art history, as if art history has no value beyond politics and must be purged to suit today’s political values. For example, the century-old Beauregard sculpture’s lines and shadowed cuts and grandeur impressed me long before I knew who was on the horse. It certainly never gave me the slightest pro-Confederate feeling. If it had been quietly renamed “The Unknown Union Soldier,” most could still have enjoyed the aesthetics and most native New Orleanians would have been none the wiser. (My experience is that outsiders coming in are more aware of the political side and natives are more likely aware of these things as the “furniture” they grew up with.) So my concerns on this side are these:

(1) Where does the cultural cleansing of historical-register artifacts from centuries past stop? Take ‘Em Down Nola (who led the removal of Beauregard and the other Confederate monuments) has already targeted the 160-year-old equestrian statue of U.S. President Andrew Jackson as well as the French Quarter monument to New Orleans founder Bienville, who died 100 years before the Confederacy existed.  For those who are concerned about the scope of the cleansing, if removalists could give them a clear sense of the endgame before the steamroller (as they see it) starts rolling, it would go a long way toward alleviating anxiety and opening a dialogue. At least it seems a fair question to ask.

(2) How does “us vs them” identity politics ever get us back to the “all-in-this-together” model of Martin Luther King and Mary Wollstonecraft, Frederick Douglass and Olaudah Equiano, Gandhi and Mandela, all of whom placed shared humanness at the center of their visions? Sectioning off white, male, black, female, etc., reifying those characteristics and prejudging people accordingly, seems to keep us on the wrong path. What you spend your time visualizing is what you bring into being. At what point do we focus our considerable energy on the things that connect us to each other and to the future rather than on the things that divide us?  

Pro-monument voices – let’s call them the conservatives here – have, for the most part, been even worse. All the waving of Confederate flags and “Southern pride,” in this context, suggests that they really do still believe in the lost cause of Confederate values. This is almost mind-boggling. Even the ones who complain about “erasing history” seem to be clinging to the political history of a vicious past. I haven’t heard every voice, but has no one disavowed the political values of the Confederacy in no uncertain terms and made the case that art history may have some small value that goes beyond politics?

Removal of the Liberty Monument was an easy call. Removal of the Jefferson Davis statue should also have been an easy compromise, as any art historical significance it had beyond its political point seemed slight. But Lee and Beauregard were on the National Historical Register for a reason, and that reason is not because the National Historical Register favors Confederate values. I would like to think it has something to do with preserving art history as, to some extent, valuable in its own right, irrespective of politics.

In the end, maybe removal of all the monuments was a good thing. I haven’t really canvassed all the neighborhoods to see what people were actually thinking, and I might be swayed by more voices on the ground. I suspect, though, that the most public voices on both sides represent their own fairly small but very active political circles. But each side seems to thrive in its own way on polarization, ready to shut its ears and throw everything under the bus to make its political point. This makes me think that maybe politics itself is the problem. Maybe we should throw politics under the bus …

Click here for “The end of all politics.”

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16 thoughts on “The Curse of the Confederacy: A Plague on Both Your Houses

  1. Gary,
    James Gill has an article today entitled “Would a Marxist or a Nazi topple Lee?” The Mayor has been called both by his detractors for removing the statues and Gill has some fun pointing out that the folks using the terms likely don’t know what either mean. The worst offender was the Mississippi legislator (Karl Oliver) who put a post on facebook suggesting that the mayor and others should be lynched.
    My opinion for what it is worth is similar to yours, but I can’t really get excited about it. Its not my history and my identity is not tied up in it. Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting arguments for both sides. I tend to agree with your concluding paragraph. Maybe it is a good thing in the end to remove the monuments, but somehow it doesn’t feel like a clean moral “victory.” There’s just so much drama and divisiveness. It’s hard to feel good about that.

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    • Hi Lorilin. I have the same feeling, but I’ll go one step further out on the limb. As a long-time liberal, I am especially uneasy that the liberal mindset now seems to be less about how we can work together and more about drawing lines in the sand so we pass judgment and shame on anyone outside the circle. And in a particularly disturbing turnaround, liberals tend to define the circle with entrenched demographic boundaries. Gone are the open-to-all liberals I used to know. Welcome to the Limbaugh road rage that is now the universal m.o. on both sides. Thus, I now conclude that politics itself is the problem. When political values trump all other values, the real human connections underneath get lost. Tim Leary’s prescience wins again: Drop out, turn on, tune in.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Gary,
        I agree with your concerns about the closing of the liberal mind but it is also difficult in the current environment to find “conservatives” that will engage in open discussions. It’s a culture of screams. How do you have open discussions with those who embrace the latest (and every) conspiracy theories? Having tried it’s largely impossible; its tilting at windmills. We are talking about such divergent world views that we can’t even agree on the underlying facts. If you believe (and yes I’ve been told this by several Trumpees) that the Clinton’s have murdered 34 people and we’re involved in a sex trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor where do you start the discussion? But still I agree that people must try. As Nietzsche wrote:”when you wrestle with a monster be careful you don’t become one.”

        Liked by 2 people

        • Perhaps I was not clear. I in no way meant to suggest that conservatives were more willing to engage in open discussions. Quite the contrary. I agree with everything you say. If it seemed I was singling out liberals, it’s because there was a time when I expected better of them. Nietzsche is on target.

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            • Since I know something of your heart, Michael, let me make a modest proposal for a letter to the editor. Assuming Take’Em Down Nola gets the Andrew Jackson sculpture and its other current targets, can we then bypass Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, go straight to all the statues and buildings dedicated to the one man in whose name slavery (at least in its Eurocentric variant) was justified for 350 years, remove them all and call it even? I don’t have the balls to write such a letter myself right now, but I’d be curious to see whom it brings out of the woodwork on both sides.

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              • Well you are harkening back to the theology issues inherent in the civil war. Remember that many southern religious groups justified slavery in biblical terms. Blacks were descendants of Ham and based on their ridiculous literal reading of the Bible this meant Ham’s descendants were supposed to be slaves.

                You know my thoughts on organized religion. I’ve thrown enough fuel on fires over the years through my letters to editors. And I concede it would be fun to twist the tale of that tiger one more time but I raised enough issues in my novel for those who want to think. For the rest? Well let’s say I’ll wait for that open discussion. Wake me when it starts.

                Liked by 1 person

      • I feel like I’ve been noticing that a lot more lately. Ever since Trump… I mean, I’m glad that a lot of people have “woken up” and feel strongly about fighting for rights (etc.) that Trump is ready to squash. But it freaks me out how quickly people start in with the “burn em at the stake!” mentality. No more discussion; it’s all just either/or, black/white, right/wrong, me/other. It feels so good to be “right,” that, yeah, the real human connections do get lost. I try to take things a day at a time and “be the change you wish in the world” and all that. But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel overwhelming sometimes…

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  3. Pingback: Identity Politics Explained | shakemyheadhollow

  4. I appreciate the angle from New Orleans. But what makes the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville primed for removal is that, it is the centerpiece of Emancipation Park. Either a horrible mistake or an intentional middle finger to the Union. But with fresh blood at its base, both points are suddenly moot. Thanks for the ticket to Shake My Head Hollow. Enjoy being here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kendall. If it was Emancipation Park first and they chose to put a Lee statue there, I have to agree — 100% in favor of removal, as it seems an intentional snub to the concept of emancipation. If the Lee statue was there first and the park later renamed as a way of reclaiming the space for a more inclusive public, then we’re back to the more interesting point about who Robt E Lee was and whether all monuments to him should be removed regardless of art historical value. Thanks for the extra food for thought. I like to keep my position negotiable 🙂

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      • The statue came first, however the vote to remove came before the vote to rename park. That being said, it still begs the question… why was it built on US soil, when he fought for the Confederacy and who considered himself a citizen of a sovereign nation, even granted Beligerent Status by 2 foreign governments? I believe all other arguments to be moot, although I too am an arts enthusiast.

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