Monuments and Compromise

Liberty Place monument original location

The obelisk at its original location

New Orleans has four monuments to white supremacy now slated for removal. Two of these monuments fall into the run of generic Confederate celebration. Neither Robert E. Lee nor Jefferson Davis had all that much to do with New Orleans or Louisiana, but if you can’t put up a statue or Lee or Davis as an icon of white power then what else is there? In the case of New Orleans, one could plausibly argue that Andrew Jackson does the job and has an obvious local history connection. New Orleans has a Jackson statue and, while I understand it has rightly drawn criticism, the proposed removal doesn’t include it. It does include a statue of Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard, a genuine native son.

This leaves us with the fourth monument to consider. It commemorates not the familiar war, but its less famous continuation. On September 14, 1874, five thousand members of the White League battled the state militia and local police. It took the arrival of the United States military to suppress their insurrection. People don’t just get together thousands strong and pick a fight with the state for the pure joy of battle. The obelisk celebrating the struggle did not originally come with an explanation, but the city added one in the 1930s:

United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.

In the Thirties, whites didn’t feel as obligated to talk around the issues as they often do now. The rioters in 1874 fought for white supremacy against a Reconstruction state government and they would have had it if not for the Army getting in the way. If the Confederate veterans in the White League didn’t get what they wanted at the time, their perseverance eventually won through. The obelisk generated the sort of criticism one would expect, eventually leading the city to add a new plaque contextualizing the monument. This pleased no one, and really could please no one. The city moved the obelisk, leaving it out of view until former Grand Wizard David Duke sued for its return. New Orleans relocated the it to a less conspicuous place. Now it may at last go for good. This also fails to please.

The inscription

The inscription

We have a natural tendency to look for compromises. This often means not a settlement, but rather that a sufficient number of us agree to call things settled, as it did for Henry Clay’s famous compromises. Compromising makes one feel high-minded, reasonable, and generally better than the partisans of either side. They consider only their interests. We, the compromising, nobly work to for everyone’s. It all sounds very good on paper. It might even work out that way when differences come down to small details or similar means to achieve generally agreed-upon ends. Now and then, one does find situations where the narcissism of small differences plays a large role.

More often, though, one encounters real differences in values. Our shared humanity, though it ought to move us toward large circles of compassion and empathy, only goes so far. People have different and frequently irreconcilable values. We can hide that fact under platitudes about how we all love our families and want to lead peaceful, happy lives. Some of us, given the general human proficiency for self-deception, successfully hide it even from ourselves. Sufficiently blinded, we can push for peace and comity that amount less to mutual contentedness and more to often brute enforcement of the very circumstances which render those alleged goals impossible.

The white people of New Orleans once thought the White League right to fight for white power and the preservation of as much of slavery as possible. Perhaps many still do. White Americans frequently preach egalitarianism, but just as frequently lose interest when the time comes to turn sermons into policy. That might cost us some of our capital, social and otherwise. White power didn’t require justification. It did not constitute a new or radical change, like racial egalitarianism, but rather the normal order of events. This makes it peaceful. Everybody knows his or her place and we all go along, ignoring slavery, lynching, and other perfidies. One can ignore them entirely or pretend these things just happen and have nothing to do with us, but the more honest might admit that we prefer them. They happen to the right kind of people, deserving of such treatment for whatever reasons we care to invent.

Where can one find a middle ground between those who view such things as right and those who view them as wrong? If we view white Americans’ depredations against black Americans as right, then anything that ameliorates or halts them constitutes a loss. If we take them as wrong, then anything that doesn’t constitutes a loss. For either side to claim satisfaction, the other must lose. A true compromise solution, where no one loses and everyone walks away somewhat satisfied does not, and cannot logically, exist. In this case, should we understand compromise as ideal even in principle? Or should we understand it as an expression of less overt partisanship?

Appeals for compromise, like any other appeal, might arise from cynical motives. A party that expects to lose might suggest compromise in order to preserve an implicit victory against the threat of explicit defeat. Without positive action against it, a preferred status quo will usually prevail. It has, and in order to function most anywhere short of a police state, must have the at least passive assent of those with the power to change it. To that, we can add delays, procedural complaints, and maliciously scrupulous compliance with formalities. All can do much to gum up the works while appearing neutral and disinterested enough to avoid obvious partisanship.

All of this applies to the the forest of white supremacist memorials, but I think the point more generally applicable. In reading Robert Pierce Forbes’ excellent The Missouri Compromise and its Aftermath a few days back, I came on this telling point:

The second reason for slaveholders’ fear of federal revenues is at once the simplest and the most profound: they dreaded the disruption that change would bring to a closed system. The report of South Carolina’s Nullification Convention rendered a stunning judgment on the inflexibility of its slave society when it denounced the application of the American system of protection and internal improvements to “the great Southern section of the Union” on the grounds that “local circumstances” rendered the region “altogether incapable of change” (emphasis added). Nothing could better illustrate the brittleness of the slave system than this sweeping statement.[1]

South Carolina’s nullifiers might have spoken for their own especially ossified state, and surely appreciated the perceived fragility of their system, but other Southerners had a sunnier view of their section’s potential. Later generations of historians have taken a more positive (for white enslavers) one yet, noting the remarkable durability and adaptability of slave systems. That said, this still has some truth to it. Humans have a great ability to change and innovate when we absolutely must, but it takes works and might raise questions about the fundamental order of things that we find uncomfortable or intolerable. Even if we don’t consciously accept the premise that white must control black and black lives exist for the convenience of white looting, we live in a culture that does so. This holds true for Americans who have snow outside their windows right now as for those who have none. By fixating on allegedly unconnected factors, we can pretend that we have not imbibed those doctrines whilst simultaneously serving as partisans for them. We all do so often enough.

Those now protesting the removal of the Liberty Place monument and other markers of white power don’t always follow that script. I encourage you to click through and read the remarkable things that Amanda Jennings wrote in Kevin’s comments, but read them knowing that she likes her “goverment” without any n in it. I presume that her accent, like my own, doesn’t stress the letter. Jennings insists she means nuts. Should she convince you of that, you may also find her strange world where men like Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis wrote anti-Southern lies about the South in the service of “the government” quite persuasive. You may also find yourself interested in various real estate ventures and compelled to assist Nigerian dignitaries who have lost access to their bank accounts. I would advise against such endeavors, but per Jennings you should take all I write as the product of a brainwashed stooge of the government.

[1]Forbes, Robert Pierce (2009-01-05). The Missouri Compromise and Its Aftermath: Slavery and the Meaning of America (p. 168). The University of North Carolina Press. Kindle Edition.

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King, Stone Mountain, and the Pablum Past

Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain

If you go down to Georgia you can see the kind of landmark that traditionally gets Americans excited. We have the biggest bas-relief in the world carved into the north face of Stone Mountain. I haven’t seen it myself, but I have seen some of the artist’s other work. From the park viewing platform, Mt. Rushmore makes an impression. I imagine that the carving on Stone Mountain does as well, what with Stonewall Jackson, Robert Lee, and Jefferson Davis all on horseback with hats over their hearts. Both carvings depict small pantheons, great men worthy of having their memory literally etched in stone. A reasonable person looking at both would understand that the monuments communicate just that: the creators found them so important that they went people for centuries hence to know and admire them. To look upon their works, take them as your example, and live according to their values, would ennoble and elevate you and your society. To forget them would lesson us immeasurably. One does not, after all, carve people one considers unimportant or unpleasant into the side of a mountain.

Stone Mountain has not avoided the criticism that other such monuments have faced in the months since the Charleston shooting. Nor should it, given both its prominence and the fact that the second Ku Klux Klan first met there. Its massive size, however, renders some of the reasonable remedies impractical. We cannot relocate the carving to a museum. Nor does it seem likely that we shall manage some kind of contextualizing display of similar prominence. Sandblasting it away sounds reasonable, but unlikely to happen. What could the state of Georgia do, blast out the other side of the mountain and carve a giant bust of Frederick Douglass? Not exactly. Douglass had very little to do with Georgia, just like the three Confederates, but the state does have a worthy equivalent in Martin Luther King, Jr. The state thus proposes

On the summit of Stone Mountain, yards away from where Ku Klux Klansmen once burned giant crosses, just above and beyond the behemoth carving of three Confederate heroes, state authorities have agreed to erect a monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Specifically, an elevated tower — featuring a replica of the Liberty Bell — would celebrate the single line in the civil rights martyr’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that makes reference to the 825-foot-tall hunk of granite: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”

When I first heard this, I thought it a step in the right direction. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, of license plate fame, came out with an unintentional endorsement:

This decision by the Stone Mountain Memorial Association is wholly inappropriate in that it is an intentional act of disrespect toward the stated purpose of the Stone Mountain memorial from its inception as well as a possible violation of the law which established the Stone Mountain Memorial Association and charged it with promoting the mountain as a Confederate memorial.

An intentional act of disrespect towards celebration of the Confederacy sounds pretty good to me. The SCV continues:

The erection of monuments to anyone other than Confederate heroes in Stone Mountain Park is in contradistinction to the purpose for which the park exists and would make it a memorial to something different.  The park was never intended to be a memorial to multiple causes but solely to the Confederacy.  Therefore, monuments to either Michael King or soldiers of any color who fought against the Confederacy would be a violation of the purpose for which the park was created and exists. The opinions of the park’s current neighbors and opponents are of no bearing in the discussion.

This requires a small bit of unpacking. I understand that the environs of the park have undergone a demographic shift since the carving. Maybe once upon a time they could boast of the kind of whiteness you would expect of the local Klavern. Given regular Klan rallies took place on the mountain into the 1950s, that could make for less a metaphor than literal truth. Now the neighborhoods that Jackson, Lee, and Davis oversee have a black majority. If that makes pilgrimages to the site by the SCV a bit uncomfortable, they could console themselves with the fact that the mountain preserved in its own way a vision of white control that they appear to value greatly. Black opinions don’t count.

The reference to Michael King comes from an old smear. The story goes that King answered to Michael from birth. Somewhere along the way he decided that he needed a more impressive name and cynically chose Martin Luther. He never changed his name legally, just one way in which everyone “knew” him for a fraud. King’s father, Martin Luther King, Sr., held that both he and his son got Michael put on their birth certificates out of confusion. They always went by Martin. If this sounds a bit wild to us, we should keep in mind that there remains no obligation to use one’s legal name in all things so long as one doesn’t intend fraud by it. Consistent use of Martin hardly sounds like the act of a mountebank. Next the SCV will tell us that King had an obsession with white prostitutes and worked as a trained operative for the Communist Party to incite servile insurrection.

The SCV goes on:

Furthermore, the erection of a monument to anything other than the Confederate Cause being placed on top of Stone Mountain because of the objections of opponents of Georgia’s Confederate heritage would be akin to the state flying a Confederate battle flag atop the King Center in Atlanta against the wishes of King supporters.  Both would be altogether inappropriate and disrespectful acts, repugnant to Christian people.

No one would want to put an unwelcome flag atop the King Center, as everyone would understand it as an expression of dominance over the memory of King by those who oppose all he stood for. Likewise, those who want to put a King monument atop Stone Mountain want to repudiate its Confederate legacies and replace them with something better. If the SCV sees these positions as equivalent, then it has told us more than it probably intended about itself.

The local NAACP and Southern Christian Leadership Conference weighed in on the King monument as well. Doubtless some in the SCV will take their opposition as proof that no racial animus plays into the SCV’s own. They would only need to neglect the reason for the opposition and the SCV has told us that black opinions don’t matter to it, so the maneuver must come naturally. Just as we would not follow Jefferson Davis’ example, so we do not need to take our cues from the SCV. Therefore, I present the reasons:

“The proposal to include Dr. King [on Stone Mountain] is simply to confuse black folk about the issues,” said John Evans, president of the DeKalb County branch of the NAACP. “It’s an attempt to gain support from blacks to keep these racist and demeaning symbols.

And:

“Why are governments spending tax dollars to preserve monuments of hate?” asked [SCLC president Charles] Steele. “And more so, why put any reference of Dr. King, one of Georgia’s most favorite sons, anywhere near these three traitors?”

They have a very strong point, which has moved me from considering the King monument at least promising to a poor idea indeed. Having King celebrated in close company with the Confederate pantheon would prove very good for their resumes, but not so much for King’s. To put King in their company implies that they deserve it and that King would welcome them. The SCV perceives the same dynamic, but the other way around. To them, associating King with the Confederates would sully the brave white supremacists in gray and elevate him.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I see no way out of that dilemma. Putting the two symbols together in the same context asserts a sympathetic connection between them. We should admire both similarly. It looks and feels fair on first examination, but doesn’t actually work that way. Fairness toward symbols necessitates fairness toward what they represent, which one cannot adopt without accepting the cruel, violent, rapacious works of white supremacy done under their banner or reduction of one or both symbols to utter meaninglessness. We have enough secular saints that we refuse to learn from even as we pretend to celebrate them. We have already done too much to wipe away King’s cause and the resistance to it in favor of a pablum past.

Deprived of its controversies, that “history” has nothing to teach us. It asks us to confront nothing and question ourselves not at all. If we lived in a perfectly just society, and always had, then that might not make for much of a problem. But no civilization has managed that yet. Without such an unparalleled achievement, clinging to the pablum past makes us not neutral but rather partisans for both past evils and their present day continuations. We should remember Martin Luther King, Jr., faults and all, but we should also remember him as a man white Americans feared and hated just as much as they celebrated him. White Americans jailed him and his supporters. They beat and killed civil rights activists. The Federal Bureau of Investigation tried to drive King to suicide. These facts do not go away because we pretend otherwise.

Monuments and the Civil War Trust

The Confederate memorial on the grounds of the Alabama capitol

The Confederate memorial on the grounds of the Alabama capitol

A few times a year, ever since I subscribed to the Civil War Monitor, I get mail from the Civil War Trust. They raise money to acquire battlefield land for preservation. Ideally they then hand it over to the National Park Service or some other dependable group to manage. As one might gather from the name, they focus on Civil War battlefields, but they’ve lately branched out into the Revolution and War of 1812. About as often as I get mail from them, I think about sending them money. (I haven’t yet, but may still in the future.) I hear good things about their work from people I trust.

The Civil War Trust also did a piece of less than good work. It stood to reason that they would have something to say eventually about the growing challenge to Confederate monuments in the wake of the Charleston murders. They came out with a petition defending the monuments, about which Kevin Levin and Al Mackey have already written. I think it deserves examination, even if I tread over some of the same ground that they have.

After briefly laying out the circumstances, as these things do, the Trust tells its readers

It is our privilege as a free people to debate our history. However, we must remember that such freedoms come at a tremendous cost, paid for in the blood of brave Americans in uniform who sacrificed all to forge the country we are today. We owe these men and women a debt that can never be repaid.

I don’t care for talk about debts owed to soldiers as I think it easily shades over into glorification of the military and warfare in itself, if it ever meant anything else. But I know that most people feel differently. Accepting the premise for the sake of argument, we come to an immediate problem. The monuments to the Confederate military and leadership could only commemorate the bloody price paid for freedom and to forge the modern United States if those Confederates paid the blood dues out of the bodies of members of the United States military. This reading, however perverse, has the apparently esoteric virtue of comporting with history. I say esoteric because having identified the monuments under threat by implication, the Trust’s petition then tries to distract us from them:

Recognizing this debt, generations of Americans up to this day have built memorials honoring those who served in the military and have fallen in battle. These monuments are silent sentinels recognizing the soldiers who crossed the frozen Delaware River with Washington, fought amid the boulder-strewn hillsides of Gettysburg, served in the trenches of Vicksburg and Petersburg, landed on the beaches of Normandy and the islands of the Pacific, and most recently served in the deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Leaving aside my pacifism, I understand the debt that people feel to those who died fighting the good fight. Surely this debt arises from their participation under the banner of a just cause and in service to noble aims. Those aims might not fit with a clear understanding of preserving American freedoms, of course. My grandfather fought on islands in the Pacific against an enemy that did not in any meaningful sense threaten American freedoms. Neither the Japanese, nor the Germans, nor the Italians, proposed to launch grand invasions of American soil, conquer it, overthrow the American government, and replace it with one created in their own image. But we all know the monstrous crimes of Nazi Germany. The Japanese did similarly horrific, if less industrialized, things in China and the Pacific. Defeating them served the cause of freedom generally.

If all of that holds true, then how must we read the references to Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Petersburg? The Trust doesn’t go into specifics; it means for us to take the dead of those battles indiscriminately, the United States Colored Troops who died in the Crater as much martyrs to freedom as the men in gray who killed them. Somehow, both slavery’s soldiers and the solders who ultimately fought to destroy slavery had equally noble causes. We owe this debt alike to both parties. Only one freedom concerned the Confederacy and the Confederates: the freedom to enslave. If this counts as a nobility, then I propose we cultivate meaner virtues.

The Trust tells us

It is important to remember that many of these memorials are historic in their own right some more than 200 years old. In countless instances, these monuments were erected by the veterans themselves, who wanted to remember their leaders, their units and their fallen comrades. Many of these memorials were also paid for not with public money but through small dollar donations made by survivors and local citizens, determined to give of their limited means to honor the military.

No Civil War monument has yet had its two hundredth birthday. Once again the Trust considers every monument alike, as if all faced the same criticism. It rightly sees the monuments as artifacts in their own right, but then flees from considering anything but the most superficial reading of them. The authors do not, beside appeal to bad math, consider when the monuments went up or under what circumstances. Nor does it look to their content. The Trust doesn’t care if they lie about the Confederacy’s cause or if veterans put them up to celebrate the defeat of Reconstruction. It chooses not to inquire about monuments erected as protests against the civil rights, nor how many of these monuments served as rallying points for the resistance of the same. It even lumps together Confederate monuments built with public money on public land and those elsewhere, as though no difference existed between a kitsch statue of Lee in one’s backyard and one bearing the unquestionable imprimatur of the state.

The Trust asks for understanding and nuance while systematically eschewing the same. They say it outright:

we have a sacred duty to protect these war memorials, from all of America’s conflicts, whether they rest on the battlefield, in national cemeteries, or on town squares.

The Trust then calls on Congress to preserve and protect the lot, presumably even including those on private property that the owner would want removed and those on public property that the community wants gone.

Given my past iconoclasm, I can surprise no one by declaring myself unpersuaded. I remain convinced that the worst outcome involves the monuments, as a whole, remaining as they now stand. Simple battlefield markers noting where a unit stood and what it did can remain untroubled, of course. They serve a perfectly good educational purpose, provided their inscriptions get the facts right. Nor do I propose removing individual grave markers in cemeteries, though I do think the nation should get out of the business of erecting tombstones for dead Confederates. Memorials celebrating the Confederacy and/or lying about its cause present a different problem, especially when on public land and far from battlefields. Leaving them as-is continues the endorsement of their message, informing any who see them of untruths and exhorting them to mourn slavery’s end.

These monuments require correction or removal. If the Trust wants to have them as museum pieces, then I’d be happy to see them relocated somewhere and presented as ways the memory of the Civil War served, and still serves, the cause of white supremacy. Removal without that presentation comes next. If some private group wants to have the things and no corrective seems likely, then best have them out from under the smiling gaze of state buildings. If the owners simply wish to destroy the monuments, I consider that a missed opportunity for education but still superior to leaving them undisturbed.

If the monuments must remain in their present locations, then I think correctives must go beyond a simple plaque or a contrary monument elsewhere on the grounds. At the very least any companion monument should stand in a position of similar or greater prominence, easily visible from the original, and accompanied by interpretative materials that situation the two together. Though the best outcome, this one seems the least likely to me. Just as the original monuments had a clear, unambiguous message, so must any new pieces clearly counter it. I don’t foresee many plaques appearing with words like “the people who erected this other monument lied, and here’s how” with illustrative quotations and statistics. This would risk turning heritage sites designed to give one a bland, patriotic feeling of a sanitized past with all the messiness and conflict of actual history. Someone could learn something.

I have come down hard on the Civil War Trust today, but I think no harder than the petition deserves. I still think they do good work. They have among their officers competent historians. They produce good educational content, some of which I’ve highlighted before. But with this petition they fell prey to the inherent tension between their real estate business, and the fact that Lost Cause cash spends as well as the rest, and the educational mission which informs that business. They did this bad thing, but it does not undo the good they have done and I trust will continue to do.