Statuary Offenses


There’s a Civil War statue on the village green in Castine, Maine, a granite Union soldier in full battle kit who holds a prominent place in my imagination for several reasons. The poet Robert Lowell lived for many years in a house on the northwest corner of the green, and this is the statue he could see from his bedroom window, framed in ancient elm trees with the tall white Unitarian church beyond it. The Civil War monument Lowell describes in his most famous poem, “For the Union Dead,” stands in Boston Common — Augustus St. Gaudens’ memorial to Col. Robert Gould Shaw and his 54th Regiment of African-American soldiers who were slaughtered in the assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, S.C., in 1863. But the statue in Castine, 40 yards from Lowell’s front door, is certainly the one in his mind’s eye when he writes,

“On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; …….

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year——
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns…”

At least fifty times my wife and I have unfolded our camp chairs in the shadow of this statue framed by elms, usually to hear the Castine town band’s exceptional performances of patriotic anthems and Sousa marches. But it must have been around the 20th time when my wife looked up, with a flash of alarmed recognition, and exclaimed “My God, he’s not one of ours, is he?”

My wife hails from western Virginia; she’s lived all her life in Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina, rarely crossing the Mason-Dixon Line before I brought her to Maine. The hundreds of Civil War statues she had seen and taken for granted, up to that moment, had all been honoring Confederate soldiers. The uniforms, she finally noticed, are far from identical.

She has endured, with good humor, a great deal of Yankee laughter since I first shared that irresistible story with friends. My wife is no conservative, no Confederate sympathizer or sentimental mourner for the South’s Lost Cause. In fact there were no Confederate soldiers among her ancestors — up in the mountains where she was born, there were no slaves and no passion for secession. But her further problem, amplified in this strange summer of racial regression and statues on trial, is that her Christian name is Lee.

And no, she wasn’t named for Peggy Lee, or Bruce Lee, or Stagger Lee or Bill “Spaceman” Lee who used to pitch for the Red Sox. Like so many Virginians before and after him, her Daddy — anticipating a son — named her in honor of the great general whose equestrian statue graces Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., whose war horse Traveller was buried in state near the Lee family crypt in Lexington.

In the polarized political climate that has followed the election of a racist president, will my liberal friends — that is, most of my friends — expect me to divorce this woman named Lee, after 36 years? Would it mollify them if she changed her name to Sherman?

We live in a diminished America that is not only divided and charged with hostility, but too frequently ridiculous. The embarrassing, ultimately tragic confrontation in Charlottesville, Va., triggered by a proposal to remove another statue of General Lee, left innocent liberals with the impression that a savage, almost subhuman army of racists has come out of hiding. My guess is that it’s a smaller army than alarmists estimate, though these images of American citizens celebrating the Ku Klux Klan and marching under swastikas will break any patriot’s heart. There’s no middle ground about what happened in Charlottesville, and our idiot president disgraced himself again by trying to find one. I don’t need to declare whose side I’m on, not after publishing (8/1/17 TPP) an essay suggesting — more than half-seriously — that it’s time to deport our incorrigible white racists to monochromatic countries like Finland.

But don’t try to enlist me in a war on statues. No denial is involved here. America is what it is, a nation founded on a few good ideas and many hideous crimes against non-Europeans. If I were an African American, or any colored person defined and oppressed as one by white racist America, I’d resent any statue of a white person I couldn’t vouch for personally. The great stone heads of Mt. Rushmore, ranked as the second-most popular statue in the USA (next to the Lincoln Memorial), were carved out of a mountain sacred to Native Americans, a mountain stolen from them, in one of the white man’s most egregiously fork-tongued transgressions, when gold was discovered in the Black Hills. History isn’t pretty.

When it comes to the statues, I acknowledge no divided loyalty, and no guilt either. Though I’ve lived more than half my life in the South, I was raised by Yankee liberals in upstate New York. None of my American ancestors, late 19th-century immigrants, fought on either side in the Civil War. Unless there were enslaved Africans in the Scottish Highlands in the days of Rob Roy, I’m descended from no one who ever owned a slave or even lived in a place where others owned them. If I sound a little defensive, it’s because I know that no departure from liberal orthodoxy goes unpunished, and in the current partisan snakepit I’m bound to attract some fangs. But I concede that I’m deeply distrustful of this movement to edit history according to the latest consensus in the faculty lounge.

They’re already after Columbus, and once they start toppling heroes there’s really no place where they can stop. Every historical figure is a creature of his or her time, and no one — not Gandhi, Mandela, Mother Teresa, Francis of Assisi, Albert Schweitzer, not Jesus himself if we had enough reliable biography — could survive the kind of moral and political scrutiny the worst campus Pharisees now recommend. Slaver, racist, Indian-killer, predatory capitalist, anti-Semite, misogynist, homophobe — every major player of bygone America was one of these, and some white heroes were all of them. The popes and hierarchy of the Catholic Church descend in an unbroken line from inquisitors who burned blameless heretics alive. What a mountain of shattered granite we could build if we loosed our postmodern inquisitors on all the monuments to those we once admired.

Are the Confederate generals and statesmen a special case? In a literal, legal sense they are, and the most popular argument for trashing their statues is that they were traitors who raised their swords against their own country. But that’s not the open-and-shut case it appears to be. First, it overshadows a powerful moral indictment — they defended slavery, America’s original and possibly fatal sin, and they were wrong. And the patriotic self-righteousness of the treason case oversimplifies American history. This sacred Union, preserved by the Civil War, was a relatively fresh experiment in 1860, and not half so sacred. Men who had fought in the American Revolution were still alive when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter; the British government those earlier rebels betrayed was truly sacred and ancient compared to the Union General Lee abandoned. The United States of America was just one lifetime old in 1860, and there were many different ideas about where it was headed. A lot of those ideas involved states’ rights, and many Americans still pledged their primary allegiance to the states where they were born.

It was a fragile Union from the start, and slavery was the issue that kept it divided.

That slavery’s racist legacy still divides it, to the extent that Charlottesville dramatized, is our greatest shame and burden. The South isn’t the only region that breeds vile bigots, as every day’s news cycle reminds us. But it torments progressive Southerners because it has regressed so rapidly in recent memory, from Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who were trusted and supported by black people, to “leaders” like Newt Gingrich and Jeff Sessions, and the witless Jim Crow Republicans who dominate the legislature in my home state of North Carolina. Blame Barack Obama—-and raise his statues in every public square.

It isn’t just the statues. If we erased the names of people who supported slavery or segregation from every town and street, every municipal or academic building in North Carolina, we’d be left with anonymous wilderness and terminal confusion. If we extended our moral inquisition to the philanthropists who built the rest of the state — most of them union-crushing capitalists and their heirs — we’d be the no-name state, a blank space on the map of America.

If you can’t change people’s minds, you don’t accomplish anything by changing their iconography. Attempts to reform society by eradicating familiar environments smack of Chairman Mao, Comrade Stalin and their cultural revolutions. And you run the risk of alienating people who are not your enemies. Donald Trump was wrong when he said there were good people on both sides in Charlottesville. The people on the Right were racist scum, and he defended them because he suspected that they had voted for him, every one. On the other hand, I know people who would never vote to topple General Lee’s statue, or even to outlaw the Confederate flag — but who would rather die than march with Klansmen and ogres waving swastikas.

They would never display or make a fuss over the general’s flag, but they’re not ashamed of the ancestors who fought with him, either. I’ve seen these ancestors’ swords hanging over the fireplace in the homes of some very reasonable people. Mongrel, dissident Southerner that I am, I think I understand these people better than the campus inquisitors of New England.

In a country so divided, in a battle with reactionary forces so dreadful, it’s very important for progressives to pick their fights carefully, to apply their leverage strategically. Black Lives Matter is a movement with great potential, not only to mobilize resistance to institutional racism, but especially to hold America to account, to make sure no atrocity committed against an African American is ignored. The “antifa” movement has the virtue of reminding the Right that not all progressives are passive. But the moment its militia initiates physical violence against domestic fascists, it exposes the Left to irreparable damage in the court of public opinion.

Worse yet are radicals who ban, hector and harass rightwing speakers in order to keep their campuses “safe” from unpleasant ideas, effectively sabotaging the First Amendment and playing directly into the hands of their most dangerous enemies. When a freaky, shock-peddling rightwing lounge act like Ann Coulter comes to your campus, she should be welcomed like the Queen of Belgium, introduced by your president——and then, in the best of all possible worlds, look out over a single-digit audience where every student, including a starting linebacker or two, is wearing some comic version of her little black dress.

Free speech is not negotiable. It may take some courage to call out a neo-fascist speaker in Alabama, but it takes no courage to call one out in Berkeley. It’s a low-risk, low-reward waste of liberal energy to fight a battle against the long-dead and buried, against the statues and symbols of an extinct culture of defeated agrarians, when there are so many living, scheming, hating, generously-funded rightwing weasels who require our urgent attention. These statues of Lee and Stonewall Jackson don’t provoke nostalgia because of what they symbolize — for most Southerners — but because of their permanent, immobile granite presence in a world that’s changing way too fast. If you’ve lived where the stone generals have always stood, they’ve become a piece of who you are.

Statue-smashing typifies a culture of cheap, low-impact political victories and general amnesia. History is about remembering. Instead of tearing Lee down, carve a statue of Barack Obama or Martin Luther King and raise it up next to the general, so that African Americans, facing a discouraging resurgence of white racist hatred, can reflect on all they’ve accomplished in spite of it.

Hal Crowther is a longtime journalist whose essays have been awarded the H.L. Mencken, Lillian Smith and American Association of Newsweeklies prizes for commentary and the 2014 Pushcart Prize for non-fiction. His latest book is An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L.Mencken (University of Iowa Press, 2014). Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2017

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