Wayne O'Leary

Marble Men

Here’s the problem with the sudden spate of demands for removal of Confederate military statues around the country following last month’s disturbing alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Va.: it has little to do with history and everything to do with politics. The same is true for the instant, knee-jerk reaction against these initiatives.

On the cultural left, we have New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, candidate for reelection next year and an aspiring Democratic presidential nominee, pounding the anti-Confederate drums; he’s removed a bust of Robert E. Lee from one public venue and favors renaming two Brooklyn streets carrying the names of Southern generals. Meanwhile, Cuomo’s intraparty rival, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, is crusading against “symbols of hate” by slating for destruction a wall of subway tile in Times Square that appears (if you look long enough and hard enough) to resemble the patterns on the Confederate flag.

Then, there’s Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, never one to miss a political opportunity, who’s seeking to burnish his credentials by filing legislation to remove any statues depicting “treasonous Americans,” including Confederates, from the nation’s Capitol; he’s been joined by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who finds such likenesses in National Statuary Hall to be “reprehensible,” and by Jess O’Connell, CEO of the Democratic National Committee, who wants an official party stance against Confederate statues. This is all calculated, of course, to appeal to nonwhite voters – a transparent expression of potentially counterproductive identity politics.

Virtually alone in attempting to calm the emotional red hots in his party and avoid political distractions is its Senate leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who’s trying to focus Democrats on more substantive issues, such as voting rights — so far, to little avail. Less responsible elements of the political left, broadly defined, have shown no such restraint, contributing to what one observer characterized as “a frenzied ideological war over visual images.”

In Durham, N.C., one of several recent post-Charlottesville removals of Confederate memorials was carried out in extralegal fashion by a radical socialist outfit called the Workers World Party. Performing an act of street theater reminiscent of the 1960s, these courageous activists chose to tear down and destroy the bronze likeness of a Confederate soldier, evidently an easier and more satisfying exercise than emulating the antifa by confronting the armed alt-right, or doing something constructive like registering minority voters.

Not to be outdone, pro-statue warriors of the right struck back verbally in the person of Donald Trump, who expressed an ill-disguised white identity politics of his own. Equating General Lee with George Washington, the president mourned the potential loss of irreplaceable Confederate statues and monuments of unsurpassed artistic “beauty” (evidently in the eye of the beholder) and importance to a supposed common cultural heritage, implying it would be a form of desecration.

Regardless, the anti-statue hysteria has developed a momentum of its own. As of mid-August, removals had been undertaken in 11 cities nationwide and planned in 11 others. The list of the Confederate “disappeared” extended from New York City in the North to New Orleans in the South and as far west as Los Angeles.

Yet, in an NPR/PBS Marist poll taken August 14-18, the public was not on board, 62% (including 44% of Democrats) favoring maintenance of the statues as historical symbols. The people, in this instance, were more perceptive than the politicians. You can’t wish away history or airbrush it, nor should you try.

Retaining Confederate statues and memorials on public land does not mean condoning the abhorrent aspects of the Lost Cause, however; it means recognizing the nation’s true history, warts and all, and dealing with it – as opposed to brainwashing future generations with a pretty, feel-good story scrubbed of unpleasantness. Besides, the story is multidimensional and inconveniently complex; there were Confederates, and then there were Confederates.

For example, two Southern combatants not deserving to be memorialized were infamous guerrilla leaders Nathan Bedford Forrest, whose bust unaccountably resides at the Tennessee state Capitol in Nashville, and William C. Quantrill. Forrest initially achieved notoriety by commanding troops that massacred black Union soldiers captured at the battle of Fort Pillow, near Memphis, in 1864; he later became the first Grand Wizard of the original Ku Klux Klan. Quantrill, whose partisans included the future outlaw Jesse James, led the 1863 pillaging of Lawrence, Kansas, during which prisoners were given no quarter and 150 civilians were killed.

On the other hand, one of Lee’s key lieutenants at Gettysburg was Gen. James Longstreet who, historian Eric Foner reminded us in a recent New York Times column, endorsed black male suffrage after the Civil War and, as head of the New Orleans police force in 1874, fought white supremacists seeking to seize control of Louisiana’s state government. Then, there was Robert E. Lee himself, whose statue, threatened with removal, precipitated the Charlottesville disorder. Lee, one of the nobler defenders of an ignoble system, has somehow become the flash point for the statue-razing movement.

While Lee formally supported slavery, like most white Southerners, his support was lukewarm and rife with reservations; he is on record as condemning the institution in the abstract and favoring conditional emancipation. Further, he initially opposed secession as anarchy and dreaded the breakup of the Union. His grudging allegiance to the Confederacy seems to have been genuinely based on defending his native state, perceived as under threat.

In the postwar period, Lee rejected hard-line bitter-enders like Jefferson Davis, worked for national reconciliation, and directed his energies toward educational reform. In short, those who would erase this greatest of 19th-century military tacticians from the American pantheon on moral grounds have picked the wrong target.

Robert E. Lee would be appalled by the appropriation and misuse of his name by neo-Nazis and Klansmen, but the fact remains that something persuaded Charlottesville’s radical rightists it was the justifiable thing to do. I nominate Hollywood.

A century of Old South romanticism, anti-Northern revisionism, and whitewashing of slavery on film — from The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939) to modern “rebel” classics like The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) — has persuaded too many that the Lost Cause was right and just. Those who get their history from the movies are doomed to repeat it.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2017


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