Wrong. Wishful thinking and hopeful, at best.
Faster than you could say “Great Jefferson Davis’s Ghost”, a lawsuit was filed by the those opposing their removal. There are gleeful threats being made that the Louisiana legislature will step in to give New Orleans a come-uppance. The Facebook posts, blasting Mitch Landrieu’s “political correctness” have continued non-stop.
Some of the radio stations’ callers, particularly the conservative--right-wing variety, have been talking about this issue, almost non-stop, on a daily basis. Some of them are calling Landrieu and the majority of the New Orleans City Council, as being racists. Boy, talk about the pot calling the kettle, black!
No doubt, there are great passions being spent debating this issue. We are witnessing an uncivil-war of words over stone-figures of dead men who lived in a totally different age of values.
Yes, the last thing this controversy needs is one more voice. But, since the Mayor’s opponents are calling for his political head and continuing the ordeal by calling in the legislature and the courts, here’s my own point of view:
Indeed, the movement to remove symbols of perhaps the worst moments of our American history has been spawned by the recent killings by a right-wing nut-job. There is the question—what is the relationship between that mass killing and the annihilation of historical artifacts? We are rightfully reminded by some on our political right, that “The monuments didn’t do the shooting, they’re just standing there”. But, there is a reverse-right-wing political correctness evolving also. If you’re not in favor of keeping the remnants of history, then, “you’re a liberal fanatic, trying to reshape (or wipe-out) American history, so get over it”.
America is changing rapidly on all fronts. The heroes in some communities are the villains in others. Those being praised today, will often be vilified tomorrow. Demanding that we maintain all symbols of yesterday will come back and haunt those who now claim that history should never be forgotten. Tables also will turn on those who are now demanding that we remove those images that they personally find offensive. Pendulums come back further with every hard pull. The Political Correctness of the left is matched only by the political correctness of the right. The more both sides swing at one another, the deeper will be the arc, hurting them both.
RECONSTRUCTING THE PAST
Mitch Landrieu and the members of the City Council are making the point—the symbols are not just historical figures of the civil war. They are vestiges of reconstruction and the Jim Crow era. They were built to remind all that blacks were subhuman, that whites are the superior race. As Stephanie Grace pointed out in a recent column, the focus should be on the “purpose” of the monuments. These men of these statues were in their confederate garb of battle. They were not wearing other attire such as Lee--as the college president of one of this nation’s most respected institutions of higher education. The cause for which they fought was either by intention or by effect, maintaining a caste system denying basic human dignity to a large population. In reality, they were reconstruction, not confederate edifices. The purpose of their construction was less to honor the men for whom they were created, but, more to praise them for what they did during a sorry period of our history.
TIME IS MONEY
We have all heard and read—“clean up the potholes first”. “Get rid of the crime, not the statues.”
These are very legitimate points. These are reasonable demands by those who see murders occurring daily, African Americans suffering from high unemployment and of course, streets being battle zones. The notion that we are spending any time or money debating symbols when much of the city’s infrastructure continues to fail, appears ludicrous. We are not improving the quality of education nor feeding one child by focusing upon marble, granite and the past. The cost, whether it comes from private or public sources, could certainly be put to better use.
Those wanting to save our monuments having been making this point often and forcefully. But, now that the City Council has acted, do you think we can move on and patch up those street holes and provide education and food to those in need? No, not yet. Instead, those leading the charge to save the monuments are forgetting about resources needed to prevent crime, those potholes in the streets and those kids needing education and good meals. For them, it’s time to take the issue to the courts and the legislature. So, how much more time and money are we going to exhaust by those who have blasted Landrieu and company for doing the same? This post-council lawsuits and legislative actions do nothing but undermine the causes and credibility’s of these advocates who have told us how much they have, so deeply cared.
THE SLIPPERY SLOPE
We have heard the many examples of how removing these monuments will open the doors for axing the likes of Andrew Jackson perched atop Jackson Square in the French Quarter, removing names of streets named after our founding fathers who were slave owners and the like. The argument continues—what about the Plantations, should we tear them down? Should we stop growing Cotton? When will this destroying history through “political correctness” stop?
Unquestionably, when we try to remove and remake images of the past, we enter into the twilight zone of changing realities. If we deploy the test of “purpose” test for these symbols, whether we are talking about street names, statues or other landmarks of honor, we can weigh those purposes with the risks of offending, against the burdens of removals. Still, eliminating anything of historical significance has its limitations. We are creating precedents and feeding frenzies. Also, those, offended by a particular symbol cannot legitimately argue against the removal of others when their preferred landmarks, are being gored.
NOT IN MY BACKYARD
Isn’t it interesting that many of those voices (who are so adamant that they be heard, who argue in favor of removing Landrieu and the maintenance of these monuments) have no real legitimate or legal say in this game? Do the good people of Baton Rouge, Covington, Monroe or “Wherever Louisiana“ really want state leaders and “outside” government involved in what their own city does with its own properties? Many of these same people demanding their inclusion into this local debate always seems to claim that local control should prime that of the state or federal intrusions. But, why now, do they allow their deep-rooted political philosophy be so undermined by such obvious flip-flops?
New Orleans voters should decide what they do with those symbols within their own city, not anybody else. New Orleans voters have no more right to tell Covington what to do with the statue of Ronald Reagan, than Northshore voters have a say about what happens with the Liberty Monument.
There have even been some who claim that New Orleans voters should have had a referendum on the issue rather than their representatives making the decision. Those proposing this silly solution argue that city voters want the statues to stay, so they should have a say via some type of plebiscite. Talk about the slippery slope! When does an issue become so weighty and important that we suddenly take the vote out of the hands of those we elect and those we can replace? And why this issue in particular? The majority of the Louisiana voters wanted Medicaid Expansion. Would these people now advocating departure from representative democracy, have argued in favor of taking the power away from legislators in favor of a popular vote by the people, especially on an issue much more important to the lives of the average citizen than the fate of a civil war figure on a pedestal.
RACE AND NOTHING BUT RACE
Let’s get down to the real nub. The real crux of this sorry debate is--race.
A Facebook post by one of my friends summed it up perfectly.
“We have our statues and if blacks want their own, they should erect them.”
This entire controversy is really less about history, the significance of learning from the past, than it is about black versus white--we versus them. Until we admit the problem, we will never find the solution (remember that warning, anyone?).
When Landrieu and others decided to make this a topic for future consideration, those who never publicly voiced an opinion on the matter suddenly started to scream in unison that the statues must go. Never mind that not a peep of the importance of this issue was previously uttered in the public square of ideas that Lee Circle and gang should be mothballed, as being offensive and a nuisance. I personally never considered Robert E. Lee sitting on his horse looking over the stately avenue as being particularly harmful or demeaning, nor, did I ever hear it to be so, from anyone. Ever.
Nor has the reaction to the removal been devoid of stark racial jabber.
Do I really believe some of those people shouting the loudest “Keep the Statues” really want us to remember the past? For what purpose? Are they willing to acknowledge the sins of our great-grandfathers? Do they really care to be reminded that our grand-pappies were slave-owners? Are they truly interested in showing their lineage to insensitive whites wanting to prop up white supremacy during the Jim Crow days?
We know the motives of many off them, whether they admit it or not. They have their own histories. Just check their many posts on Facebook or some of their calls on right-wing radio. Many of them are angry whites, who never cared for an equal playing field. To them, attempts to create affirmative action opportunities was and has always been reverse racism. Allowing blacks into traditional white institutions was never an option. Nor have they ever offered any real solutions to the generations of racial injustices, other than to blame others for trying. They are among the population that seem to always denounce the opinions of African-Americans, who lionize the likes of Donald Trump or Ted Cruz and who have never said a kind word about President Obama. Ever. They might have been willing voters for David Duke and saw nothing harmful about David Vitter using the statue issue for political gain or scaring people into thinking that the jail doors were going to open up releasing “thugs” onto our streets. They are have sided against gays on marriage, against Muslims on religious liberties, prefer second amendment rights over those of the first amendment. Some of them have been the most active voices in maintaining these statues, even though many of them don’t even live in New Orleans. Before throwing stones, this is an over-generalization. One size absolutely does not fit all. There are loving preservationists who want to maintain these structures because they are part of our heritage, and nothing more. Some of those opposing removal are the strongest advocates for racial harmony and have the stripes to prove it. But, in this age of promoting profiling, there are obvious patterns emerging fitting some of the most active save our confederate monuments--so call it for what it is.
I am and have been personally against taking down statues even those which were erected with the purpose of demeaning and threatening others. Instead, I believe there are other solutions to the entire controversy that make more sense and that serve all.
The statues could certainly be used to teach history. With the advent of certain technologies, we can place QR codes on the monuments. Using one’s smart phone or like device, one can quickly access and save a wealth of useful and colorful information. This could be a marvelous learning experience, not only about the lives of those being honored by these statues, but about the collective harm these men caused others. Less futuristic, we certainly could put up plaques providing more background information as to why these structures were erected in the first place.
With our tri-centennial fast approaching, why not erect a monument, say, on the foot of Canal Street, that depicts the importance of New Orleans during the slave trade. Let’s share our real history with others. This city essentially was the capitol of the “black market” which helped built the South’s economy on the backs and shoulders of African Americans. It was a cruel time for millions. Many benefited greatly by this commerce. Others, as we know, still struggle inflicted with the many scars from our past. If we want to evoke the reality that New Orleans really cares about our history, let’s display the truths. Let’s create a real symbol that chronicles our pain but our efforts to overcome our many hurts.
Perhaps little will teach residents of the city and those from the outside who have expressed such love for history than the reality that those men on those monuments might have been well-intentioned, but, they fought a cause that to this very day is dividing this nation and this community.
If the South is ever to rise again, it will need to rise above the hate and the distrust embedded in our memories and within our souls. The more we so-passionately debate issues that really benefit none of us while we neglect those that impact all of us, the region will live in the past—forever, groping for the future.
Above: Photo of Ronald Reagan by Patrick Miller