LEE'S LAST STAND
Well, they've removed General Robert E. Lee's statue from Lee Circle in New Orleans, and another century-old one of his in Charlottesville, Virginia. It's difficult to say anything about this or related things without sounding prejudiced one way or the other, so charged are sensibilities these days. People tend to project their past fears, foibles, and hang-ups into whatever it is they read. But on this rainy day, since I have little else to do, let me stick my neck out.
If I understand it correctly Confederate monuments are offensive in 2017 because they represent "white supremacy" -- but not the kind that existed during the tenure and wake of a black president who was elected with predominantly white votes -- twice. In removing these statues the hope is that the particular memories of slavery and "white supremacy" are erased from the community's conscience and, as a result, the offended will feel better. Or we should hope so, otherwise the project is for naught.
But if one's mission is to eliminate memories of distasteful, historical events, then their complete disappearances becomes challenging. Simply seeing a black-skinned person can remind one of slavery; seeing a white-skinned person, even one who voted for a black politician, might remind one of "white supremacy". What you see, and the meaning you assign to it, matters.
I suppose there are those who wish to sanitize our communities of anything to do with the historically disagreeable. The argument is that these historical things belong not on public property but in a museum and out of sight of people prone to be offended -- much like things religious being forced inside the confines of a church or synagogue. We're all supposed to get along better if we get them out of sight -- ostrich-like. Maybe it will work.
But in an odd way it seems that taking down historical statues, of any type, might be more dangerous than helpful if the mission is to avoid offending anyone. Because the statues' removal invokes the notion of, I think, a misplaced collective guilt.
Collective guilt more or less justifies hatred and punishment of someone for something that he did not do. This is dangerous because it imposes the norms of one generation on another. The realization of this fact is partly why we have statutes of limitation.
While the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung first coined the term, collective guilt is originally referenced in Ezekiel 18, where it is taught anew that fathers shall not be guilty of the sins of their sons; and the sons shall not be guilty of the sins of their fathers. Parents of any color who've had an incarcerated wayward child might appreciate this point.
Anyway, making extant this notion of collective guilt, with respect to the Civil War and Jim Crow laws, in spite of millions of immigrant-founded families who have no bloodlines or social connections with anything antebellum, it seems to appear to be possessive of vengeance and causes one to pause and wonder if those who support and promote it have sadly lost their ability to forgive -- to forgive anything.
This flies in the face of Lincoln and Lee's efforts at postwar reconciliation. Post Civil War accounts record that Lee did not like to talk much about "them years." Mounted on the hills of Fredericksburg, surveying the aftermath of the battle, Lee once said, "It's good that this is a terrible thing, otherwise men might grow fond of it."
In his attempt at encouraging reconciliation Lee advised that silence and patience were key to the eventual reconciling of the country. He thought this necessary until the fiery passions on both sides died down enough to allow that men and women, who were otherwise deaf to reason, might become amenable to both reason and understanding -- two important elements to achieve a reconciliation of any kind. He thought this would take time; he probably never dreamed it would take more than fourteen decades.
Lee will never be remembered for his efforts at reconciliation because it's more sensational and offensive-inviting to assign "white supremacy" to his image and memory.
In a time when there should be efforts at bringing people together this seems to be a
strange way to do it. To dishonor Lee's memory on the grounds that his presumed wrongs can be punished fourteen decades after his death seems arrogant. But then again, I'm a white man.
Hopefully those who thirst for social vengeance have now had their thirst slaked and feel much better for it. This will be a good thing. But I fear, not the end of it. If having a black president bears this kind of fruit in the minds of the offended, black and white, I think race relations portends to be dour.
There will always be something somewhere that a group will think of, something no one has thought of yet, that will come to the fore and become the next object or issue for offense. There's enough mean-spirited people on both sides and all around for something new to pop up for which they can be offended, regardless of what color it might be, where it might live, or how long it's laid in the grave.
They say they're going to replace Lee's statue with something else. Something that makes everyone feel good. Something to unify all the people. Perhaps something with many pretty colors and beautiful curves. But none of this of course should proceed until they dynamite the Mount Rushmore granite faces of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom owned hundreds of slaves. One should think there would be consistency in this movement.
While many think that erasing a memory will make one forget or repress the undesired in history, memory has a way of healing. To wit, the friendships between Allied Nations and Axis nations of WWII. And in the same way that memory healed these nations, so did it heal the North and South after Appomattox.
One may suppress the truth if they may, but the truth always rises again.
Gettysburg reunion, 1913. Blue and Gray