Saturday, May 27, 2017

Monumental Headaches

When I was in high school, I read Boss, Mike Royko's muckraking portrait of Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley. Despite being dismayed at the appalling abuse of power by Daley, who inherited the Cook County Democratic Organization from his predecessors and fine tuned it, well, like a machine, there was always something fascinating to me about the man who ran the city of Chicago from the fifties to the seventies. I regularly attended City Council meetings and sat transfixed, especially when the old man went into one of his famous rants. When Richard J. Daley died, late in 1976, I experienced a profound sense of loss, as I'm sure most lifelong Chicagoans did, who felt the same way about the only mayor many of them ever knew. Admiration for Daley was for me, a kind of guilty pleasure.

I had a similar feeling during my all too infrequent visits down south, upon visiting monuments to Confederate heroes that you find in virtually every city below the Mason Dixon Line. Being a Yankee through and through, I had contempt for the Rebels and especially for their cause. Yet I've always had a fascination with the Civil War and a hesitant admiration for the players on both sides of that tragic conflagration. It was indeed a guilty pleasure for me to see monuments that needless to say, would be quite out of place back home in the Land of Lincoln.

I remember Monument Avenue in Richmond, the most beautiful street in town, lined with grand old trees, post-bellum mansions and churches. Sprinkled in between are the eponymous monuments of famous sons of the South, most of whom came to prominence during the "War of Northern Aggression" as they still call it down there. For good measure, there's also a monument to tennis star, AIDS activist, Richmond native, and all around good guy, Arthur Ashe.

Looking down St. Charles Avenue toward the Robert E. Lee Monument
New Orleans, 1990
Then there was the memorial to Robert E. Lee which prominently stood at the point where St. Charles Avenue enters Downtown New Orleans. That statue was installed on top of a sixty foot column in 1884. General Lee stood at that location, looking north (toward his enemy), until last week. The Lee memorial would be the last of four Confederate monuments to be removed from the Crescent City this year.

It should come as a surprise to no one that the removal of these statues has been controversial. Borrowing a strategy out of the playbook of Richard J. Daley's son Ritchie, workers removed three of the four monuments in the dead of night, wearing masks no less so as not to reveal their identities. Small wonder, tensions ran incredibly high. The contractor originally hired to perform the work backed out after his Lamborghini sports car was torched, and a member of the Mississippi State Legislator, Karl Oliver, made the insightful statement that politicians who supported the removal of the monuments "should be lynched." Oliver  later retracted and apologized for the comment.

As someone who is particularly interested in historic preservation, it pains me to see the removal of landmarks that have been around for nearly a century and a half. On the other hand, I am not African American, someone for whom the men memorialized by those statues, represent the enslavement of my people. 

OK I understand there was more to the Civil War than slavery; we could carry on a conversation all night explaining the causes of the costliest war in our nation's history. But no matter how you slice it, it all comes down to slavery. The fact is, human misery, injustice and morality trump all other matters. Just as you can't have a meaningful conversation about the German government during World War II without bringing up the Final Solution and the Holocaust, you can't address the motivations of the Confederate States to secede from the United States without bringing up the issue of slavery. To some white southerners, the Confederate politicians and generals, and the events of the Civil War represent, honor, gallantry, and the hopes and dreams of a long lost and to them, better world. To black southerners, those men and events represent bigotry, oppression and slavery. So something's gotta give.

The justifications for saving the monuments center around avoiding the obfuscation of history and the slippery slope of removing landmarks some people find offensive. The tone of their discourse ranges from thoughtful and reasonable arguments, to incoherent diatribes about "whining offended liberal crybabies" that we have heard ad nauseam in our current political climate. In fact, opposition to the removal of the statues has become a cause celebre for the self-imposed haters of the left, in both the north and the south.  

Essentially, the defenders of keeping the monuments in place say that their removal represents the white-washing of history at the hands of people who are motivated by political correctness, rather than concern for culture, history and the truth. 

Not so said Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, who delivered last week a most eloquent argument in favor of the removal of the monuments from their current locations. 

In his brilliant, passionate and courageous address to his city, Landrieu claimed that the construction of the monuments in the 1880s was in itself, a whitewashing of history, a deliberate attempt by members of a group who labeled themselves as "the cult of the lost cause" to promote their own agenda regarding the ideals of antebellum culture.

Mayor Landrieu painted a far different picture of the men honored by those statues than the one promoted by their supporters:
It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, They fought against it. They may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.
From an article published in the Winter 1975 issue of Tennessee Historical Quarterly titled The Cult of the "Lost Cause" author John A. Simpson described the means by which members of this cult achieved their goals:
More than anything else, their strategy utilized a mystique of chivalric Southern soldiers and the noble Confederate leadership embodied in Jefferson Davis to achieve their ends. This aspect of Southern myth-making is vitally important to understanding Confederate vindication, for it fused basic truths with nostalgic emotions to revise the picture of Confederate history.
Mayor Landrieu sites theses myths, in refuting the vestiges of the cult of the lost cause as a re-writing of history, which to him negates any claim that removing those vestiges is tantamount to an obfuscation of history:
These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.
But Mayor Landrieu goes far beyond that:
After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.
To the mayor, the monuments are themselves direct links to the period of terror toward black people that existed in the South well into the 1960s and beyond.

The most powerful moment in that speech, to me anyway, was when the mayor asked the members of his audience to put themselves in the shoes of African American parents who must explain to their children why their community commemorates in places of honor, men who fought for the denial of their ancestors' basic rights as human beings. The mayor then pointed directly at a couple members of his audience and asked them bluntly, "could you do it, could you?"

Powerful as Mayor Landireu's sentiments are, this is by no means a slam dunk issue. There are hundreds of these monuments scattered throughout the South that inevitably every community will need to address at some point. At the same time, each community is different. Unlike the New Orleans monuments, Richmond's Monument Avenue is a focal point of that city, a national historic site, and one of that city's most important tourist attractions. Levar Stoney, the mayor of the capital city of Virginia, himself African American, made a campaign pledge not to remove the monuments, but to include other plaques and  monuments on the avenue to put the Civil War monuments "in their proper context." Mayor Stoney didn't elaborate on exactly what that meant, but rest assured, any attempt to remove the likenesses of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stewart and Robert E. Lee from their perches overlooking the City of Richmond, will be met by fierce opposition that will make the current battle in New Orleans look like the battle of the three little pigs.

Then there is the issue of precedent, Will the removal of the New Orleans monuments inspire as some believe, a movement to remove every monument that anyone finds offensive? We all know that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well other Founding Fathers of this country, owned slaves. Will people at some point demand that their likenesses be removed from places of honor? How about Christopher Columbus, whose "discovery of America" brought with it, death and destruction to the people who inhabited this land before the Europeans?  I'd be willing to bet that there is not a single monument in America to a person, place or thing, that does not offend someone. Can an argument then be made to eliminate all monuments from all public squares and parks around the country to avoid offending anyone?

I don't think so.

Public monuments serve as symbols of the values of the community in which they reside. As such, I truly believe there should be no broad national mandate over what kind of public memorials should and should not be built or maintained. Rather, that choice should be made at the local level as those are the people that have to live with the monuments and answer for them. That said, it is essential for any local government to reflect the will of the people by democratic means, just as they ideally decide all matters of local governance. The people of New Orleans decided, through their representative government, to remove their Confederate monuments, and the people of Richmond elected a man who pledged to do something quite different. Obviously, no matter what decision is ultimately made, not everyone will be happy.

But such is life. 

No comments: