Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Confederate monuments

I can recall only one unexpected encounter with a Confederate monument.

In December 2015, Nina and I went for a hike in Pinnacle Park, near the town of Sylva, NC. Afterward, we decided to poke around the town and see what was there. We quickly found our way to what seemed to be the highest point: the courthouse. 

From the front of the building, there's a spectacular view down the main drag, with mountains in the background, as seen below. If I took a photo of that view, I didn't save it, but here's a good one: 


From behind, I thought that statue was probably a WWI soldier. I went down the steps far enough to see it from the front, and was surprised by what you can see in the photo below: "Our Heroes of the Confederacy." 

I'm no PC snowflake, but the statue and its engraving instantly made me feel, well, icky. The Confederacy was the enemy of everything I cherish, ideologically; it was awful in every conceivable way, from its conception to the moment it was destroyed. 

A speech that Frederick Douglass gave in 1878 sums up the matter more eloquently than I ever could: 
Nevertheless, we must not be asked to say that the South was right in the rebellion, or to say the North was wrong. We must not be asked to put no difference between those who fought for the Union and those who fought against it, or between loyalty and treason.... 
I admit that the South believed it was right, but the nature of things is not changed by belief. The Inquisition was not less a crime against humanity because it was believed right by the Holy Fathers.... 
It was a war of ideas, a battle of principles and ideas which united one section and divided the other; a war between the old and new, slavery and freedom, barbarism and civilization; between a government based upon the broadest and grandest declaration of human rights the world ever heard or read, and another pretended government, based upon an open, bold and shocking denial of all rights, except the right of the strongest.... 
There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget, and while to-day we should have malice toward none, and charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason.
(See here for the whole thing.) 

I am not in the "tear them all down" camp--especially when that is decided by mob rule rather than through the processes of representative democracy. But neither am I in the "we need to honor our heritage" camp. It is preposterous to worry that we will erase the Civil War, the Confederacy, and its important lessons from our collective conscious if all the flattering monuments were to be hit by wrecking balls. 

But I'm not sure that's the right approach, at least not across the board. 

One of the most interesting things I saw on my one and only trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, was the city's central plaza. It is home to an obelisk monument erected in 1868:


The obelisk itself is forgettable, indistinguishable from a million others. But I was intrigued by the combination of the original inscription and the explanatory plaque added much, much later: 

(You will note that the word "savage" has been defaced out of the original, presumably after this plaque was added. This was vandalism, not an official act. I don't approve of it; your mileage may vary.) 

I like this general approach. It allows the visitor to see what was important to the people who erected the edifice, in their own words. But then it adds a modern comment, gently (perhaps too gently) expressing a collective, contemporary disavowal. 

Maybe the added plaque should go further, and express remorse over the entire genocidal enterprise, rather than being apologetic only for the use of two words that make those of modern sensibilities cringe. But my point is not that this one example is done exactly right; rather, I think the general approach is a worthy one, and it's one I don't recall having seen done anywhere else. 

I can imagine approving of a heroic-appearing Civil War monument, with its original inscription intact, but augmented by an updated perspective--one explaining that while we do not wish to erase the past, we also do not wish to condone or leave unchallenged the views that cloaked Confederate evil in the glory of a heroic public statue. It would not displease me one bit if some of Douglass's wonderful prose, such as that quoted above, made its way onto these new additions to the memorials. 

Those who built all these monuments did so in order to speak to people of the future. Fine, let them. We don't need to silence their voices in order to add our own.