Peggy Whiteneck, Freelance Writer

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Monuments Flap Is Not about the Monuments

An issue can be at the center of a controversy yet not be genuinely central to it: case in point, the statues of iconic Confederate figures of the Civil War and whether they should be removed altogether from public spaces - or, alternatively, removed to some less prominent public space. This question came to a head in the aftermath of a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 that culminated in the murder and injury of counter-demonstrators. Despite their being the catalyst around which that white power demonstration coalesced, however, the statues are beside the point.

Monument as Middle Finger

I am of two minds on the question of whether monuments honoring Confederate leaders should be removed. To begin with, I am naturally and deeply suspicious of iconoclasm in all its forms. Monument removal reminds me too much of the perennial book-banning efforts, launched by those on both the right and the left, in reaction to the content of certain classic literary works. For me, it's also dangerously reminiscent of the Taliban's obliteration of religious icons in the territories it conquers. I also have some sympathy for the argument that removing Confederate statues is an effort to erase history - or at least to remove it from our immediate attention. I concede, as well, that it's impossible to have any public visual display of anything at all that won't offend someone. And I believe we can't overcome national guilt over a fratricidal war by removing the visual reminders of it. I have to say also that I greatly fear that removing Confederate monuments will substitute in the minds of white liberals for doing anything substantive to oppose racism.

On the other hand, if demands for removal of Confederate monuments may be an effort to obliterate history, insisting that they remain in prominent public spaces may be an effort to whitewash history. I have deep sympathy for those who understand the actual back story of these monuments, so let's tell the truth and shame the devil: most were erected not after the Civil War of the 19th century but during the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan and other white supremacist movements in the early 20th century. If you've ever actually seen one of these structures, you know that the word "statue" hardly applies. Most of these things are behemoths, and both their historical timing and their sheer size give credence to the charge they were erected less to honor a region's Civil War history and heroes than to remind the rest of us - "coloreds," "liberals," "Jews," "foreigners," and "uppity women" - not to stray from our appointed place under the boot of white power. I can therefore empathize with those who find these monuments a deeply offensive reminder of the inferiority imputed to them, then and to this day, by the cultural and political power structure of the South.

Where I come down in my own thinking about this issue is that I can't dismiss the back story that these Confederate monuments actually symbolize, which is less an homage to those who fought valiantly on the losing side in the Civil War than it is a rallying cry for white supremacy. The monuments serve as a visual code for the ongoing success of Confederate resistance in blocking the goals of racial justice and national unity. They are symbols of defiance that say, "We may have lost the battles, Yankee aggressor, but we won the war anyway."

Poisoned Fruits of Failed Reconstruction

Some Southerners today reject terms such as "Civil War" or "War between the States" and opt instead for the moniker "War of Northern Aggression." Even when used half in jest, the name drips with Southern resentment not only about history's verdict on the war itself and its causes (the history of any war, as it has been said, having been written by the victors) but on the failed post-war reconstruction, the effects of which still burden the Southern states today. It is no accident that much of the nation's direst poverty, the worst effects of environmental degradation, and the deterioration of inner cities falls on the South. Much as World War II and the rise of Adolf Hitler can be traced to Germany's resentment against humiliating conditions imposed by the allied victors in the aftermath of World War I, so harsh post-War reconstruction policies designed more to humiliate than reconstruct have fueled the resentment of Southern whites from the Civil War onward. Consequently, it's no surprise that today's political demagoguery, with its false promises to deliver them from evil, has such strong appeal among white Southerners. The poisonous resentment resulting from a failed post-war Reconstruction won't be drained until the nation gets serious about treating the causes of that resentment – for everyone, including black and brown people and alienated whites.

In the meantime, maybe we can achieve a compromise on the disposition of the monuments themselves. Perhaps some of these monuments can be relocated to public spaces that are less "in your face" for those they were arguably designed to intimidate. This may not always be practicable - or even particularly desirable. Having lived for a time in Richmond, I find it hard to imagine Monument Avenue without its monuments. But why can't our monumental honors be more inclusive? Where, for instance, are the monuments to Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, or Frederick Douglas? (Arthur Ashe has a monument on Monument, but it seems peculiarly out of place, as if there were no other options for honoring an African American of historic stature from the same era as the Confederate Generals memorialized there.)

Otherwise, it doesn't seem to me to be too much to ask that some historical context, in the form of added plaques that recognize the human, historical, and ethical ambiguities, be added to all sites where monuments to Civil War leaders are retained. And, by the way, the addition of vital historical context should probably apply to Union monuments in the North as well. Like any war, the Civil War was hell, and neither side escapes being scorched by its fire.


More Peg's Blog Spot Posts

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 · What "Telling It Like It Is" Really Means
 · Breaking News: We're All "Values Voters!"
 · Have We Always Been the Disunited States of America?
 · A Humble Defense of the Constitution
 · The Trump Presidency: Bigotry's Cause or Only Its Effect?
 · Race, Class, and Access to Women's Health Services
 · Trump's Angry White Folks
 · Whatever Happened to "Look It Up?"




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