Sunday, August 20, 2017

Statues, Racism and the Re-Writing of History

Photo Shamelessly filched from The Washington Post.
No, it's not the Grand Army of the Republic Statue on High Street in Pottstown, although it could be. One is of a Union soldier in Westfield, N.J., the other is a statue in Windsor, N.C. Seem similar? Well, read on and discover the unfamiliar history of Civil War statues now at the center of so much strife.

To say that the current racial strife in America is all about a statue is to miss the larger picture.

As I have watched the violence, the hot rhetoric and the "whataboutism" flood the Internet and the airwaves, I have thought long and hard about writing anything on the subject as I'm not sure I have anything worth saying that hasn't already been said by someone somewhere.

But I suppose anything worth saying is worth repeating so let's start with some basics, philosophical ruminations to be found below notwithstanding.

Photo by Evan Brandt
Chris Brickhouse, right, holds the banner he brought to
an anti-hate rally in Phoenixville Friday night.
Racism is wrong.

There is nothing inherently superior about white people other, perhaps, than their historical willingness to subjugate or eliminate people who look differently than they do or who have something they want -- most often, land.

Nazis are bad and nothing good will happen from associating with them. It's hard to believe this needs repeating in 2017.

Our parents and grandparents fought a war to defeat them. Nazis performed some of the most horrific acts human beings have ever organized themselves to undertake and their resurgence in our nation is reason for amazement and great sorrow.

Now for the gray areas.

In 1995, I saw Michael Douglas make a speech on screen playing President Andrew Shepherd in Rob Reiner's great film, "The American President."

(I was surprised, then immediately unsurprised to discover yesterday it was written by Aaron Sorkin, the creator of "The West Wing.")

At the end of the film Shepherd finally defends himself and I remember being struck by this passage:
America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You've gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say, You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.
You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms.
Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.
And so as I ponder the arguments now raging on the Internet, and on the increasing useless television programs where the person who yells the loudest wins the day, I think about another movie. In "Minority Report," the police prosecute "future crime," which is, in other words, "crimes you're thinking about perpetrating."

Because one of the arguments now popular among the left-leaning is the idea that violence perpetrated by antifa protesters is somehow more acceptable than that committed by the KKK, Nazis, et al because "at least they're doing it for the right reason, opposing Nazis."

It's an emotionally comforting argument that rests on a slippery slope. As Americans, we should always be wary of "right thinking." It is antithetical to freedom which, sadly, also includes the freedom to hate.

Actions -- not motives or thoughts -- are what should be prosecuted in courts.

This is why, although I laud the sentiment behind them and understand their historical justification, I am not entirely OK with the idea of a "hate crime" law.

Should we, as a nation and culture, punish a murderer motivated by money less severely than we should a murderer motivated by hatred of the victim's skin color, or political philosophy? Is the victim any less dead? Is their family any less traumatized?

I have always puzzled about why it is a war crime to kill people with one method on the battlefield, but acceptable in another way? Again, are they any less dead?

People have attacked President Trump, rightly, for equating violence by "both
sides."

And here's where it gets a little dicey, I admit. Remember, none of this is black and white, it's just about black and white.

I encourage the public condemnation, in the strongest possible words, as the politicians like say, the motives for violence by the racist marchers because of their reason for doing it. Social condemnation is one of the ways racism has been held in check. It's why the KKK hide their identities behind hoods -- at least until the era of David Duke.

But when it comes to the criminal justice system and the consequences for those involved, I am leery of any sentence that is made more harsh because of someone's beliefs -- no matter how heinous they may be to society at large.

Which brings us to what society at large thinks about all this. As it turns out, like everything else, it's complicated.

On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that according to a recent poll, when it comes to Confederate monuments, "The Public Stands with Trump."

"A survey by the Economist and YouGov earlier this week found that, by more than 2 to 1, Americans believe that Confederate monuments are symbols of Southern pride rather than of white supremacy," wrote reporter Christopher Ingraham.

Perhaps most amazingly, although African-Americans are the most likely to say Confederate statues are symbols of white supremacy, less than half (47 percent) say so, according to the survey.
Steve Bannon
And only 30 percent of all Americans support the removal of Lee's statue in Charlottesville, according to the survey.

More worrisome, in an interview with the New York Times, now-ousted chief political strategist and right-wing stalwart Steve Bannon says tearing them down, only energizes his base more.

“Just give me more,” Bannon said. “Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it,” he told the Times.

These are not easy questions and I don't pretend to have the answers.

So what's the right path?

Some have said, look at Germany, the birthplace of Nazism.

They have outlawed the party and their monuments are to that philosophy's victims, not its champions. And Germany is arguably the leader of the free world currently, so where's the harm?

Even some in the famously absolutist American Civil Liberties Union, which stood by its absolute belief in the Constitution and defended in the court the Nazis' right to march in public, are re-thinking this position in the wake of hatred's rise.

(By the way, while many blame President Trump for this rise in hatred and its increased brazenness, and he is certainly no innocent and bears ultimate responsibility for the role he has played, I believe he has merely been a catalyst for what has, I'm sad to conclude, been laying unspoken in far too many American hearts these many years.)

As I so often remind my teen son, now headed to college armed with an 18-year-old's mile-wide and inch-deep certitude in his knowledge of what's right and what's wrong, "everything is shades of gray. People who see everything in black and white struggle to make sense of a complex world where everything is connected."

Photo by Evan Brandt
This attendee at Phoenixville's anti-hate rally Friday
has made her choice.
I'm not telling him not to take sides. I'm advising him to look ahead and be aware of the consequences of that choice and understand the choices made by others.

Don't make excuses for choices like hate or bigotry, we are all responsible for our choices, but understand where they came from if you want to get to the heart of the matter.

Because ultimately, while you have to oppose hatred with vigor, you don't eliminate it by shouting at a hater. That just makes you feel good about yourself and serves as an example of your opposition, while giving them someone else to hate.

You truly eliminate hate with understanding, and that has to begin with understanding why they hate in the first place. No one is born that way.

Which leaves us with a problem in trying to be true to our free speech credo. How can we espouse free speech, yet condemn violence by those who think one way, and justify it by those who think another?

I have no easy answer other than to observe we've been doing it for the entire history of our species.

It's called war.

As I so often do in difficult times, I turn to history to look for lessons from similar circumstances.

I came to history through politics, although the fact that my father is a historian probably made it inevitable.

My particular interest is the founders and it is rooted in my irritation at those I disagree with throwing quotes from George Washington or John Adams  in our collective face to justify their political position. I decided I needed to learn more.

As the Broadway hit has now made
popularly plain, there was no love lost 
between Thomas Jefferson and
Alexander Hamilton.
And like everything, I learned that it's complicated, that the founders were not a monolithic agreement engine who came together, lifted their hands loftily and
bespoke our founding documents in a single voice to awe-struck scribes (as some monuments would have us believe).

Rather, they were educated, egotistical, imperfect, squabbling white men with property who, as the last inheritors of the Enlightenment period, set aside as many of their differences as they could stomach to try, once and for all, to create a Republic that could last.

It has always been a work in progress. And from the beginning, it has struggled to reconcile one of those differences that could not be overcome by the founders, the poison pill that has infected this nation's discourse and history ever since -- slavery.

The pill ultimately grew into the Civil War, and we all know how that went.

Those opposed to the tearing down of statues to Confederate heroes are right that to do so is to eliminate a footnote in our history.

But it's not the history they think it is.

For the majority of these statues were not erected in the wake of the Civil War.

Rather, they were erected decades later, during the Jim Crow era, and in the 1950s and 1960s during the Civil Rights, era mostly as symbols of white power and intimidation.
Although it's very hard to read here, this graphic shows when the majority of Confederate statues were erected in the United States. The most active year was 1910, two years after the founding of the NAACP. Five years later, the Ky Klux Klan experienced the resurgence of "The Invisible Empire." Another high point was 1963, the same year Gov. George Wallace stood in opposition to the desegregation of the University of Alabama.


This is obviously less true of union statues, but it was part of a craze made possible by an unexpected factor -- economics. In other words, they were cheap, just a couple hundred dollars as opposed to a marble or granite statue, and most were cast by the Monument Bronze Co. of Bridgeport, Conn.

Makers of bronze cannons during the war, the company saw a market for monuments and shifted gears, marketing as "white bronze" what was in reality primarily the soft metal zinc. That's why the video of the statue pulled down in North Carolina shows it folding so easily, as you can see in this Mic video on the subject.

Gosh, the Grand Army of
the Republic statue in 
Pottstown sure looks 
familiar...
In a great piece in The Washington Post Friday, reporter Marc Fisher further reveals that many of the statues of the common soldier on both sides -- often referred to as "the Silent Sentinel" -- were literally cast from the same mold.

(This is where the GAR statues is relevant as anyone who has seen it will recognize the description of the Silent Sentinel: "Civil War statues of a mustachioed infantryman standing at rest, wearing a greatcoat and holding a rifle barrel.")

Often, the only thing difference is the belt buckle, which either reads "US" of "CS."

Fisher further writes:
"It took some years before Southern customers caught on and sought to buy statues of soldiers who were more obviously Grays rather than Blues. Statue manufacturers eventually gave their Confederate models a slouch hat instead of the Union topper that looked more like a baseball cap, and a short shell jacket rather than the North’s greatcoat, and a bedroll to replace the Union man’s knapsack."
And if your town couldn't afford one, the "United Daughters of the Confederacy" were more than happy to chip in and cover the cost. Check the plaque on many of these statues and you will see them there.

Although bronze statues of generals on horseback fall into a slightly different mold -- pun intended -- the history these edifices represent is less the valor of Confederate soldiers and leaders, and more a not-so-subtle reminder to African-Americans during the Jim Crow era of how fleeting their freedom truly was.

So those who want these statues torn down have a basis in history when they say they are in fact symbols of the history of oppression more than the history of a rebellion against the United States.

As such, it seems to me that if a community, or a community's government, votes to remove these statues, that this decision represents democracy in action, pure and simple.
The statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va.
that is at the center of the controversy.

And while Charlottesville's city council intends to sell its statue of Robert E. Lee, I agree with their commission that studied the matter, it should instead be put in a museum where the timing and context of its erection can add to our understanding of its true history.

And while I agree with Baltimore's decision to removed theirs, I am less enamored of the method used there -- taking them down in the middle of the night, when no one was looking.

I understand the rationale -- to avoid trouble in a place that has already seen more than its share of trouble.

But ultimately, if you want to speak out against hatred and racism, I think it
Baltimore took down its Confederate statues
under cover of darkness.
should be done in the full glare of the sun, with the cameras rolling, with a community's leader saying loudly and proudly, "you want to know what we think of racism? Of hate? Of a history of repression? It's this."

There is a reason the Ku Klux Klan wore hoods to hide their faces, and I don't think racism is effectively opposed "quickly and quietly," as Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh advised other cities to remove their Confederate monuments.

Rather it is best opposed by exposure for what it truly is, hatred of other human beings. "There comes a time when we must choose between what is right, and what is easy."

So where does that leave us? In a bad place with no easy way out.

And once again, I find myself amazed at Aaron Sorkin's prescience. For here is what fictional president Andrew Shepherd had to say next:
We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who's to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President's girlfriend and you scream about patriotism.
Tell me if that doesn't all sound uncomfortably familiar.

I don't know what the right thing is to do to get to the roots of this American disease and finally cleanse the body politic of this idea of inequality in a nation founded on the idea that all men are created equal.

But I do know what doing the right thing looks like.

And it looks like this:



3 comments:

  1. https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=1620753744614076&id=174742062548592&refid=17&_ft_=top_level_post_id.10155410513556206%3Atl_objid.10155410513556206%3Athrowback_story_fbid.10155410513556206%3Athid.699906205%3A306061129499414%3A2%3A0%3A1504249199%3A7258828582081883329&__tn__=CH-R. Here is a link posted on Facebook that opened my eyes to this whole statue problem.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Michael.
      I found the same link. It is embedded in the text above.

      Delete
    2. Thanks Michael.
      I found the same link. It is embedded in the text above.

      Delete