Confederate statues are under fire. Cultural warriors are demanding their removal. The more aggressive activists are taking matters into their own hands. What’s feeding this frenzy?
Don’t get me wrong. I am all for putting a leash on radical protesters vandalizing public property. But if statues in the public square send the wrong message, haven’t these modern-day de-Stalinists got a point?
Bad Southern generals fought for slavery. Noble Northern generals fought for freedom. What could be more straightforward? The right thing to do is honor the Union fighters and cast aside Confederate tributes – right?
Not so fast. History is a bit more complicated than an episode of The Lone Ranger. The guys in blue were no saints. And the guys in gray weren’t so clearly the villains they’ve been made out to be.
Let’s start with General Ulysses S. Grant. The leader of the Union forces is credited with saving our great nation. Okay, but he also ordered the expulsion of Jews from territory conquered by the Union Army. Grant’s “General Order #11” was a vile racist edict that could have served as a template for Nazi policy in Europe a century later.
Grant later became our 18th President. His White House tenure is considered one of the most corrupt and ineffective in history.
Other Union leaders offered no greater portraits of public rectitude. In their literally scorched earth march through the South, General Sherman and his men intentionally terrorized civilians with actions clearly violating rules of war prevailing at the time. These same military leaders then carried out brutal campaigns against Native American populations.
In contrast, the Confederate army was more constrained. General Lee was a principled man, who insisted that civilian populations and property be spared wherever possible. As evidenced by his writings, he also gave no quarter to Grant’s anti-Semitic sensibilities.
But Lee chose the wrong, losing side of the war. For what was from his perspective an honorable decision, he is vilified. Having graduated near the top of his class at West Point, he resigned his U.S. Army commission to stand with his native State of Virginia when it seceded from the Union.
Under today’s litmus test of identity politics, this transgression is irredeemable. So Lee’s statues are coming down while Grant’s image still adorns our $50 bill.
When complicated men are reduced to caricatures, the debate is no longer about history. Or even values. Commemorations become a flag to be captured. Politics decides what gets a place on the mantle.
Popular this year? Get a statue. Next year? Only time will tell.
9 responses to “History is not a cartoon”
Great Michael. Keep writing! S
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You’re a very bright man Michael. I just wish I was a little smarter so I could really understand your writing.
Hi Michael! Your old classmate, Kristin, here! I absolutely agree that to fully understand history, one should learn about and appreciate the whole person, not some two-dimensional character. But I don’t believe statues are typically created for the purpose of accurate historical messaging. They are, in and of themselves, cartoons – statements made by communities about what they wish to honor or convey. Many of the confederate statues and monuments appeared in the early 1900s and 1950s-60s, in response to significant racial tensions in society. They were built by certain communities in large part to reassert their position over a race of people that had previously been enslaved. As these communities change over time, it’s no wonder that they no longer wish to be reminded of the message conveyed by those statues and monuments. I agree that history is not a cartoon and should never be thought of as one. But statues and monuments are cartoon-like in the simple messages they convey. And if the current society or community no longer wishes to support a particular message, it seems entirely appropriate to take down the statue created to project that message. I, personally, think such statues should be preserved in a museum, to remind everyone of the messaging prior societies and communities worked hard to convey through these cartoon-like means.
Sorry, Rube. You left out the most relevant context: the history and circumstances under which most of the disputed statues were erected.
I agree that battlefields need to be preserved as civil war monuments, with statues of generals. But, I’d like to see monuments to the millions of black men and women murdered as slaves too. Why don’t we have 700 Harriet Tubman statues, about the same # as Lee statues.
Most of the monuments in dispute were built post 1950s and were straight up rejections/resistance to civil rights. They were built as an assertion of white cultural dominance. Those should all come down in my opinion. They venerate white supremacy as monuments. Put them in a museum. Sure. Not in public squares.
There is no perfect as it is a vague assumption and we celebrate the “history ” of these admirable figures in their own time period. To destroy or remove these statues does not serve the purpose of alleviating racial disharmony. It goes so much deeper. Rather than destroy and remove history from the site of their origin, would it not be more thought provoking to erect statues of Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Jesus, Moses, Sigmund Freud, Theodor Herzl, Harvey Milk etc., alongside the current statues’ counterpart of controversy in a lecturing position. Then, would all sides be justified, forcing a continual discussion of equality and bigotry, while time marches forward in a more pure form of humanity? Should we actually judge controversy so harshly when it stimulates a productive questioning of society? Michael is so on point, as none of us are perfect. We are only human, falling and rising to be better. That is our continual history.
There are many venues that are condusive to examining history and the character of influential people, like museums, media, websites and books. But the point I want to make is thst most if these statues were erected explicitly to venerate white dominance. They were erected in the 50s and 60s. Move them to a museum and place them in a critical context. But I think they don’t belong in our public squares.
Charles Barkley told a reporter just last week in Birmingham that ” Black people don’t really care about the statues or doubtful that any black person has spent a day thinking about those stupid statues. “. He himself cares more about progress to his race and to society in general. More important issues lie in education, crime and economic opportunity in the Black community. Though, I too believe this becomes more about politics than people; I still, respect everyone’s right to their opinion.
I grew up in Birmingham. The parents of my good friend and neighbors marched with Martin Luther King. I was taught to respect all people regardless of race or religious belief.
I didn’t notice Rubes arguing to keep the Confederate statues. Rather, he pointed out the fact that those on the winning side were not necessarily more morally upright, they were just the winners.
Great dialogue, love reading your stuff Michael!