Union Soldiers' Memorial - Riverside Park, Manhattan
I believe that all symbols supporting the Confederacy should be removed from public lands / parks etc.
While I recognize that decent but ignorant or miseducated individuals might have argued for these symbols’ preservation in the past, a clear-eyed look at the Confederacy’s foundation, purpose, and legacy presents more than sufficient evidence that these symbols should be retired to museums where they can be contextualized as symbols of an oppressive and murderous regime better relegated to the ash-heap of history.
The Purpose of the Confederacy
Do you know The Cornerstone Speech? Above I used the word “miseducated.” I belive that adjective applies to me and a great many others. Despite taking 7th-grade Texas History class and 9th-grade U.S. History in an affluent “good” public school in Texas, I never heard of this document (more on miseducation’s roots and motives later). It’s a remarkable document because, in its clarity and brevity, it lays out the raison d’être of the Confederacy. Written by Alexander Stephens, the vice-president under Jefferson Davis:
Our new government is founded upon exactly [this] idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. … African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.
Stephens lays is out plainly with the contentions:
- The “negro” is inferior and subordinate
- The Confederacy will be built upon this “great physical, philosophical, and moral truth”
- Disagreement about the preservation of slavery is the flashpoint in the pending secessionist conflict
Now as a Dixie-educated person, I heard several erroneous arguments that slavery was not the causus belli of the Civil War — contrary to what its VP delivered quite plainly. The specious arguments were made that the rift was predicated on the grounds of unfair economic competition or differing interpretations of the Supremacy Clause (“States’ Rights”). In light of a primary source publicly declaring the “immediate cause” to be the preservation of the “peculiar institution,” these arguments carry no water.
Here’s Col. Ty Seidule professor and educator at Westpoint tearing apart these arguments. While I don’t care for arguments from authority, his credentials attest to his careful study of war, politics, and history.
For the short text version:
- “States Rights” in the South was the state’s right to preserve slavery
- “Unfair Economic Competition” is argued because of the purported unfair efficiency of the industrialized North to the agrarian South. But at the time of the War, the North was not yet industrialized. The North achieved its edge through thrift, competition, and infrastructure utilization.
Having clearly identified what the Confederacy’s aims were, let us consider what its symbols: the battle flag of the Northern Virginian army and heroic statuary of its martial heroes communicate.
The Speech of Symbols
The Confederate flag says: This is the banner of a government that was dedicated to the proposition that the Negro race was sub-human chattel and which spilled the blood of American soldiers to advance that point. When you see a statue honoring Robert E. Lee or Thomas Jackson you are seeing a statue which honors a man who spilled blood such that that government could prevail.
These are the primary meanings of those symbols. Some, however, contend that they “no longer mean that.”
Misuse of Symbols
Lamentably, an act of miseducation has been lain upon many Southern-educated individuals. Many schools, public and private, K-12, and university, have had a disinformation weed sown in their intellectual gardens which has confused the simple truth of the causus belli of the Civil War and the meaning of the symbols. Many educated in the South simply don’t know or have been miseducated to believe that the Civil War was not about slavery.
Because of their ignorance they may take these symbols and earnestly use them, paint them, tattoo them on the belief that they’re advocating “limited government” or “Southern identity.”
But we have to ask, and again, we return to Col. Seidule’s video, “limited government” in what capacity? It is the limitation of the federal government to proscribe slavery. Southern identity, what’s that? A simpler life, gentility, a planatar culture, neighborlyness — afforded by the existence of a chattel class! In their “secondary” meaning, these symbols refer back to their primary meaning: a government dedicated to chattel slavery and willing to spill blood for it.
The Crime of Slavery
These symbols stand for the most ugly, most base, most primitive, most shameful kind of crime. Yet I often hear my fellow Southern-raised assert that slavery was practiced under the Hebrews or the Romans and that the American version “wasn’t as bad.” So let’s consider what’s wrong with slavery. Here’s my take:
Murder is considered, by many philosophers, to be the heinous it is because it represents a theft, the most egregious theft possible, the theft of a future. A future to dine out, have children, cure a disease. It’s a theft that not only the murdered has a stake in but that the whole of society has a stake in. It’s for this reason the public prosectues murderers via a district attorney.
Torture is considered a war crime for its duration, it’s psyche-shattering infliction of pain.
Yet slavery is the “perfect,” diabolical blending of both murder and torture. It’s murder committed by a sliver each day, robbing an individual of their one-and-only life. Over and above this, on their dying day it is to close their eyes with the assurance that that same murder will be done unto their children born in chains. Everyone they love — or loved until they were split apart and sold down the river — will face the same slow murder. It is a punishment of a living Hell.
This is slavery. This is what the Confederacy claimed as its cornerstone. This is what the Confederate flag, ultimately, always extols. This is what Lee and Jackson fought to preserve.
If you believe this crime to be as atrocious as I have described, one cannot help but see this regime’s symbols as vile as those brandished by the regime that pursued The Final Solution.
If you’ve been convinced by my argument, at this point you would say. “My God! We have symbols supporting murder and murderers in the heart of great Southern cities. Streets and high schools are named after advocates for the ruination of human life. Surely this can’t be so!”
But it is! It is! It is!
And if, you think you’re horrified, imagine what it’s like when your skin is the same color as those who were the chattel. Imagine knowing that your high school is named after a man who fought to spill the blood of those who liberated your ancestor (Robert E. Lee). Imagine walking across a quad at a famous Southern school mumbling organic chemistry formulae to yourself to find the president of the Confederacy peering down at you, reminding you that your proper place was in a field, subordinate, murdered slowly until death for profit.
And if you have the decency to feel those emotions and shudder, then you understand immediately why those symbols must be removed from public land. It’s unconscionable that the oppressors’ likenesses should be honored and maintained at the oppressed’s expense. Would you ask the Tate family to fund a statue to Manson (who, after all, wrote some very fine songs). Such a very idea is inhuman and vulgar in the extreme, it’s an insult to all that’s decent!
Yet if it is so heinous and reprehensible, why were those symbols ever erected and why do so many fight to preserve them? I believe this is the effect of two forces: Normalization and Lost Cause inculcation.
I grew up watching “The Dukes of Hazzard.” I loved “them Duke boys” and seeing them outsmart Roscoe P. Coletrane and Boss Hog. I also loved that big beautiful car making those unbelievable jumps:
But the fact of the matter is that seeing the “Battle Flag of Northern Virginia” and seeing picaresques in a vehicle named for the General of the Confederate Army served to normalize my view of that symbol. “Surely if it’s on TV, that symbol can’t be that bad.” But it is. It is that same horrible symbol I described above. Normalization helped condition me to expect and accept a symbol of treason and racism as being normal.
I think back to red hankerchiefs in convenience stores in my neighborhood that had the Confederate flag. I think of “magic claw” games that had Confederate pins in them at fairs. I was raised in a culture which made the symbol stand for of those mythological interpretations not the rank misery of slavery.
How could this have happened? How could disinformation and miseducation gain such sturdy purchase in society?
The Lost Cause
Many Southerners resist the idea that the Confederacy and its symbols stood for the horrible systemic torture-murder for profit that I described. This resistance is largely rooted in the conspiracy of “The Lost Cause” narrative.
The Lost Cause is described as a movement which endorsed the heroism of the antebellum South, that praised the “simpler times” belief, and that painted “joyful pickaninnies” and Uncle Remus yuk-yukking away. These amaglgamated myths form an idyllic characterization of the South that obscures the torture-murder of slavery and praises fantasy.
It’s through the Lost Cause that symbols and referents of the Confederacy can be painted on a car during a prime time TV show. It’s through Lost Cause inculcation that textbook review boards wince when the truth (The South sought to preserve torture-murder!) is “over-emphasized” in history books and “softer” versions are peddled instead.
But why did such a wrong and wrong-headed myth come to be at the root of Southern conception? One theory is that because it was useful to help Northern and Southern governments reconcile and move on quickly, the North adopted a language of defeat-with-honor so as to cajole the shattered Southern civilization. For (white) Northern lawmakers, to tacitly accept the Lost Cause was to allow a “peace with honor” or a “tactical retreat” for those with whom they would have to make a common reconstruction
But because the Lost Cause was tolerated as useful, its cultural payload was never extirpated, root and stem. Instead it was allowed to simmer and fester and accrete unto itself magical thinking and totemic power. As time has gone on, many of those steeped in Lost Cause mythos have used it to create expressions of Lost Cause identity as a coercive weapon for the white supremacist cause.
In Lost Cause re-framing, Robert E. Lee stopped being a general supporting the barbarity of slavery, but was instead a chivalrous, doomed, but beautiful son of Virginia. Jefferson Davis could write movingly about Southern ideals of liberty and gloss over that those joys and liberties were afforded by free labor from owned people. The Lost Cause provides an escape valve from the sheer horror of how totally, incomprehensibly, and utterly barbaric slavery is and how fundamentally shameful and wrong those who fought to preserve it were!
If we look at the establishment of Confederate statuary, it didn’t happen in the aftermath of the Civil War (“Gosh, I sure miss Tommy and Bobby!”), it happened in the 20th century in the 20’s and the 60’s, precisely when those symbols, wrapped in the Lost Cause’s glowing halo also served to remind black Americans “who was in charge” and the importance of “remembering ones place.” They are softened symbols that seem safe in public but menace the primary hatred of the Confederacy: “You are lesser and we’d just as happily go back to your being property.”
For if you can get away with the big lie “that these are just icons of our cultural identity” you can also get away with the big threat: “Our side lost, but still runs things ‘round here. Be afraid.”
At my alma mater, President Gregory Fenves noted that “[t]he statues depicting Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, John Reagan and James Stephen Hogg are now being removed from the Main Mall…Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans. That remains true today for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry.”
President Fenves was right to remove them as they serve as exclusionary whispers of white supremacy veiled under the auspices benignity delivered by the Lost Cause’s opiate cloud.
It might seem implausible that such a wide-ranging counter-factual, alternative history could and would be taught, but is it? Do we note Columbus’ influence on the trans-Atlantic slave trade? Or is it quaint songs about the “Nina, Pinta, and Santa Mar-i-uh?” Do we detail how his forces mutilated, raped, and pillaged their sorry way from one island to another? Do we teach and note the boggling amount of death inflicted by Pizzaro? No, as a culture we are very selective about which details we leave out in telling our hero myths. As such, I do not think it beyond belief to believe local, decentralized governments and businesses have engaged in a purposeful campaign to re-cast history.
Referring back to President Fenves’ actions removing statues, legal action was raised by The Sons of Confederate Veterans. They contend that the money which was used to erect the statues was part of an expectation that the funds be used for “he promotion of American history from the Southern perspective.” Here, in black and white, is the accusation that Fenves broke faith with ensuring that Lost Cause interpreted history be the academic standard at the University Texas. For me, this shows Lost Cause-ism to be ripe, strong, and potent in 2017 Texas. At the very least it’s more plausible than Obama Birtherism. I link to the original complaint’s brief so that the reader can see for themself the dog-whistle of Lost Cause belief.
In 1911, [Littlefield] was appointed to the University’s Board of Regents. He believed that the survivors of the Confederacy needed to preserve their history so that future generations would remember these grand patriots who gave up their lives for the cause of liberty and self-government.
Remember: that’s the liberty to murder-torture people.
In sum, the Confederacy and its symbols are odious and repellent. They should be removed from all public grounds. I’ll not go so far as to suggest government should proscribe their presence, for that seems to go squarely against the First Amendment. On the other hand, laws that prohibit hate expression are sufficient to bar would-be carriers of these banners from exercising them on public lands.
Reconcilitation and truth is hard: the South lost in its battle to defend the right to rob humans of their lives in exchange for free labor. There is no romanticism that can wallpaper over this truth. This organization and its symbols stand for hate and we must educate so as to prevent another generation from existing under the delusion of Lost Cause mythos.
Theses symbol are among the most foul, odious, and deplorable within our world. No “crotch-grab” or expression of sexual license, apostasy, or moral code (or lack thereof) can rank with a government dedicated to the proposition that it is moral to torture-murder people with dark skin for filthy lucre.
In close I offer a beautiful telling of the wrongness of the symbols of Lost Cause legacy on public land. Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans gave this moving explanation (text):
Skip to minute 3:00