Ed note: This article was originally published on Glasstire on June 5, 2017.
When I was around 12, my classmates and I were asked to write a report on a “great person” of our choosing. Most kids picked the usual candidates: Albert Einstein, Neil Armstrong, etc. But I, for some baffling reason, picked the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. A little context: I was raised in a new-age meditation community in rural Iowa. I had not been indoctrinated in Lost Cause propaganda by my parents or community, and the town I lived in, though provincial and filled with plenty of pinch-faced, un-fun white people, was not saturated with Stars and Bars regalia. Somehow, through ambient osmosis, the notion that Stonewall Jackson was a “great man” still reached me and presented itself as self-evident. I was relatively precocious and knew a fair amount about World War II and the Vietnam War, but the American Civil War was to me only a nebulous elegy. I had a vague sense that it involved “states’ rights,” that “brother had fought brother,” that the south had suffered enormously, and that southerners were a proud and genteel people. This impoverished understanding remained until I took a particularly memorable Civil War class in college that demonstrated conclusively that the Confederacy had fought for objectively the worst cause in history: the endless preservation and expansion of a slave empire. In light of this revelation, the courtly manners of one revered general or tactical darling or another seems frankly irrelevant. The Nazis were sharp dressers, punctual, and exceedingly focused—all qualities considered top virtues in today’s neoliberal, airport-bookstore world—and yet most people don’t revere the Third Reich with piquant melancholy.
Yet in the year 2017, a shocking number of (mainly white) Americans still feel an amorphous, conflicted tenderness towards the Confederacy. Few openly admit supporting the enslavement of black people through a virulent system of paranoid white supremacy or even longing for the days of Jim Crow apartheid. They just… well, there’s an ineffable quality to it, the nostalgia depicted by 401k and erectile dysfunction commercials intermingled with a stirring scene in a conservative morality play in which a weary schoolteacher disperses some “thugs.” If you talk to these same people about this frankly, their responses will likely drift into choppy waters of “the natural order of things” before the topic abruptly changes. This is partly a lingering result of by far the most successful media propaganda campaign in history. Nothing else really comes close.
Most nations treat their egregious past sins the way an evangelical Christian dad would treat an infidelity—with outright denial or really not wanting to talk about it (see Turkey and the Armenian Genocide and China and Tiananmen Square, respectively). But in the American South, there are thousands of parks, monuments, and streets named after Confederate figures. Legendary bands’ most beloved songs un-ironically celebrate the Confederate way of life. Gone With the Wind, the most popular movie of all time in terms of attendance, is a far more effective and lasting piece of propaganda than Triumph of the Will. One of the best-selling novels of the last 20 years, Cold Mountain, is a romantic antebellum tragedy steeped in sacrifice and dignity. The ideological resilience of “the Lost Cause,” holding that the Confederacy was noble and brave and deeply wronged, has become like white noise, chemtrails, or the static coming off of power lines. Finally in the last couple years, due to the heroic efforts of local activists and rising uneasiness over Confederate celebration after the horrific massacre of black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by the white supremacist Dylann Roof, the flood is beginning to be turned back.
I attended the University of Texas at Austin. Like most large, historical campuses, it was besotted by larger-than-life bronze statues of white men in a range of either bulbous or asymmetrical body shapes. The statues were mainly of Texan men, powerful men. Men who were simultaneously the governor and also the owner of a railroad. Men who wore their pants high to hide their girth; men who, in all likelihood, had weapons-grade halitosis. Men poetically named Hogg who cruelly named their daughters Ima in a fit of Tennessee Williams “Big Daddy” elan. This type of man still generally runs things, the chief difference now being improved dental hygiene and a revolutionary exercise program called P90X created by failed stand-up comedian Tony Horton. Turgid monuments to such men are so numerous that they will likely remain until their heads are bobbing in the rising sea. The one that stood out was of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, a man of relentless advocacy for slavery (and a participant, too: in 1860 he owned 113 slaves). Why was Davis looking over the most picturesque lawn on campus? He wasn’t even from Texas; he was from Mississippi. Eventually, after impressive student protests, his statue was removed in 2015 and relocated to the Briscoe Museum, but the removal was a huge deal. Different options were evaluated by “experts,” and the Sons of Confederate Veterans—a sort of stress-release LARP for southern men enraged by the tyranny of family court—filed legal actions. I remember wondering whether it would be like this, if not worse, for every other Confederate monument that came down. After all, this one wasn’t even that old, erected in 1933 thanks to the efforts of George Littlefield, one of those southern titans who aged into a disapproving egg with a goatee. And it was, frankly, a terrible statue. It made Davis look simply like a stern prick lecturing students on the importance of getting up early. If this was the reaction for a modern, misplaced, glum statue, what would the result be when a more famous Confederate shrine was removed?
The answer: way drunker and more intense. Over the past few weeks, New Orleans has taken down four Confederate monuments: one of P.G.T. Beauregard (enormous statue of him on horseback, very aggressive vibe); one of Jefferson Davis (weirdly louche this time, leaning on a column with his hand limply outstretched, as if upon finally accepting that the war was lost he took a drop of laudanum and listened to This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End in Tears); an especially creepy white pillar erected in the 1890s after some “triumphant” campaign of racial terror by shitfaced, sexually-paranoid southern bros; and finally, Robert E. Lee, in Lee Circle, posed in a dignified military repose on a tall marble pillar—out of reach, sanctified. The reaction—even when the scary white supremacist phallus came down—was pure rage. The city had to do the removals suddenly in the middle of the night, and the workers’ faces had to be covered because of incessant death threats. By the time they took down Lee, strategically the last to go, the protestors were somewhat exhausted. I imagine it had been an emotional couple of weeks in which their hangovers had grown increasingly metaphysical.
When I visited Lee Circle a couple of weeks ago, the pillar stood bare, its plaque removed, the monument charged with negative space. Apparently, there are no plans to replace it except with some vague “water features.” The same is true for the others, which, given the consensus that replacements would’ve required, makes a certain amount of sense. Still, drawing from New Orleans’ rich musical tradition could be so fruitful. P.G.T. Beauregard could be replaced with a beaming Allen Toussaint on a horse, riding into town to lay down an icy piano line. Jefferson Davis could be replaced by a resplendent Doctor John leaning on a column, his hand outstretched holding a Gris-gris bag. And Lee Circle could be renamed Weezy Circle, with a to-scale, five-foot two-inch bronze Lil Wayne placed atop the pedestal coated in a reflective purple lacquer, so he would appear distant, dazzling, and inscrutable. In fact, given that the Confederacy, and by extension slavery, are inarguably the worst aspects of the American South, while the music that arose from the region is amongst the best, replacing all Confederate monuments, street names, school names, and so on with the names of Southern musicians presents no downside. Alas, we are far, far away from that dream. The mere removal is a miracle and the shrieking chorus against their removal is not subsiding.
The defenses of the monuments are two-pronged. The more respectable side emerges from New York Times op-eds by shaggy philosophy professors and several blog posts by American Conservative writer Rod Dreher (one of those exceedingly-irritating “smart” conservatives whom the New Yorker loves to profile, a vain little dandy with a penchant for leather jackets, spiked hair, pained R.E.M. fandom, and insipid references to the loss of our shared “caritas”). This side’s argument boils down to a view of the monuments’ removal as the erasure of history. To which I reply: That is utter nonsense. The post-war push of dewy pro-Confederate media has not made anyone more aware of the true history of the Civil War or our nation’s history of slavery; it has served as a canopy of gauzy Spanish moss on America’s collective mind. There simply are not enough patient, conservative dads out there to plaintively explain to impressionable youths that even though Robert E. Lee was noble, slavery was wrong. Confederate monuments themselves erase history.
The other prong emerges from the Atchafalaya Basin-sized fever swamp of the MRA, red-pill, alt-right mole people online and off, who claim that taking down the monuments is just the first step in criminalizing whiteness and ushering in reverse apartheid. If you actually believe this, you are most likely irredeemably racist, your own Lost Cause, living in the perpetual racial guerilla war in your head. Alternatively, perhaps your rage towards the symbolic demolition of long-dead sociopaths who lived a demented Camelot fantasia built on the greatest cruelty humans ever conceived stems from some other personal frustration, e.g. a third divorce, mounting child support payments, sciatic nerve pain, or the failure of your dream to open a paintball supplies store.
After the removal of the monuments in New Orleans, the city’s mayor, Mitch Landrieu, gave an emotional and moving speech arguing for the actions’ necessity. While the speech was widely praised, the reactionary hysteria in the south has continued to flare. The governor of Alabama recently signed a bill forbidding any Confederate monument from being removed, ever. And the Sons of Confederate Veterans have pledged that they will do “whatever” is necessary to protect still-standing monuments. I glumly joked with a friend that our second Civil War would be over the removal of monuments to the first Civil War.
All of this feels simultaneously hopeful and excruciating. An especially galling political cliché, usually deployed by conservatives and centrist liberals, is that “we need to have a frank discussion about race.” But as thinkers like Malcolm X and James Baldwin argued more than 50 years ago, this discussion should really be among white people. And it is an endlessly exhausting one, because we whites are trapped in a garden, hundreds of years old, built by those grotesquely rich, imperious men who, as James McPherson writes in his masterpiece Battle Cry of Freedom, “liked old things, old ways.” So we have thus far been doomed to wander the maze of the garden, singing the same songs, telling the same stories. The garden is walled, the maze has no exit, and the only way to escape is to dismantle it.
I do think putting the sculptures in museums seems to be a good balance or compromise, then you are preserving the history associated with the works and giving due to the artists while allowing it to have a more meaningful and truthful context. Though I doubt museums can realistically take them all and how are cities going to be able to afford to replace them with new public art?
A brilliant essay. Thank you.
THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN.
Not unless slavery is reinstated. It only “rose” before because of it.
I totally agree, there should be no place for something that has been deemed immoral to be worshipped. Imagine if Chinese would keep Mao memorabilia, Russians would keep Lenin and Stalin, Germans would still salute : Hail Hitler. Enough said…
Great read, Neil. Those who would appeal to some concept of an essential “history” are seemingly unaware that we work daily to construct our various histories, they are always under negotiation. I would argue as you do that these monuments erase history, or at least obscure it by memorializing individuals that render distorted narratives. That said, I wouldn’t be against them staying put if work was done to tell a more complete story. Within the larger context of slavery, sectionalism, free labor as THE basis of southern wealth and institutions, etc., these (crappy) statues could serve as perpetual reminders of our ability to deceive ourselves to justify hate and pathetic self-interest.
Very thought-provoking. I had an amazing conversation recently in St. Louis at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting at which the conclusion was that the Civil War has *never actually ended*. An earlier-in-the-day keynote by Bryan Stevenson helped usher that notion into my head. It needs to end and it needs to end now.
Brilliant and insightful and funny, you are firing on all cylinders. Thank you for this. I’m going to share this piece and quote from it in the future. You give me a little hope.