Photo of the day

Amazing.  Via Wired.

Hickory Bay, South Island, New Zealand

The statues will eventually come down

Did you know I have a favorite historian?  It’s Columbia University History Professor, Eric Foner, an expert in the Civil War and Reconstruction.  I was first introduced to Foner when I read Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, for my senior seminar in 19th century US History.  As a Political Scientist, this remains my favorite work of political history I’ve read.  Anyway, Foner has done plenty more great work since then.  And here’s some bits from a terrific NYT column on the statues:

But the advent of multiracial democracy in the Southern states inspired a wave of terrorist opposition by the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups, antecedents of the Klansmen and neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. One by one the Reconstruction governments were overthrown, and in the next generation white supremacy again took hold in the South.

When Mr. Trump identifies statues commemorating Confederate leaders as essential parts of “our” history and culture, he is honoring that dark period. Like all monuments, these statues say a lot more about the time they were erected than the historical era they evoke. The great waves of Confederate monument building took place in the 1890s, as the Confederacy was coming to be idealized as the so-called Lost Cause and the Jim Crow system was being fastened upon the South, and in the 1920s, the height of black disenfranchisement, segregation and lynching. The statues were part of the legitimation of this racist regime and of an exclusionary definition of America. [emphases mine]

The historian Carl Becker wrote that history is what the present chooses to remember about the past. Historical monuments are, among other things, an expression of power — an indication of who has the power to choose how history is remembered in public places.

If the issue were simply heritage, why are there no statues of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, one of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s key lieutenants? Not because of poor generalship; indeed, Longstreet warned Lee against undertaking Pickett’s Charge, which ended the battle of Gettysburg. Longstreet’s crime came after the Civil War: He endorsed black male suffrage and commanded the Metropolitan Police of New Orleans, which in 1874 engaged in armed combat with white supremacists seeking to seize control of the state government. Longstreet is not a symbol of white supremacy; therefore he was largely ineligible for commemoration by those who long controlled public memory in the South.

As all historians know, forgetting is as essential to public understandings of history as remembering. Confederate statues do not simply commemorate “our” history, as the president declared. They honor one part of our past. Where are the statues in the former slave states honoring the very large part of the Southern population (beginning with the four million slaves) that sided with the Union rather than the Confederacy? Where are the monuments to the victims of slavery or to the hundreds of black lawmakers who during Reconstruction served in positions ranging from United States senator to justice of the peace to school board official? Excluding blacks from historical recognition has been the other side of the coin of glorifying the Confederacy.

So, here’s what’s great about Charlottesville and the statue controversy… What Foner writes above (and similar analyses I have shared from others) clearly demonstrate is the meaning and symbolism of these statues.  It’s white supremacy.  Our country was just pretending otherwise for decades.  We cannot pretend any longer.  Many who value their Southern heritage may not like that RE Lee and others have been ultimately used as symbols of white supremacy, but that is, undoubtedly, what Lee, Stonewall Jackson, etc., have been used for.  And now that this fact is clearly out in the open, we cannot persist in pretending otherwise.  It won’t be pretty.  There will be a lot of conflict.  And, I think it may take a long time.  But with our country finally having an honest reckoning about the meaning and symbolism of these monuments, there long term survival becomes untenable.  Because, fortunately, while our country may keep monuments while blithely pretending their are just about heritage, our country will not keep monuments which many Americans have come to properly understand are a direct contradiction of our commitment to equality.

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