Some thinks about the persistence of statuary

>> Thursday, August 17, 2017

So, this week it's Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
- Donald Trump and lots of other guys.


So there's a perfectly practical matter here that's not inconsequential even if it's not a big moral or philosophical argument, and that would be that Washington and Jefferson, you know, won their war while Lee and Jackson didn't.  Which is important because if Washington and Jefferson had lost their war, and had fallen into the hands of the British, well, no doubt they would have been hanged as traitors and there wouldn't be any statues of them to speak of, and any commemoration of them would have been in the same vein as British celebrations of Guy Fawkes' night, i.e. a celebration of the preservation of the monarchy that gradually turns ironic; you'd probably have troublemaking artistes like Alan Moore going around saying, "Remember Jefferson!" and using this reference to a vaguely-remembered insurrectionist as a grand metaphor for the importance of repudiating Thatcherism or somesuch.

And so, also, we need to point out that treason, which in the United States is defined as "levying War against them [the United States], or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort," (which is something Lee and Jackson totes did in front of literally thousands of witnesses, and not merely the two necessary to secure a conviction) has traditionally been punished throughout the world by death.  It's one of the primo capital crimes, partly because trying to destroy civilization is about as transgressive a crime against civilization as civilization can contemplate, and also because there's a long history of people who fail to overthrow the government the first time around coming back and trying again (and again and again and again) if given the opportunity.  It's probably only in the post-WWII era that countries like Britain and France that outlawed the death penalty switched to handing out life sentences for treason, because (obviously) it's hard to sentence someone to death for treason when you have no death sentences (duh).  Having pointed this out, to then point out that the United States exercised considerable forbearance after the Civil War in not hanging Confederates or lining them up in front of firing squads, as the main issue with how to deal with traitors up to that point had been whether to go with the traditional rope or the ease and convenience offered by contemporary firearms.

All of which leads us to a statement about just how crazy and screwed up the United States is, and how screwy the Civil War was, and how screwy all this stuff about Confederate statuary is: because there's actually a debate or discussion to have about how the leaders of the Confederacy were regarded after the war, and that debate or discussion is concerned with whether those guys should all have been killed or not, and was the decision not to do so moral or pragmatic, necessary or expedient, just or political, etc.?  And how crazy is it that we aren't having that debate or discussion, instead having a discussion or debate about how to honor these guys who in just about any other war in any other place at any other time would have been strung up and buried in unmarked graves with no fanfare?  Right?  I mean, that is really, really, really messed up, right there.  Just the fact these guys ended up being honored with marble or bronze instead of hemp is messed up, and then the rest of it?  Damn.


Aside from the practical fact that Washington and Jefferson won, and winners typically don't get hanged for treason while losers do (or did until countries started outlawing capital punishment, anyway), we should talk about civic virtue and mythology and cultural aspiration and things like that.

The fact is that there is a necessary and important discussion to be had about Washington and Jefferson as slaveowners and, for that matter, as human beings, and how they went out and stood for one thing in public but often failed to live up to their mythic personas in messy reality.  It's kind of stupid that I have to write that sentence that way, as if that discussion isn't actually being had, because, actually, lots of people are having that frank discussion, mostly on university campuses and in academic papers and at various conferences.  These were complex guys who often failed to live up to the ideals they espoused, or to the implications of those ideals, and this isn't a shocking notion to anyone who has taken a college semester covering early American history at any time in the past, oh, fifty years or more.

Jefferson, in fact, if you want to be blunt about it, was a bit of a two-faced, lying, hypocritical cunt-dripping when you actually get down to it; I think you could make the case that the ugliness that entered into the bitter political fighting of the early Republic came not from the profound ideological, economic, and regional differences among the Founding Fathers, but from the fact that one of them, whose name rhymed with "Mommas Beffershun," was a backstabbing son-of-a-bitch who went around in public sanctimoniously announcing he was above mundane partisanship and self-interest while in private he conspired, betrayed, and hired people to slander his rivals, and if he'd dropped dead of a stroke after authoring the Declaration of Independence it's conceivable that the rest of the Founders would still have had bitter arguments about federalism, representation, slavery, and all the rest, but would have been much more polite about it.  Maybe not.  But Jefferson was a rat bastard.

A rat bastard who, you know, penned what is arguably the single greatest paean to the Rights of Man ever written, and there's the rub, that's the thing.  And this is one of the big reasons one expects statues of Jefferson to stick around despite the actual man's propensity for slandering his friends, fleeing his enemies after talking a lot of smack about "watering the tree of Liberty," owning human beings, screwing said human beings (I'm not going to even begin to touch the issue of whether having a complicated lifelong sexual relationship with your slave is rape, but I'm not saying it isn't and I want us to be clear that this is out there and we don't get to simply ignore it), and perennially defaulting on his debts.  It surely wasn't Jefferson's intention to pen the best argument ever penned for liberating the same people he enslaved, but he did it.  It may or may not have been his intention that revolutionaries from Haiti to Indochina would take up the Declaration of Independence and liberally quote him while announcing they weren't going to settle for anything less than determining their own destinies, but that's exactly what happened.

And Washington, you know... Washington.  Slave-owner, kind of a hypocrite, no, doesn't really get a pass for freeing his slaves after a lifetime of enslaving them (would have been nice to do that, you know, maybe decades earlier if it meant that much to you, guy); but also, first President of the United States, successfully prosecuted a war in the name of liberty and freedom and equality, refused to be crowned king, established the informal tradition that lasted until FDR of stepping down after two terms that was subsequently written into the Constitution after FDR broke with the conventional practice (had a good excuse, middle of WWII and all, but still).  These things matter, these things show up on the man's balance sheet.

A point that needs to be made here, with all the people saying absurd things about "whitewashing history" or "erasing history" is that we don't really put up statues to remember history, we put these things up to establish the civic mythology.  We remember that Jefferson was a slave-owner and a nasty guy; but we celebrate that he wrote that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness," and this was such an amazingly clear and inspiring thing to have written down that slaves could subsequently go around saying, "What that guy said!" and quoting this self-evident truth back at the author's heirs for generations to come.  We remember that Washington was kind of not-that-great as a military leader and his presidential administration was kind of a mess, and that his war effort was salvaged by French and Prussian adventurers who thought it would be cool to join the Revolution and offer advice to its general and whip his irregulars into shape; but we celebrate that he did all he could to establish a political culture and tradition of citizenship, in which civilians would give themselves up to public life and duty so long as their nation needed their services, and then retire with grace and humility exactly as Cincinnatus was said to have done.

The superficial comparison one can make from this to Lee or Jackson falls apart like wet Kleenex, you know.  What is there to celebrate in a pair of oath-breakers who stood up against human freedom in support of... what?  Not a nation, but a region?  For a principle (anti-federalism or "state's rights") that was already faltering as the Republic's westward expansion and increasing global importance as a regional power and economic partner demanded a stronger centralized government with the authority to negotiate trade and military agreements with similarly powerful states?  I mean, what are we celebrating here, if we put a gloss on what so many of us know is actually being celebrated?

By which I mean: the answer to the question of "What are we celebrating?" with the Confederate statuary is readily answered by observing that most of them were erected in the era of counter-Reconstruction, alongside the enactment of Jim Crow laws, while a great revisionism of Civil War history was underway that re-framed the battle as a heroic effort to quash Federal overreach instead of a pathetic and desperate attempt by less than half of the country to undo the Constitution to preserve an immoral and unsustainable economic and social order dependent on racism and chattel slavery against the wishes of the remaining more than half of the country.  I just wanted to make the point that if you gloss this--which, really, you shouldn't, but let's do it as an intellectual exercise--what Lee and Jackson fought for was small and stupid, especially compared to what Washington and Jefferson were standing for.  Got it?

Like, Jefferson's out there saying, "all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights," and Lee is out there saying, "I sure love Virginia a whole lot!"?  I mean, fuck that guy.  Seriously.  I'm from North Carolina.  We didn't betray our country until we were surrounded, which is a sad, small excuse, but I'd at least ask respectfully for an acknowledgement that we didn't wind up on the wrong side of history until being a Border State was no longer an option because, thanks Virginia.  So fuck Virginia, and fuck Robert E. Lee. At least in this context, because otherwise it's a lovely state and there are plenty of nice things you can say about it in other contexts.


The thing with slippery slope arguments, besides being logical fallacies and all that, is that they don't really work if the threat... isn't all that threatening.  Like, remember when that Trump supporter went on TV and said that if you didn't elect Trump there would be taco trucks on every corner, and everybody who wasn't some kind of bug-eyed racist went, "Mmm, tacos, drool"?   The good old days, and I guess something else we can blame the President for is that it's lunchtime and I'm typing this and I can't just take five from it to run downstairs and outside and up to the corner and buy a delicious, delicious empanada?  Or better yet, two?  With that dipping sauce, not the chimichurri but the other kind that's, I guess, sour-cream based but it's orange?  What is that stuff?  That is just the best--


Anyway, you get some people saying, "Well, what's next, taking down statues of Washington and Jefferson?"  Which is supposed to be a--I really hate that this country has turned this expression into an inexecrable pun by electing that man President--supposed to be a trump card?  Because this would be utterly terrible, for... reasons?  If this happened?

I don't see it happening, because of the things I rambled about in section II.  I think Washington and Jefferson, unlike Lee and Jackson, are integral to this nation's ideas about itself as a nation of citizens who serve the public and who stand for liberty and justice and freedom from tyranny.  And also because of the things I rambled about in section I, because maybe statues of Lee and Jackson could be justified if they'd successfully founded a nation based on, oh, whatever (slavery, but did I need to spell that out?), but they didn't, so there.

But what if it did?  What if some future generation of Americans decided that Washington and Jefferson were no longer sound symbols of what America represented?  Why would that be inherently bad?  I'm not saying I would be happy if they tore down the statues of Washington and replaced them with statues of George Lincoln Rockwell, because, yes, that would make me very sad and I hope I never live long enough to see something like that.  But assuming whatever went up in lieu was some other brighter, shininger symbol of an Enlightenment-values state founded on democratic and republican principles, dedicated to the establishment of a beacon to guide the world to embracing liberty, equality, and justice-for-all, so what if for some reason it's not specifically George Washington?  I expect it will be, because traditions, but so what if it isn't?

What if it was, say, Abraham Lincoln?  Would that be so terrible?  I don't know, it sounds like it could be kind of nice.  Lincoln was good people.  We should all revere and admire that guy.  Not perfect, none of them were, but we should all like Lincoln if we aren't fascist moron bastards.

To some extent, obviously, we erect statues and memorials to establish traditions, to encourage future generations to venerate the ideals we venerate now.  Geez, that's why the Daughters of the Confederacy came to buy in the first place all these goddamn statues we're trying to figure out how to dispose of now.  They wanted everybody to remember our treasonous progenitors as people who were dashing and good-looking and just as concerned with freedom as people who wrote an Emancipation Proclamation or who invested Vicksburg to make it harder for pro-slavery people to shoot abolitionists.  There's limits, though, to how much we can pass along or how they'll take it; if future generations decide Jefferson isn't really how they want to personify human rights, that's for them.

I get, I really do get, that the idea of future generations abandoning earlier generations' symbols (and perhaps values) is a thing that people understandably get worked up about.  I get it because I would like future generations to share my values, and get horribly depressed whenever I contemplate how few of my values seem to have real traction in the present era.  But, you know, things change unless we're all dead.  That's how things work.  Mostly, slowly, they change for the better despite occasional setbacks.  Living things, including cultures, grow or they die.  That's it.  That's the iron law.

Removing a statue of Robert E. Lee now is a big deal because the statue should never have been erected, the question should be why we didn't hang the man and not how he should be honored, it sends a dubious message to present generations at best and a hostile message to many of our citizens (and not just persons of color, mind you) at worst, and removal sends a positive message of hope and change to people who have been waiting for hope and change since January 1, 1863; they're due.  We're due.  Whether or not removing a statue of Thomas Jefferson is a big deal at some unspecified point in the future in the improbable event such a thing actually ever happens is... to be determined.  I'm not scared.  Are you?  For crying out loud, why would you ever be?


Warner Thursday, August 17, 2017 at 4:01:00 PM EDT  

" and if he'd dropped dead of a stroke after authoring the Declaration of Independence"

Or before, do remember that one of the other committee members was a pillar of the Enlightenment and arguably the best author/editor of the English Speaking Peoples.

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