And Ye Shall Overthrow Their Altars
The conservative case for removing the Robert E. Lee statue.
And ye shall overthrow their altars, and break their pillars, and burn their groves with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods, and destroy the names of them out of that place. Deut. 12:3
It is good to remember the past, to treat the elderly with deference, and approach the “democracy of the dead,” as Chesterton called the wisdom of the ancients, with fear and trembling. It is in the context of memorial that the question of the Robert E. Lee statue is usually framed; take down the statue, and you erase something of a people’s past. Yet we ought to think carefully about what we mean by “a people,” the past, and what the statue of Lee represents.
First, it seems to me that memorials of any sort do not preserve the past, but create it. Like a text, a statue can and will be read different by different people. For the Southern good-ol-boy, the statue represents the nobility of a loyal son of Virginia. For Richard Spencer, the monument reflects the supremacy of whites. A statue, like a text, has no fixed, univocal meaning that exists outside of the minds of those who read it; in the (in)famous words of the postmodern, it’s interpretation all the way down (though, of course, some interpretations are better than others). While we should not forget the wisdom of “the ancients,” our interpretation of the events of the past effectively creates the past. Indeed, the past is never truly passed.
Even so, I do not think the statue has to be read as an implicit approbation of slavery to find it troublesome. Unless we are talking about the most abstract things, all species have a genus, just as all animals have a womb from which they spring; slavery is no different. If not cast as a war to preserve slavery, the American Civil War is the war of Northern aggression, the war for states’ rights, etc. The statue memorializes a man (perhaps a noble one) defeated in the great war of libertarian self-defense. Despite the libertarian pleas to the contrary, liberalism does not mean freedom for people, but licence for exploitation. Taken only as the war for states’ rights, we would still be justified, especially from a conservative or traditional perspective, in removing the statue. Conservatism means nothing unless it conserves good things, not bad things.
But isn’t there something to be celebrated in lost causes, even beyond mere nostalgia? In some ways yes. That’s why books like Tolkien’s The Children of Húrin are so good. They give us that tragic catharsis. Stories like the Norse myth of Ragnarok also can teach us the meaning of bravery; doing one’s duty in the face of inevitable defeat. But there is a perceptible difference between The Children of Húrin and Ragnarok, and in a real way the statue of Lee, whose myth has been elevated to Ragnarok proportions, is celebrated not as a Túrin, as a tragic figure, but breaks the form of tragedy, instead being celebrated as a Horatio Nelson. Lee isn’t a terrible figure as Túrin is at the end of the book, and therefore something of his tragedy disappears. Ultimately, Ragnarok isn’t a tragedy, it’s the height of success stories. It gives voice to man’s Job-like desire to wrestle with that transcendent Thing-out-there, the object of anxiety. Only, unlike Job, Ragnarok ends with the good guys as martyrs; they count coup against God. Tragedy is good, in some way, but libertarian myths of martyrdom are bad.
Lastly, what of the idea that the Lee statue represents part of the identity of a people? I may be an insufferable Yankee, devoid of all culture, but I remain supremely skeptical of this idea of “a people.” It seems to me that this means only “I am comfortable in these particular social circumstances.” In which case, we Yankees have our “peoples,” too. In any case, what sort of people is it that has an identity built around the Pickett’s Charge of libertarianism?