Of Monuments and Men
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” I Corinthians, 13:11
There’s a great scene in the movie Goldeneye which plays out in a park covered in fallen, cracked, and abandoned monuments and statues to the former Soviet Union. Such parks actually exist, one of which outside Moscow has transformed from a random field where the statues were dumped into a large art exhibit; the Soviet realist iconography now just one of the many artistic styles of sculptures showcased. The symbolism of the discarded detritus of a failed system being viewed simply as interesting historical pieces of art is striking. I would love to see something like that with the remnants of monuments to the so-called “Confederate States of America” with perhaps a few of them, along with the various “national” and battle flags, to be relegated to museums.
…the original pro-slavery and segregationist cause of the “south” began to meld with the social Darwinism and racial theories of fascist and Nazi movements later.
In the continued debate about the symbols of the “south”, we are generally presented with two sides. On one, you have the obvious reactionary element, that these symbols are overtly representative of an oppressive societal and governmental system which perpetuated the enslavement of millions of human beings based on verifiably false assertions about their “racial” inferiority due to the pigment of their skin and recent geographic origin . Basically, that monuments to “Confederate” leaders and the display of the “national” and battle flags of the “Confederacy” are inherently racist. This position is bolstered by the fact that the vast majority of these monuments and memorials — along with the adoption of battle flag motifs in state flags — came in two identifiable periods well after the end of the Civil War. The first was in the early 1900s during a revival of the Ku Klux Klan and a wave of racial violence spawned by the rise of progressive politics, communist, and socialist movements, and increases in the urbanization of the population. This urbanization subsequently increased interaction with immigrants from southern and eastern Europe which included large numbers of Catholics and Jews, which not-coincidentally is why the original pro-slavery and segregationist cause of the “south” began to meld with the social Darwinism and racial theories of fascist and Nazi movements later.
The irony of a Jew… serving as the “Confederate” Secretary of State and War is apparently ignored or not known to many who combine promotion of New World racial segregation with Old World anti-Semitism.
The second period was during the end of the Second World War and into the 1960s as the issue of segregation and civil rights gained momentum. The previous generation of “southern sympathizers” had simply erected monuments to generals and soldiers, that is, in between organizing lynch mobs, cross burning, and marching through Washington, DC in full KKK regalia. The generation that followed openly displayed the symbols of rebellion alongside symbols of government authority. State flags were suddenly redesigned to incorporate the battle flag of the “Confederacy” in place of ones that had actually been used during the Civil War. Georgia managed to deftly (and defiantly) get around this controversy recently by initially reverting to a simple blue flag that was ironically more similar to the Civil War-era version, before settling on a near replica of the first “Confederate” national flag, which was deemed somehow less racist than the subsequent designs. Nevertheless, it was this period — and the loss of Jim Crow and segregation — which solidified the bond between southern “white supremacists” with the far-right wing and neo-Nazi movements. The irony of a Jew named Judah P. Benjamin being close to Jefferson Davis and serving as the “Confederate” Secretary of State and War is apparently ignored or not known to many who routinely combine promotion of New World racial segregation with Old World anti-Semitism.
Jamestown was founded in 1607. The “Confederacy” only lasted for five years.
The other side of the argument is that these symbols do not represent racism, but instead are simply emblems of a social and cultural history; “Pride, not prejudice”, “Heritage, not hate” and so forth. Were it not for the continued use of these symbols by people overtly proclaiming their embrace of racism and bigotry this might be more believable, despite the entirety of the existence of the “Confederacy” being based on the preservation of slavery. It is also not a little disingenuous for those who espouse that the symbols of the so-called “Confederacy” are representative of the collective historical existence of the people of European decent who settled in the southeastern corner of North America. Jamestown was founded in 1607. The “Confederacy” only lasted for five years. The United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation longer than that. I personally view the reverence granted to the leaders of the “Confederacy” and the respect afforded the other symbols of that rebellion as ridiculous.
The leaders of the “Confederacy” seceded and declared independence in defense of chattel slavery. Period.
But, arguing about the racism inherent in these symbols gives their defenders the ability to deflect, and argue differences in interpretation. My preferred method of sidestepping the argument is that they represent treason, plain and simple. I often get the retort that it was no different than the Revolution and that George Washington and the Founding Fathers were traitors, but this misses a few key points and belies the ignorance of those making those claims. We do not live as British subjects or citizens anymore, and our independence — formally recognized by the Crown in 1783 in the Treaty of Paris— rendered any charge of treason irrelevant and non-existent. Additionally, the impetus for the Revolution was primarily an argument over a lack of representation in Parliament with regards to the imposition of taxes. Arguments about unfair “tariffs” by northern manufacturers notwithstanding, the states of the south had full representation in Congress; more than they should have been afforded in fact. The oft-cited “three-fifths” rule artificially inflating their allotment of Representatives and thereby securing a majority which would protect the “Peculiar Institution”; an absolute obsession of theirs born out by their own words. The leaders of the “Confederacy” seceded and declared independence in defense of chattel slavery. Period.
…the government of the so-called “Confederacy” was largely a cabal of moneyed men whose primary interests were the preservation of the institution of “race” based chattel slavery
Of course, this inevitably brings up that tired statistic of how the vast majority of men fighting for the “Confederacy” never owned slaves. Even in the case of wanting to honor the men who did not own slaves, who were either conscripted into the armies of the so-called “Confederacy” or simply felt they were fighting to defend their homes, these monuments and symbols are not representative of them. For all of its talk of “states’ rights” and individual liberty, the reality is that the government of the so-called “Confederacy” was largely a cabal of moneyed men whose primary interests were the preservation of the institution of “race” based chattel slavery for their own financial empowerment. The average soldier in the armies of the “Confederacy” barely owned land, much less slaves, but existed in a society and culture which accepted and promoted “racial” categorization and the dehumanization of human beings into literal livestock. This culture was one that combined envy of the rich plantation owner and fear of losing their economic position to the free labor of slaves — or worse — cheaper labor of freed slaves. The politicians and generals on the other hand, were fighting more often than not to preserve not their “honor” as southern gentlemen, but their considerable individual wealth, often explicitly at the expense of the average southern farmer. In 1860, for the rich, racism was about economic privilege; for the poor, it was about economic survival.
Are these the flags that poor boys from southern hardscrabble farms who knew not much more than what existed beyond the borders of their county should be remembered with?
The states that individually seceded from the Union had their own flags — for the most part — as they do today. Ironically enough, not one of them during the period of the Civil War incorporated the battle flag motif so often associated with the “Confederacy” today. And while the local governments of their towns, counties, parishes, and states might be considered “free” and “democratic” for the average male of European decent before 1860 (provided he owned land until after 1856), the Civil War created a “Confederate” government which was paralyzed by deference to moneyed interests and state governments but increasingly oppressive to its average citizen. Conscription was instituted at rates far beyond the Union, and Home Guard patrols — typically formed from privileged men not rich enough for an officer’s commission, but more wealthy than the average private — roamed the countryside enforcing internal passport controls and terrorizing civilians. This is the independence that men like Jefferson Davis sought to symbolize with the “stars and bars” and “southern cross” flags. Are these the flags that poor boys from southern hardscrabble farms who knew not much more than what existed beyond the borders of their county should be remembered with? Would it not make more sense to have generic monuments to the average soldier of these states under those flags, if it was truly their home they were defending? This would be a far more fitting memorial to the thousands of Americans that died in the most bloody war that the United States has had through today, and would not have the stink of the racism and bigotry so emblematic in those “national” flags and battle colors of the so-called “Confederacy”.
Men who selfishly decided that their personal economic privileges were more sacrosanct than the ideal that “all men are created equal”?
I might even argue that the former Colonel Robert E. Lee, who so famously turned down command of the Union Army as he could not march against his “country” should be laid to rest under the flag of Virginia, but only just that. As far as of the monuments and memorials to men like the former Colonel who had served the Armed Forces of the United States so faithfully until they felt compelled to resign their commission and take up with a band of traitors? They should be removed. This is what we are talking about after all — historically speaking — armed insurrection against the authority of the government of United States in defiance of the Constitution. How many former officers turned their back on the oaths they took to protect the Constitution in favor of a carbon-copy that simply included specific language enshrining the “right” of state governments to enslave human beings as personal property? What of all of those former Congressmen and Senators who took oaths as well, who felt that the democratic process of representative government which had been at the core of the fight for independence in 1776 no longer suited them, now that they were no longer in the majority? Men who selfishly decided that their personal economic privileges were more sacrosanct than the ideal that “all men are created equal”? Why should we honor these leaders of the rebellion who marched the average southern man and boy into the horror of war? Why should we display the symbols they designed to embody their ideals? If anything, I think the average southerner would find these men to be what they were, traitors to the Constitution their earlier ancestors fought for and reject the reverence of their images and memories. The flags of the so-called “Confederacy” as well.
Unless that is, you identify with the ideals of those men.