September 23, 2017

More Monumental Thoughts

Dr. Malcolm Cross

The public debate over what to do about monuments to Confederate political and military leaders continues unabated.  Last week I offered my own contribution, writing they should remain to challenge us to come to grips with the history they reflect.  My argument was hardly original.  It was first offered, to the best of my knowledge, by Condoleezza Rice, the first African American woman to serve as Secretary of State.

The article elicited better-than-average feedback.  One critic accused me of promoting Republican propaganda, but most other comments, on Facebook, at least, were favorable.   In fact, they will probably prove to be more favorable than whatever comments, if any, this column will elicit.

What I want to do this week is suggest that those who would retain monuments to Confederate leaders be careful lest they commit the same sins they attribute to those who would remove them, and that those who would remove the monuments imitate, to a certain extent, those who would keep them.

Those who want to keep the monuments where they are say that removing them is to erase and distort history.  But in defending monument retention, too many distort history as well, thereby making themselves as guilty as they say the monument removers are.  How so?

Many defenders of monument retention seem to argue that the monuments symbolize the personal bravery and gallantry of those memorialized by them, or that they reflect “heritage, not hate,” as a popular bumper sticker puts it—a heritage of civilized, genteel living, where men and women were closer to the land, less in thrall to the forces of industrialism and urbanization, and more willing to live life at a slower pace and with less regard for the profit which bewitched northern businessmen, and more in tune with the forces of nature which governed an agrarian society.

But all too often those who romanticize the Lost Cause or the Southern Lifestyle ignore, downplay, or omit to mention the central importance of slavery as a basis of Confederate society and the root cause of the Civil War.  Those who doubt the centrality of slavery should read the declarations and manifestos issued by the various governments of the eleven states which formed the Confederacy, noting what these statements had to say about slavery to the Southern way of life, the threat the triumph of the Republican Party in the 1860 elections posed to the existence of slavery, and the need to withdraw from the Republican-dominated Union to preserve slavery and everything based on it.  Those who praise the gallantry, courage, and self-sacrifice of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and their compatriots should understand that these men, whatever their personal qualities, put them to use in the defense of a society based on slavery and white supremacy—a society which, without slavery, would become “gone with the wind.”  Indeed, if the overall impact of the monuments in question is to perpetuate myths and fairytales which ignore suffering and cruelty, one is hard put to defend their continuing public display. 

A far more effective course of action is to meet the challenge implicit in Condoleezza Rice’s defense of the monuments, i. e., to frankly admit the shadow that slavery and the desire to preserve it cast over the lives and legacies of those whom the monuments in question memorialize.  The honesty and courage which those who do so will enhance their credibility in the ongoing debate over what we should remember and how we should do so.  But as long as those who would keep the monuments ignore the dark side of the Confederacy, they remain as guilty in their own way of distorting history as they say their critics are. 

And those who are offended by today’s monuments should practice addition, not subtraction.  As I implied at the end of last week’s column, we need more monuments, not fewer.  We should no more remove current monuments than we should edit out of the Bible offending passages that demand execution of witches, adulteresses and homosexuals.  Rather, we should add more monuments depicting the cruelty of slavery and white supremacy and the heroism of those who fought these cruelties. 

And what good will this do?  Monuments obviously help shape the public imagination; otherwise nobody would care about what should be done with them.  Monuments which condemn the cruelty of slavery and celebrate the courage of those who fought it may, in time, acquire the same power to shape the public imagination as those which currently celebrate the Confederacy.    And by allowing the retention of the Confederate monuments the creators of the new monuments will have  set a better precedent by which they can argue for the retention of their new monuments as well.

And nobody should fear that the public will be confused with more monuments, however conflicting the messages they convey may be.  We already revere slaveholders Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson, while acknowledging their flaws as well.  If the American people are given more evidence, rather than less, of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the sublime of our history, we can sort things out on our own.  We don’t need anyone to remove anything and shove it down a memory hole.  We need more to remember, not less.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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