Preservation or Removal of Confederate Memorials — or More?

The issue of Confederate Memorials appears to be a controversy that just will not go away. My perception of the danger in the issue is the potential indirect ramifications of the “methodology” of those proposing their removal.

In one sense, perhaps all statues should go. All three religions of the Children of Abraham eschew envisaging, be it vocally and/or visually, the Divine. Is it not the definition of hubris to apprehend that any mortal is more entitled thereto?

Yet certain mortals have registered a sufficient impact on the past, and possibly even continue to do so during the present and will so into the future. This impact might be for good, for ill, or for a combination thereof. In this event, recognition of this impact, if it is accompanied by genuine analysis and assessment, is salutary. And a visual image of those mortals can be beneficial as providing an occasion or catalyst to do so.

In warranting this determination, we should consider two premises which seem justified: one, there is in knowledge, as there are in all capabilities and capacities, inequalities, with certain persons necessarily having more knowledge than another in certain areas; and, two, (I am becoming satisfied) one of the qualities in the human psyche is an innate curiosity and propensity for investigation (albeit of differing sophistication and value). Accordingly, certain persons can be concluded to have an enhanced ability to recognize the virtue or value of certain persons and ideas in history. If they then have memorialized them in some tangible fashion, should we too casually disregard and discard their decision and expression? Further, hypothesizing the existence of these memorials, an observer (be it many, some or few) will at least occasionally have an inclination to investigate farther its subject to determine whether it represents good, ill, or a combination thereof.

Regrettably many now appear to be too addicted to impulsiveness in assessment, the expression of opinion on complex issues in 140 (or even 2000) characters, or, occasionally, the hysteria of the crowd. If some too frequently and unconsciously employ — or, worse, countenance an inclination by others toward — such an approach, will this “methodology” not, by persistent repetition and reinforcement, become the acceptable routine and common perception?

Instead we should be attuned to the nuances in the behavior or ideas of another. And the aforesaid context certainly is not conducive to appreciation of those nuances, as assessment requires intensive and objective examination.

Enter the controversy about statues of Robert E. Lee. ¹ (While some may question my following claims, I am sufficiently confident, based upon my studies (beginning in the 1950s) of the Civil War, its prelude and its aftermath, of the justification therefor.) While there is little doubt Lee was no Abolitionist, it is more than specious to claim he was an advocate of Slavery, much less (as one misguided journalist asserted) a “White Supremacist”. In addition to the potential anachronism in attributing the latter characterization to General Lee — as well as the amorphous nature and metamorphosis of its definition — there is a paramount difficulty in applying an accepted definition here since, in a paramount sense, the vast majority of Americans, both North and South, during the Antebellum period likely could be so characterized. (For example, could not the support of Abraham Lincoln for policies encouraging colonization by freed slaves be deemed a form of White Supremacy? And certainly the attitudes and policies of much of the Antebellum North, as described by de Tocqueville, were consistent with such an arguable designation.)

Rather, then-Colonel Lee’s anguished decision to resign from the U.S. Army, and throw in his lot with the Commonwealth of Virginia, were a product of his paramount loyalty to his native soil. For we must recall, in appreciating this dynamic, that despite occasional earlier egregious flaunting in observation of the U.S. Constitution, the Antebellum United States still generally recognized that default sovereignty resided in the States rather than in the limited general government, possessing only enumerated powers. Hence, loyalty to one’s State, as opposed to a distant government of less than seventy-five (75) years vintage, was not abnormal if not rather expected.

Thus, was there not an issue here that bears relevance to the current day? Is not the question of Federalism, and the proper allocation of powers and functions between the respective governments, still a salient issue? Ought not those interested in this question — and particularly those who deem excessive accretion of power by the general government — consider that, among other reasons and incentives of course, remembering and studying Lee could attune people to an extended and productive dialogue thereon? ²

Regrettably the addiction to impulsive and superficial assessment seems rampant and endemic. Rather than careful examination, there is frequent mischaracterization and misstatement. (But one of these, noted more than once, is that Lee was the “commander of the Confederate Army”, a claim that would have been news to, among others, P.G.T. Beauregard, J.E. Johnston and A.S. Johnston. By doing so not only is there an effort to more inextricably, and inaccurately, link Lee with the primary cause of the Confederacy’s existence, viz, slavery, but to conceal his confinement to the Virginia Theater and thereby the very factors of State loyalty and the Federalism issue.) By these corrupted narratives the authors, intentionally or innocently, tend to drown out legitimate conflicting considerations and arguments.

One might limit one’s objections to this treatment by an unjustified focus on the blemishes of a certain person of history — for all mortals have had, do and will always have blemishes — rather than considering also their virtues, or to the subordination of the ideas which they espoused. But, in addition to remembrance of those virtues and ideas by these memorials, there appears to be an additional reason justifying their preservation, though perhaps of a counterintuitive nature.

It has been commented that some, perhaps even many, of these Confederate memorials were raised for ulterior motives such as buttressing a White Supremacy environment or glorification of “The Lost Cause”. Thus, with discrediting of these motivations, then, it is argued, there is justification for removal of them. With the premise of the reasons for erection I could concur, at least to some of those memorials, but with the conclusion I cannot.

For some of the persons represented deserve to be remembered. More importantly perhaps, the existence of these memorials provides evidence of the sentiment behind their raising and consequently the state of mind of at least a significant amount of the populace at the time thereof — for they were raised in the context of their times and they provide evidence of this context. Therefore, preservation of them allows the occasion for conservation and studying of the public perception at the time, and thus enhances understanding. To the extent that it is believed, justifiably in many cases, that their negative impact be ameliorated, solutions exist, such as literature, placards or other devices to objectively describe and discuss the environment at the time, reasons and sponsors for the memorial, to minimize any honor to their subjects that might be undue.

[Critics have suggested a parallel between the unanimous or near-unanimous support for the absence or removal of statutes remembering persons identifiable with evil, such as Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin and Saddam Hussein. While Evil may be an intangible difficult to describe (similar to the problem with defining and ascribing Hate in certain situations), there can be little dispute that it exists and can be justly attributed in certain situations and to certain persons; certainly those individuals qualify.

Other situations and persons are more questionable. How would one distinguish? Perhaps it would be on the basis whether a monument was raised in an actual or tacit public support environment or instead, in a dictatorial-command environment. Yet, even in the latter environment, perhaps preservation in some instances could be justified since they still would evidence the state of mind of these individuals who commanded their raising. And similar devices, such as above suggested, could ameliorate and counter any perceived honor being afforded them.]

I believe the above suggests a variety of reasons that justify opposition, at least in selected situations, to a possible juggernaut for removal of these memorials. But the primary reason for opposition is the objective of obstructing and arresting the mentality of the juggernaut itself. For I perceive this mentality, as opposed to its immediate objectives, to constitute an existential danger.

Many perceive, in an unreflecting way, change to be a virtue, a progress away from vice. I do not.

While the social implications of the Second Law of Thermodynamics are not irrevocable, as conscious effort can temporarily reverse decline, the tendency, especially in concentrated polities, is toward disorder and ultimately chaos. Only conscious effort, in carefully examining what has proven to be valuable and worthwhile and what can be projected to be dangerous in its replacement, can reverse it.

Regrettably, what we seem to have presently, at least as demanded by the most vocal and most publicly reported to the exclusion of contrary voices, is the opposite of careful examination and consideration. And history has frequently demonstrated that hysteria can develop a momentum of its own, destroying all in its path. Current technology unfortunately simply accentuates this potential.

Certainly not all who hold a position contrary to mine are unreflective or have positions without some merit. But a mob mentality can override and crush even those who seek to direct and control it. And here I perceive that there is a demonstrable herd mentality that, feeding upon the current horrendous polarization, can lead to a destructive stampede, trampling ideas and institutions which deserve preservation.


¹ The focus of these comments are limited to Robert E. Lee. At the other extreme is, say, Nathan Bedford Forrest, for statues of whom I would find opposition to removal highly-difficult to justify. (While a superior military tactician, I am unaware of any other qualities about him to admire.) As to other political or military leaders in the Confederacy, I would find it necessary to analyze them on a case-by-case basis as to whether they had any “socially redeeming qualities”.

² Moreover, the virtues of Lee’s private character justify study and, in many cases, emulation. I have however focused here on the public facets and perception.

 

WAYNE A. SMITH
Forester Twp, Michigan USA
21 Aug 2017

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