Re­mov­ing memo­ri­als of a toxic time

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY CHRIS­TINE EMBA Chris­tine Emba ed­its The Post’s In The­ory blog.

“When will they storm Wash­ing­ton’s Mon­ti­cello?” Laura In­gra­ham asked omi­nously last week. The conservative com­men­ta­tor’s tweet linked to news that a statue of Jef­fer­son Davis, one of four con­tested mon­u­ments in New Or­leans, was slated to come down Wed­nes­day night.

The ques­tion was met with well-de­served de­ri­sion, and a sub­se­quent cor­rec­tion from In­gra­ham — Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton lived at Mount Ver­non, Mon­ti­cello was Thomas Jef­fer­son’s es­tate, and nei­ther of those Found­ing Fa­thers ever in­ter­acted with Davis, the pres­i­dent of the Con­fed­er­acy. But it did serve to il­lu­mi­nate an im­por­tant fact about most pro-statue protests and demon­stra­tions: They aren’t re­ally about the his­tory.

When­ever it’s asked why Con­fed­er­ate memo­ri­als should be kept in place, a pre­dictable raft of ar­gu­ments is brought forth. “You’re try­ing to erase the past!” “We’re hon­or­ing the mem­ory of val­or­ous men!” “How will we learn from his­tory!?”

These claims don’t stand up. The truth is that the des­per­a­tion to pre­serve this par­tic­u­lar “her­itage” and “past” is a fa­cade for some­thing more ma­lig­nant. It’s priv­i­leged sta­tus, not his­tory, that’s be­ing pro­tected. Whether or not they’re able to ac­knowl­edge it, the thing that all these in­dig­nant com­men­ta­tors rush to pre­serve is a toxic nos­tal­gia for the time and place that Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments rep­re­sent.

In most cases, as In­gra­ham help­fully il­lus­trated, those protest­ing the mon­u­ments’ re­moval aren’t ex­actly avid his­to­ri­ans; many couldn’t tell one Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral from the next. And de­spite what some in­dig­nant statue sup­port­ers might claim, moving memo­ri­als from the city cen­ter to a ded­i­cated mu­seum is noth­ing like lev­el­ing the Egyp­tian pyra­mids or tear­ing down the Ro­man Colos­seum; it’s not de­struc­tion, it’s adding needed con­text. As for hon­or­ing the memories of hon­or­able men, here’s what Robert E. Lee him­self said about un­due rev­er­ence for con­flicts past: “I think it wis­est not to keep open the sores of war, but to fol­low the ex­am­ple of those na­tions who en­deav­ored to oblit­er­ate the marks of civil strife, and to com­mit to obliv­ion the feel­ings it en­gen­dered.”

To be clear, these mon­u­ments were raised to com­mem­o­rate a time of un­ques­tioned white supremacy, when black peo­ple “knew their place” as se­cond-class cit­i­zens and could be pun­ished with im­punity when they stepped out of line. The Civil War was fought to pre­serve the an­te­bel­lum South. It and the post-Re­con­struc­tion era were a time and place in which those in one seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion could live in the ab­so­lute cer­tainty that they were bet­ter than the rest — that they should and al­ways would re­main on top.

That place sounds com­fort­able, if you’re on the win­ning side of things. I can un­der­stand why one might want to keep that feel­ing alive, es­pe­cially to­day.

In the cur­rent mo­ment, many Amer­i­cans find them­selves gripped by what some have termed “cul­tural anx­i­ety.” Nearly two-thirds of white work­ing-class Amer­i­cans be­lieve that the coun­try’s cul­ture and way of life have de­te­ri­o­rated in re­cent decades. Nearly half say that things have changed so much that they feel like strangers in their own coun­try. Most hes­i­tate to call this “racism” — af­ter all, you don’t have to dis­like peo­ple of other races to want to main­tain your own sta­tus, and few see them­selves as de­serv­ing of what is now viewed as the worst pos­si­ble ep­i­thet.

But there’s no es­cap­ing that it’s still a ques­tion of roles, stand­ing and hi­er­ar­chy, a wish to main­tain a so­cial struc­ture that prefers one group over the rest. It’s dis­com­fit­ing to feel that you have lost power as oth­ers have gained equal foot­ing, even if you were never en­ti­tled to dom­i­nance in the first place.

Maybe this is why the far right has taken up Old South preser­va­tion as a pet cause, and why some conservative politi­cians base their cam­paigns on their sup­port of sym­bols that glo­rify the Con­fed­er­acy (Vir­ginia gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date Corey Ste­wart re­cently donned pe­riod cos­tume to at­tend an “Old South Ball” and her­alded the first New Or­leans statue re­moval as ev­i­dence that “ISIS has won.”) For some, Mak­ing Amer­ica Great Again means keep­ing alive the mem­ory of a time when the coun­try seemed more set­tled in their fa­vor.

But there is no way to sat­isfy this long­ing for “Amer­ica as it used to be” in the con­text of what Amer­ica is be­com­ing and should have al­ways been: a democ­racy in which all cit­i­zens are of equal value. There will al­ways be space for remembering our his­tory, but remembering isn’t the end of it: We must also de­cide which parts of it are wor­thy of con­tin­ued cel­e­bra­tion and which are not. Those at­tempt­ing to keep the past alive un­der the guise of pro­tect­ing Con­fed­er­ate memo­ri­als need to rec­og­nize that this is the case, as un­com­fort­able as that might be.

In the cur­rent mo­ment, many Amer­i­cans find them­selves gripped by what some have termed “cul­tural anx­i­ety.”


An ad­vo­cate for the preser­va­tion of Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments in New Or­leans holds Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flags on May 7.

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