New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has made a much-heralded case for removal of four Confederate monuments he suddenly found the cause of great evils.
“The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity,” he observes. But he arrogantly concludes that now we can “make straight a wrong turn we made many years ago” by making disappear in the night the statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard along with an obelisk celebrating the anti-Reconstruction insurgency. Remove the monuments, counter bad history, Orwellian means to the new enlightenment.
Landrieu, of a venerable Louisiana political family, concedes the dubiousness of this nocturnal purging from his admission that “I must have passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought.”
Even before the current fracas, Landrieu might have sung the popular 1969 song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The lyrics exhibit no defense of slavery, racism or “Lost Cause” history. Rather they evoke honor, family, and above all sorrow and loss.
Like my father before me, I’m a working man
And like my brother before me, I took a rebel stand
He was just 18, proud and brave
But a Yankee laid him in his grave
I swear by the blood below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat
The singer’s name, Virgil Caine, recalls both the ancient Roman republic and the book of Genesis. The South he sings of is rooted in ancient stories and deeds, original sins and tragedy. Are these passions not felt when one views such monuments? The sins Landrieu (who admits his own ignorance regarding the monuments) attributes to their creators and what people today understand as they see them varies considerably. No one today wants to restore slavery, and there is likely more sentiment for secession in sanctuary cities than there is in the South. As for the “Lost Cause,” yes, the South lost; that’s what the monuments underscore. They warn: When you start a war, be sure you can finish it. A lesson that recent presidents should have kept in mind.
The “original intent” of a monument or any other work of art can be superseded by the public that views it. The Vietnam Memorial, to take just one example, was clearly designed to denigrate the war and the country that permitted it. But those who loved the Vietnam veterans swarmed about it and transformed the architect’s malign purpose into one of reverence and gratitude. In the many intervening years between today and the construction of these monuments to the Confederacy, I’d argue that something similar has occurred with respect to them.
The public that views them is not looking to renew the Civil War or to glorify the evils that led to it, as Landrieu has claimed. In any event, few today are devoted to “revering a four-year brief historical aberration that was called the Confederacy,” or affirming a “fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.” Instead, they recall a tragic past and the strength of character that it took to heal from self-inflicted wounds. We are not the same people who erected those monuments. But, being their sons and daughters, perhaps we are not so dissimilar that we can’t learn something from their sorrows.
Moreover, Landrieu is either being deceptive or is woefully ignorant about the history he recounts. The enslavement and terror he speaks of existed for almost half of New Orleans’ history. It was not a matter of a mere four years. To wipe that history off the face of the city and transform it into something Landrieu finds more palatable is as impossible as it is ridiculous.
The peddler of a “fictional, sanitized” history himself, Landrieu is making his transformative goal far too easy. Cheap political theater has its costs, however. Once he starts the train of revisionist history, it’s going to be hard to stop. Remove a monument, eat a beignet.
Landrieu claims to want to create public awareness that “New Orleans was America’s largest slave market” and that he sees this as a task of a higher order. How we should understand the past requires even greater wisdom than mere awareness (and you’ll note that Landrieu earlier copped to lacking awareness about the monuments he is tearing down). On this point, Landrieu displays his own vacuity when he asks, “why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks.”
The real challenge for Landrieu and his majority black city council would have been to build such markers rather than to remove the offending ones. But that serious kind of work would not have played well into his partisan motives. Since Landrieu’s father left the office of mayor in 1978, all four of the subsequent mayors of New Orleans have been black. Landrieu, was elected twice with the black vote, but he lost to black incumbent Ray Nagin of Katrina disaster fame in his previous run. By his otherwise unpopular actions, Landrieu is desperately attempting to preserve some future for white elected Democratic politicians in Louisiana.
The otherwise divisive Landrieu spends the rest of his time attempting to unify the city by appealing to sensory pleasures, such as jazz: “Think about second lines, think about Mardi Gras, think about muffaletta, think about the Saints, gumbo, red beans and rice. By God, just think.” But the senses deceive. Relying on them alone would would teach us that human beings are not equal. Our senses deceive and only highlight differences. We need to engage reason to see more deeply.
Still, a principle of right lurks behind the enjoyment of culinary delights and the world of the senses: The spirit of slavery is simply “you work and I eat.” Lincoln went a step farther than “Laissez les bons temps rouler.”
Moreover, Lincoln possessed a great virtue missing in Landrieu’s self-righteousness: charity. “They [the slaveholders] are just what we would be in their situation,” he famously noted.
Landrieu concludes his speech by misappropriating the closing lines of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, showing no sign of acting or understanding what it is to act “With malice toward none; with charity for all…” In describing divine judgment against both North and South, Lincoln does not justify human usurpation of God’s wisdom. Indeed, Lincoln understood that when looking upon the shortcomings of our brothers we ought to pause and reflect that “there, but by the grace of God, go I.”
Finally, Landrieu lacks the magnanimity of a victor. In this he displays the blend of arrogance and spinelessness that one often sees in white Southern liberals. By contrast, Lincoln urged the playing of “Dixie,” the day after Lee’s surrender, and just five days before his assassination: “I have always thought ’Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it. I presented the question to the Attorney General, and he gave it as his legal opinion that it is our lawful prize. [Laughter and applause.] I now request the band to favor me with its performance.” In this Lincoln insisted we are one people, again as always.
Lincoln was able to be charitable, as a victorious American, as we today should be. With Lincoln we desire to be neither master nor slave, for to be a master means to be a tyrant in one’s own soul and over others. We want instead to be free men and women, equals in that one decisive respect.
Can there be a more contrary, tyrannous passion amok today than the impulse to redo history in one’s own image? Is this vain willfulness not exhibited in riotous college campuses that attack allegedly offensive speakers? That is the tyranny and these are today’s masters whom Landrieu honors by removing the Confederate monuments.
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