A group of activists is attempting to erase Confederate history, most notably monuments, from New Orleans. I suppose that eventually, removing Andy Jackson from Jackson Square and re-naming it will be somewhere on the agenda, if they are going to wipe the city clean of the taint of glorification of antebellum history. Which raises an interesting question: if you remove all public memory of the period and conditions that lead to X, what justification remains for remembering X?
My first, smart-alec response would be “Nothing, so why should anyone be taught that they deserve to be rewarded, or should be punished, for pre-X?” My second is remembering that the point of removing monuments to Confederate military leaders, and political leaders, and people who made their money through the slave trade or something else that the current generation of activists finds distasteful, is to push everyone to look at those who “walked in darkness” and then feel guilty, and to decry the old error and pay penance for it. The point is not to erase the history of the period from, let’s say 1680-1954, but to erase anything positive that came from that period unless it was positive for a certain group or groups. So publicly acknowledging the bravery and skill of General Robert E. Lee, or Stonewall Jackson, or Andrew Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and other less well-known soldiers of the Confederacy and early national period is, per the activists, wrong because it glorifies an evil institution, namely chattel slavery as practiced in the American South between 1680-1865, and the restricted civil rights that followed.
I’m not going to re-fight the War Between the States, the Civil War, the War of the Northern Aggression, the Late Unpleasantness or whatever else people choose to call it. My point is that saying that we cannot honor and respect people, even though they fought for “the wrong side,” strikes me as being the first step down one of those slopes that becomes steeper, more slippery, and ends in a very bad place. By this rule of thumb, we cannot respect Erwin Rommel or Heinz Guderian (Nazi Germany), or General Zhukov (USSR), Charlemagne (butchered Saxon prisoners), Julius Caesar (lived in a society with slaves), Peter the Great (lived in a society with slaves and serfs, turned serfdom into near-slavery), Alexander the Great (slavery again, and oppressed followers of non-Western cultures), Plato, Homer, Socrates (slavery yet again), heck, anyone who lived in a time or place where chattel slavery was practiced. Or any other thing that moderns find unacceptable, such as restricting women’s rights (almost every culture in history, even today) or disapproving of homosexuality (there goes the three monotheisms and probably a few others). Once we’ve said we can’t respect bravery and competence and achievement because of the surrounding culture’s errors, the next step is insisting on contempt for everyone who lived in that culture and did not try to change it to suit modern understandings of right and wrong. And then punishing the descendants of that evil culture for their ancestors not having lived up to 2017’s latest standards.
Where do you stop? Do you go back to Moses, or to Abraham, since he and the Most High began the process of creating the three cultures that spread ideas such as the free market, individual responsibility and individual effort, exploration and cultural expansion, the Bill of Rights, chattel slavery as justified by Scripture and as challenged by Scripture (although Islam gets a pass on that one. The Quran describes slavery as a normal practice, and in fact orders it under certain conditions,) modern medicine, eugenics, women’s rights, and the idea that homosexual activities and other out-of-wedlock sexual practices are wrong (including rape)?
We erase all respect for slave-holders in US history and out goes Washington, Monroe, Jefferson, Jackson, several generations of loosely-related Lee family members, Madison, and others in the northern colonies who also had slaves. And American Indians, and African Americans who owned slaves, no matter when or where they lived. Oh, and we’ll need to erase from memory those Northerners who did not support abolition for whatever reason.
And if they are not worth respect, then are they even really fully human? What about their descendants? Yes, I’m exaggerating for effect, but you can see where this kind of thing can lead, can’t you?
I’m not in favor of overstating the accomplishments of Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, or Sam Houston for that matter (or Stephen F. Austin, who did not institute a purity test to prevent slave holders to settle his land grant or in the area around it. Oops, I see two big cities getting renamed.) But I’m not in favor of tearing out all memory of them and their talents, either, removing them completely from general public memory. I grew up learning the stories of Lee et al, with the proviso that they fought to defend a system that was wrong, just as General Rommel did. I could admire their good points while understanding and acknowledging the bad things they supported. They were humans, with human faults and blindnesses.
Going back to my opening paragraph, I’m tempted to wonder how many people outside of New Orleans, especially urban people, know that Jackson Square is named for General, President, brawler and Indian fighter and general trouble-maker Andrew Jackson, and how many assume the area is named for someone more modern like Jessie Jackson?
I don’t have a dog in the monument removal fight, since I don’t live in a place that has monuments to Confederate leaders. I had ancestors on three sides of the Civil War: Confederate, Yankee, and “just leave me the heck alone, please.” I do have strong feelings about de-humanizing the past, and for assigning collective guilt to later generations. Or collective perpetual martyrdom to later generations.
Edited to add: Welcome, Instapundit readers, and thank you for stopping by! I apologize for delays in comment moderation. I’m on the road, with intermittent internet!
Added 4/22: Welcome to readers from IMAO!