Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans, gave a remarkable speech recently at the removal of the statue of General Robert E. Lee. The matter had been decided in 2015 by the New Orleans City Council and protested against in the interim until all avenues of appeal through the courts were exhausted. The speech was recommended by Frank Bruni in the NY Times this week.
Statues and Speeches Matter
It is important because, just as words are symbols conveying meaning, so are statues. The Statue of Liberty stands for something important. So does the Lincoln Memorial; the Washington Monument. Such symbols are rich with meaning, testaments to the great ideals on which the United States is founded. The Confederate statues that are finally coming down stood for something – many things – most of which were the wrong, odious ideas that have cast a long shadow over the USA’s life and culture.
Supporters claimed they were an important part of the history of the south, commemorating the lives lost by Confederate soldiers in defending their way of life. This was disingenuous – and still is since the initiative is still resisted very publicly in states such as Mississippi – because it ignores the skewed version of history that is presented.
As Landrieu said pointedly, the images and memories evoked were very one-sided: no statues to commemorate the evils of slavery or the suffering and torture of those who were enslaved to the ideals that the southern generals were fighting for. How, he asked, could the memories these statues spoke to be evoked as inspiration to a young African-American child? How could they be anything but offensive to those with ancestral ties to slavery as they walked or drove past the statues in their daily commute, or took their children to the park on Sunday?
History is Safe
This issue is essentially political. Not political in the way that the media has become accustomed to discussing politics, as a full contact sport played out in the colosseum of online blogs, talk radio and daily TV; sound bites; scandal; draining the swamp. The issue is political in the same way that Federal legislation is political; the same way that local zoning rules are political. These issues represent the struggle of people, through their elected representatives, to influence and shape the society in which they live. They are important and deserve attention. They matter every day, not just periodically at the polling booth.
There is concern that removing statues in the way New Orleans has, represents an attempt to sanitise history, to revise it in the name of political correctness (a term that has, itself, become politically incorrect). It does not. History is safe. The Civil War has volumes written about it. President Trump recently refreshed his recollection on the subject.
If history deserves being read in full, unvarnished to reveal the flaws of, for example, the Founding Fathers, will our heroes turn out to have feet of clay and must their names be expunged from public places because their lives did not meet today’s moral standards?
The Long Lens of Politics
Will the relationship between Washington and Jefferson with their slaves – the fact that they owned slaves at all – disqualify and forever tarnish their legacies? No, they will not, because slavery is not what Washington and Jefferson stood for. Understanding that they were flawed individuals living in a time that demanded compromises to move the American project forward is important (but does not excuse the practice). The three-fifths compromise was a grotesque political act – one that took almost two hundred years to rectify – but a compromise without which the United States Constitution would not have been passed.
The lens of politics is long but its focus tends toward sharpness as the years pass and tempers cool. LBJ has civil rights legislation and the launching of the Great Society in the positive column; the Vietnam War in the negative. Reagan has the fall of the Soviet Union, bringing down the Berlin Wall and, yes, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 to his credit. However, Iran-Contra and the War on Drugs tarnish his years in office.
Generally, few public figures are as good or as bad as the extremes of their public perception paint them. Politics lives viscerally in the moment but its effects are felt and judged over decades. Mitch Landrieu took a stand as Mayor of New Orleans and gave an account that history will judge favourably. As US Memorial Day approaches, Landrieu is owed a vote of thanks by all for cleaning up a few of New Orleans’s memorials.