Ongoing unease and unrest is causing renewed reviews of our values, standards and heroes. Attitudes change over time, as does what is acceptable to society. We’ll never all agree or satisfactorily settle the debate, but delaying these discussions only increases tension.
Wait long enough and pressure increases to the point where fault lines shift. With the passions and protests that we’re seeing, there’s little doubt that’s where we’re at now. Ready or not, seismic readjustment is underway.
Shockwaves are emanating from multiple places of friction. Along with questioning personal responsibility and expectations in a pandemic or what is acceptable behavior from protestors and law enforcement, fights are breaking out over statutes and other symbols of our past. We don’t believe in erasing the past, but we think careful consideration should be given to how the past is framed and presented. Not everything deserves to be put on a pedestal, and not everything placed on a pedestal deserves to stay there.
We find it ironic that calls “not to whitewash or ignore the past” are too often in favor of preserving monuments that are meant to whitewash or ignore the past. Revisionists have been very successful in promoting the “the lost cause” myth of the American Civil War, where generations have recast the narrative to argue it wasn’t primarily about slavery. That’s a lie. For a vast majority, it was about slavery.
We know that because we’ve read the contemporary newspaper coverage, editorials, speeches of Southern leaders and generals, and personal correspondence and journals including poorer citizens who never owned slaves but recognized how they benefited financially and socially from the institution of slavery (and feared what would happen with its removal). Consider the Confederate Constitution, which repeatedly references the nation’s enshrinement of slavery, starting in Article I — “No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” In these primary accounts, economics or states’ rights were afterthoughts, not primary motivations. Today’s opinions and talking points don’t change yesterday’s facts.
In our current debate, timing is another thing that many people are missing or ignoring. A lot of these memorials don’t stem from immediately after the war, but decades later, often as pushback against minorities in the Jim Crow era and Civil Rights movements in the 1950s and ‘60s.
When you look at statues and other monuments, think about their message and who it is directed at. The audience and intent are very different between a Confederate marker placed in a cemetery in the South in 1863 vs. a statute of a Confederate general placed outside a courthouse or statehouse in 1955. The first strikes us as a sign of sincere mourning and the other as a symbol of intimidation and racism. Once again, if you read the accounts of those who erected these more recent monuments, they usually make it clear that they’re about sending signals and putting others in their place.
The tipping point is different for everyone, but some symbols become so tainted that they’re not redeemable by society. The history of slavery is built on dehumanization, kidnapping, abuse, destruction of families, murder and rape. Those who wished to whitewash it did so as part of a campaign that also included voter intimidation, systematic disenfranchisement, neighborhood purification, cross burnings, church bombings and lynchings.
Many of the symbols under attack have become too intertwined with evil to be saved. Not everyone who turns to those symbols all share the same beliefs, but the extraordinary vileness of some overpowers the rest. It’s hard to look at the heart of someone wearing a swastika because it casts such a shadow.
Being willing to recognize that someone can be both a symbol of inspiration and grief is only the first step. To be better Americans, the next steps require us to talk more, revisit the past, admit mistakes, and sacrifice bad examples. We’re not saying this won’t come with a cost, but we think it little in light of the good will and new beginnings that can be gained.
We said before it sends a message when you put someone up on a pedestal and it sends a message when you leave someone on a pedestal. Today, it also sends a message when you take someone off a pedestal.
Today, think about the messages your words, actions, and inaction send.