August 23, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Dead or the Dying
A FEW WORDS are certainly in order on the recent events surrounding the confederate monuments around the United States. I leave aside the complicated question of Charlottesville for the moment, save to mention that I stand with those who stood against the statue’s removal, as well as with those who have since been attacked through a kind of insufferable unofficial censorship, over which our freedom-loving press deigns not to state the first objection. “Unite the Right” seems to me an act of folly on the part of the Right, an ill-considered and ill-organized bit of shrill fanfair to an unpopular cause, and its outcome was so predictable one marvels at the surprise that has been spent over it. Nonetheless, whatever there was of honor and dignity and high vision in that entire squalid affair, lay on the side of the Right.
But again—all that aside. I would spare a few words instead on the broader phenomenon now sweeping the country, in the form of demands for the removal of monuments and names associated in any way with slavery or the Confederacy, resulting in many cases of extortionary defacement and vandalism of numerous statues and pieces of art. There is little hope by now of attempting to argue these people out of their crazed moralism; all attempts to do so will only entrench them the further into their self-righteousness. I leave the mad to their madness—but I would speak to those who are conflicted on this issue, for I do believe a little clarity can come of thinking the matter through in calm.
In the first place—what shall come of attempting to suppress those aspects of a nation’s past that do not placate the present moral climate? If we really begin down this road, where can we possibly stop? Need I remind anyone that slavery, for instance, did not begin with America? That practically every major figure in Western history, prior to the past hundred years, in some way or another might be implicated with social practices which to our eyes are reprehensible and shocking? Take but the Romans, the Greeks! Shall we blot out all reference to Caesar, to Alexander, from our public places, and loathe the images of Pericles and Cicero? Shall we rename Ithaca in New York, or Houston in Texas (Sam Houston was, after all, a slave owner) to better accord with our sense of humanity? And if it comes to that—what of Washington D.C. and Washington state itself? No lesser a man than Aristotle defends slavery in his political work; what shall we do with that old ruffian, if not excise him from our studies altogether?
All of this is thought to lie beyond the question at hand, but in truth it is exceedingly pertinent. In the first place, the principle is the same: if we begin to expunge every reference to slave-owners from our society, that list will not soon come to an end, and if we are thorough with our work, we shall soon discover what other such vandals have discovered: that there is no surer way of impoverishing the present, than demonizing the past. Anyone who believes that this business will conclude with a few Confederate Generals, anyone who really thinks that these demands are the final ones, and that after the removal of a few old statues the “social justice warriors” will pack up their rage and go on home, is badly mistaken. The work of rectifying a nation’s past is not soon over; indeed, we are seeing it just begin. Anyone who doubts this should note the recent attempts in the Italian government to pass a law which would give authorities the power to fine or imprison any Italian citizen found in possession of fascist paraphernelia—even should these be antiques from the war or historical objects or portraits of fascist figures. Even the Roman salute was to be banned on pain of prison time. The taste for censorship, once acquired, does not easily depart.
It is argued that these statues represent men who fought for slavery, and that the celebration of such men should not be countenanced, even as Germany would not permit statues of Hitler nor Italy Mussolini. Laying aside all other questions of the not negligable historical differences between Nazism, Fascism, and Confederacy, still we may object to this on numerous grounds. In the first place, reducing the Confederate cause to mere apologia for slavery is an act of historical reductionism that only a mind sick with “moralysis” could possible invent—moralysis meaning that peculiar modern disease common to us Westerners, which blocks the arteries of our hearts with thick-flowing “good intentions,” and the workings of our mind with guilt and shame. The question of North versus South went far beyond the question of slavery, though slavery was surely an integral part of it. General Lee was not an effigy of the plantation owners, and he fought for his people, not for his slaves. That people never ceased to exist: they were defeated in the war, but they were not obliterated. The very Southerners alive today are the foresons of those men, and it is not absurd for them to celebrate the great figures who fought, suffered, and died for their glory in a past day—even as it is not absurd for the Native Americans to celebrate their great chieftains, though these chieftains were conquered or slain by the Americans.
There is also this. Our country, whether the fact pleases the liberals of today or not, was born a slave-holding country. It is neither the first country nor the last to be so; and that fact cannot be erased. If we begin sorting through the past in the hunt for slave owners, we will have to come up against the fact sooner or later that the very men who framed our Constitution were slave owners; that that Constitution itself, if in a shy way, countenanced the business; that our government at its very conception was tied to the idea of slavery. It has since worked slavery out of its system, as it were; but if one begins now to look suspiciously into the origins of the country with the will to eradicate everything in it which does not stand right with us today, sooner or later the foundation of the country itself will come under scrutiny. Those who attack Confederate monuments today, will attack the very form of American government tomorrow.
“Well enough—they should have their democratic say, should they not?” But at this point there is little I can do save hold my tongue about two or three things.
I will close, then, with a simple question regarding the motives of these brave protesters against a long-since defeated Confederacy. Let us assume that they are sincere; many of them surely are. Yet what are they doing moiling about the statues of men who left this world better than a century past, when the very country they would like to purge of its sins is embroiled in several foreign wars? Why do you think the press occupies itself so contentedly with these matters, while ignoring altogether the bad work of American agents abroad? What do these protestors know or care about the suffering now occurring in Syria and Afghanistan (this last is the longest war of American history)—not to speak of Yemen, which is almost never even so much as mentioned by the mainstream press? And does not their manifest indifference to this question render their rectitude, if not their sincerity, somewhat questionable?
Does it not betray everything that they occupy themselves with the dead, and not the dying?