It's time to relegate history to the past

If I'm going to mention social issues on my blog at all, I'd be remiss if I didn't say something about the events in Charlottesville and their fallout.

To recap, a controversy over a statue of a Confederate personage turned into an excuse to hold a white supremacist rally with an alarmingly Nazi bent ("Jews will not replace us", they chanted, as though it had anything to do with anything). As generally happens when people go looking for a fight, there was fighting, escalating to the point of a white supremacist deciding to drive a car through a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring several others. In the ensuing backlash, the alt-right has since leveled farfetched false flag accusations against both the organizer of the event and the driver of the car.

President Trump made things worse by ascribing responsibility to "many sides"—which a former KKK leader publicly thanked him for—and characteristically making false claims such as that the counter-protesters didn't have a permit (they had two, and permits weren't necessary for many of the gatherings anyway). He did eventually condemn white supremacy, but only after being pressured to do so, and later reverted back to his original equivocating stance of blaming "both sides" anyway, also asserting that there were "very fine people, on both sides" (I have to think that any "very fine" people who find themselves marching with Nazis and the Klan ought to go home and rethink their position) and bringing up an "alt-left" that doesn't really exist (at least, not in the same sense that the alt-right movement does). He's since doubled down on his position, and has additionally criticized the "foolish" removal of monuments to the Confederacy. In a Phoenix rally, he even misquoted himself while lashing out at the "damned dishonest" news media for disapprovingly reporting what he actually said. I'm not sure whether to be more alarmed by all that, or by people who, as far I can tell, genuinely can't comprehend why it's problematic.

In short, the whole thing has been a mess.

Meanwhile, he's not the only one trying to blame everything on the efforts to remove the statue. So let's discuss those statues for a bit. This is another one of those things that I don't think ought to be so controversial to begin with. Yet no small number of people are stepping up to defend such monuments with arguments like...

"Stop trying to sanitize history!"

It's important to note that the majority of the statues in question were not erected while the Confederacy existed or even shortly thereafter, but more than a generation later, in the early 20th century, decades after the war ended. In other words, deep in the Jim Crow era, in a time when the Ku Klux Klan was at the height of its power. The Robert Edward Lee Sculpture in Charlottesville's Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park) is one such statue, commissioned in 1917 and forged in 1924. Another spike in Confederate monument construction occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, as a resurgence in the Klan helped lead the fight against the Civil Rights Movement. The timing alone at least strongly suggests that these symbols of the Confederacy had far less to do with memorializing history than with rallying white supremacists and intimidating minorities. In some cases, they were more obvious about it, such as the Battle of Liberty Place Monument that stood in New Orleans until just earlier this year, with its inscription added in 1932 that called the post-war government "usurpers" and cheered the end of the Reconstruction Era (over half a century in the past at the time) with the proclamation that this "recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state".

A statue or other monument may be less dramatic and not so blatant as a burning cross, perhaps, but the intent and the message behind them certainly seem to be much the same. To ignore this is to attempt to sanitize history.

There's a huge difference between remembering history and revering it, between acknowledging what happened and celebrating it. We have museums, battlefields, graveyards, and history books, not to mention lingering racial tensions that may take centuries more to fade away. We don't need monuments glorifying icons of a failed nation dedicated to defective ideals. Remembering the past doesn't mean letting it stare us in the face.

Besides which, even Lee himself thought it better "to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered." If that's any indication, he would have been appalled to find statues being erected in his honor in the first place.

"Who's next, Washington or Jefferson?"

Ah, the familiar slippery slope fallacy. Jefferson and Washington and others did hold slaves, that much is true. They could even be hypocritical about it, speaking out against slavery in the abstract while doing nothing to free their own slaves. They, however, are known for their role in forging a republic that, at least in principle, is founded upon liberty and equality. They never led a rebellion that was expressly about protecting and preserving slavery. They never became symbols of slavery itself, or, by extension, of white supremacy and bigotry in general. The difference should be obvious.

"But the war wasn't about slavery!"

Try telling that to the people who fought the war. Henry Massey Rector, governor of Arkansas at the time, framed the situation as a choice between "the Union without slavery, or slavery without the Union", and the state ultimately decided to put slavery first. The formal declarations of causes that South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas issued specifically cited their apprehension of northern anti-slavery sentiments and ideas of equality between the races as primary factors in deciding to secede. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens proclaimed "the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition" as the very cornerstone of the new government. That statement was met with applause when he spoke it, so it's reasonable to conclude that his audience emphatically agreed.

While the Union shrank back from admitting the role of slavery and racism in the war to avoid alienating border states and others who wouldn't have considered slavery worth fighting against, the rebel states had no such reluctance. The Confederacy (and, as a direct result, the war) was, as its leaders and member states proudly and repeatedly declared, always about slavery and white supremacy, from the very beginning. There were other factors to the war, of course, but none were ever so central to the conflict, and regardless, most or all of them (such as the south's lack of industry and dependence on imports) stemmed from a stubborn refusal to adapt and insistence on clinging to slavery even as it made progressively little sense to do so. Even what wasn't directly about slavery was still ultimately about slavery. Theirs was a movement led by people who boldly proclaimed not only that the white man was inherently superior, but that slavery was the natural order of things and in the best interests of the enslaved—and who felt gravely threatened when they had to face the fact that other people thought differently. To claim otherwise is a retcon, a revisionist attempt to, well, sanitize history. And that's a bad thing, right?

"But it was really about states' rights!"

It sounds almost noble when put like that, which is surely why so much effort goes into insisting that it be put it like that. Except that the rights that the south tended to champion all revolved around slavery. Numerous historians, including James M. McPherson, Henry Brooks Adams, Manisha Sinha, and Leonard L. Richards, agree that the southern states cared about states' rights only inconsistently, using them as a justification for opposing policies they didn't like. This was never a defining principle, just a means to an end when convenient.

Regardless, when states' rights conflict with human rights, states' rights must give way. But there's an important question to answer even before getting to that point: what rights of the states are we talking about here?

As I've mentioned before, claiming a violation of rights, though a popular argument, means nothing if you can't identify what rights you mean or how they've been violated. So, which are the rights that were in danger? I've yet to find a convincing explanation of how the federal government supposedly infringed upon the rights of southern states prior to the war. In particular, despite what their own statements indicate that southern leaders feared, there was never so much as an attempt to abolish slavery in the southern states by law until Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, over a year after the war was already underway. Sadly, many northerners were just as racist as their southern counterparts and simply didn't care, so long as slavery kept its distance.

Contrast that with, for example, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required free states to assist in the capture of alleged runaway slaves, on minimal evidence and without a trial (predictably, this encouraged claims of dubious validity, particularly since officials were paid better if they sided against alleged escapees), and never mind that slavery was outlawed within their borders. Even leaving aside that people aren't property—and that's a point that must not be forgotten—if your property winds up in a jurisdiction where possessing it is illegal, under normal circumstances, it becomes contraband, you don't get it back, and there's a good chance you'll find yourself under arrest (or so I'd assume; law isn't my specialty, and it presumably varies from place to place). If nothing else, I can't imagine that you'd be able to expect anyone to help you reclaim what was seized.

Or take 1857's disastrous Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court nullified laws restricting slavery in US territories and held that slaves could be brought to free states for extended periods, yet still remain in slavery and even be hired out. Among other things, that gave northerners who otherwise would have been content to turn a blind eye to slavery in the south reason to fear that anti-slavery laws in their own states could be struck down. Slaveholders expressing confidence that they could now take slaves anywhere in the nation with impunity didn't help matters, especially when some went as far as to proclaim their expectations of slave auctions on Boston Common within a decade (a particularly egregious boast considering that Boston was a center of abolitionist activity).

So it's hard to escape the conclusion that the slave states were the ones misusing federal authority to violate the rights of the free states, not the other way around. Yet, somehow, anti-slavery states opposing the imposition of slave codes upon themselves has been twisted, in the minds of some, both then and now, into a violation of states' rights.

Similar inversions remain all too prevalent even today. But neither personal rights nor states' rights give you any leverage to demand that others live by your rules.

I thought I was done for now, but then another opinion piece by one of my least favorite editorialists left me stunned. To summarize, she equated Planned Parenthood with the deadly rally, and criticized progressives as hypocritical for not showing the same outrage against both. Because its founder Margaret Sanger believed in eugenics, in a time when much of the country did (the idea didn't fall out of favor until the Holocaust). And also because abortion, which I'm not exactly thrilled about either, but which has nothing to do with most of what Planned Parenthood does.

I... I don't even... what did I just read...? And why would anyone even bring up Planned Parenthood in this situation? I've seen her shoehorn the things she's decided to complain about into unrelated discussions before, but this is ridiculous. Between that and some of her previous writings, I'd have to count myself among the readers she predicted would "dismiss these claims as the ravings of a mad bigot." That, or a professional troll. We've reached Poe's Law territory, I'm afraid. Maybe I just don't want to believe it could be sincere.

The funny thing is that, despite all that, even she still acknowledges that the president's "weak and anemic" "pale criticism" has emboldened extremist groups. Which makes the people who can't recognize that all the more puzzling.

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