Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Noble Lie

I am a son of the South, more by birth than by choice.  I grew up in a state of the Confederacy, Texas.  The Confederacy and all of its bitter memories and mythology were in the air everyone breathed; The Noble Cause is what its partisans, eulogists, and memorializers called it.
My dad was no liberal, but he hated the Confederacy and its whole legacy.  The right to own people and force them to work for nothing while someone else profited from their labor was not a hill he thought worth dying over.  He shared Sam Houston's opinion of the Confederacy as a disastrous mistake.  My dad thought that the whole rebellion was stupid, and its legacy kept the South backwards and poor.

We kept a photo of Lincoln hanging in our house; very unusual for 1960s Texas.

When I lived in Saint Louis in the 1980s, I used to see this monument in Forest Park, the Memorial to the Confederate War Dead.  It was a monument whose design I always admired very much; a small masterpiece of the American Renaissance movement that very beautifully integrated sculpted imagery on many different levels with an elegant architectural design -- in true classical fashion, the allegorical content is sculpted in stone low relief, and the realistic content is in bronze.

Until very recently, this monument stood in decaying neglected splendor in a corner of the park noticed by very few.  Few people were even aware that Saint Louis had a Confederate memorial, and for good reason.  Missouri was officially never part of the Confederacy.  In fact, it was one of the "border states," Union states along the border with the Confederacy that still kept slaves.  Missouri was bitterly divided with both the Union and the Confederacy making claims on the state.  For awhile the state had two competing state governments; the official Union government in Jefferson City and a rival Confederate government in Neosho.  The population of the state was bitterly divided with the state's large German population solidly behind the Union and the Anglo population mostly supporting the Confederacy.  Even before the official start of the Civil War there was fierce fighting between pro-Union and pro-Confederate forces throughout the state.  Union and Confederate forces fought to control the state government and a valuable arsenal in Saint Louis.  Unofficial guerrilla forces fought each other and terrorized the countryside even after the Civil War concluded.

A group of prominent society women in Saint Louis founded the St. Louis Confederate Memorial Association in 1906 and proposed building a monument.  The proposed monument immediately created controversy, especially among Union veterans and the German population who took great offense at the very idea of a monument to what they saw as an act of treason.  The Memorial Association agreed to some significant compromises in order to get permission to build the monument.  No weapons and no uniforms would appear on the monument.  There would be no Confederate emblems like the Battle Flag or the Stars and Bars.  In the end, the fine sculpted bronze group showed a young man in civilian clothes apparently called to war embraced by his grieving mother and sister.  A child holds a flag of indeterminate identity.  The monument was completed and dedicated in 1914.  The canon near the monument is a later memorial to the Spanish American War.

As beautiful as the Confederate Memorial is, it was part of an effort to manipulate the narrative of the events of the Civil War if not quite the official record of it.  This was The Lost Cause Movement that sought to remake the story of the American Civil War from a slave owners' rebellion to a noble struggle by local whites against all odds and at great cost to defend their rights and their "way of life" against outside aggression.  The role of slavery in the Civil War -- and even slavery's existence and harshness -- were minimized and sometimes ignored.  Reconstruction was remade from a narrative of liberation and opportunity for newly freed blacks to the military oppression of defeated whites.
Art played a big role in this movement especially in the many monuments in stone and bronze intended to transform this new narrative of white courage and suffering into durable facts on the ground.   The Lost Cause even produced great art, for example DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation released in 1915, the year after the Saint Louis Memorial was completed.

A Currier and Ives lithograph print of a cotton plantation in the South, 1884

Richard Norris Brooke, Furling the Flag, 1872

As fine as some of this art could be, its purpose was to falsify historical memory.  All these splendid memorials and great novels and movies exalted white courage and suffering at the expense of African Americans and their experiences.  The point of all of this was to absolve white consciences of any responsibility for buying and selling human beings, forcing them to work for nothing, and for building their prosperous dominion on the uncompensated labor of generations of slaves.  Whites eased their nagging consciences with spurious invocations of science arguing that the dark races were somehow "inferior" and incapable of self-determination.  They resorted to equally spurious uses of religion arguing that the dark races were the cursed descendants of Noah's son Ham, ignoring a central tenet of the Christian religion that says that all people on earth belong to a single family descended from a common ancestor in Adam.
African slaves and their descendants were to be kept in a state of perpetual dependence upon a paternalistic despotism that was supposed to be "for their own good."  Whites even convinced themselves that slaves were happy in their servitude; never mind that slavery by definition is an institution founded in violence and perpetuated by violence.  Hovering over those rosy memories of the plantation as one big happy family is always the dark hidden threat of violence ready to assert itself at the least sign of disobedience.

Art, architecture, and literature played their role in this deception that succeeded in shaping historical memories among whites, and not just in the South.  So much for "art still has truth..."  As an old professor of mine always insisted, "art ain't cornflakes."  It's not always good for us, and can be as flawed and self-deceiving as we are.  Art is human before it is divine.
All that splendid artistic deception went hand in hand with campaigns of violence used to terrify and suppress African American populations at the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, and in periods of rising African American expectations such as the decade following the First World War that saw probably the worst racist violence.

And now, we are waking up from this dream with a rude start.

Saint Louis' Confederate Memorial, so long ignored and forgotten, became a focus of attention in the wake of the 2015 massacre of nine Bible class students in Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina by a white supremacist, Dylann Roof.
The Monument was vandalized, and now it is gone, removed by the Parks Department after long and heated arguments over the Monument's meaning and over who really owned it.

The Memorial is now gone and its removal in the end was relatively orderly.

In the wake of the shocking events in Charlottesville, Virginia -- a white supremacist rally full of violent rhetoric and Nazi symbolism culminating in bloodshed when a car deliberately crashed into a crowd of counter-demonstrators killing Heather Heyer -- crowds turned upon these monuments with fury.  A mob pulled down and destroyed a Confederate monument in Durham, North Carolina just a day after the events in Charlottesville.

I'm all for taking these monuments down, but I don't like mobs and I don't like wanton destruction.  Whatever the motivation behind these monuments, they are historical evidence, and works of art.  I would much prefer to see them removed in an orderly fashion and either stored or displayed in a more neutral historical or aesthetic setting.
I fear that now blood has been shed, there will be more such mob actions.

And who is responsible for waking us so rudely from our Gone-With-The-Wind dream of Southern white chivalry?  revisionist academics?  the liberal media?
No, the Confederacy's most devoted partisans -- true believing white supremacists -- loudly and aggressively revealed the racism at the heart of it all for all the world to see.  They eagerly conflate symbols of the old Confederacy with Nazi symbolism; two racist states defeated and destroyed by mostly white armies in very bloody warfare.

White supremacists shed blood in a series of shocking public murders starting with Dylann Roof's massacre of Bible study students at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC and continuing with the murder of six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, then three people murdered in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, and now the death of Heather Heyer and the injury of nine others at Charlottesville.  The narcissistic and paranoid Nero who occupies the White House aids and abets these extremists partly out of his own racism, but mostly to gratify his insatiably vanity.  White supremacism now as always is a movement of psychopaths and sociopaths determined to dominate everyone around them through violence and intimidation.  All of their supremacist ideology and pseudo-scientific racist theories are only pretexts in the end.  Goons and thugs will be goons and thugs.

And now, more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, Senator Thaddeus Stevens' demand that "treason must be made odious" finally comes to pass.  The extreme partisans of the Lost Cause, the white supremacists, the antisemites, the homophobes, and Christian Dominionists in their words and  deeds exposed the violence at the heart of the Confederate legacy.


The controversy over the Confederate legacy comes to Bronx Community College.

I've noted in prior posts about the Hall of Fame the incongruous presence of Generals Lee and Jackson in the Hall, and how their inductions were originally very controversial.

The bust of Robert E. Lee in the Hall of Fame

The induction ceremony for Robert E. Lee in 1923, a decision that was very controversial.  Many then still living Union veterans protested Lee's presence in the Hall accusing New York University and the Hall of Fame committee of caving to pressure from the Daughters of the Confederacy and wealthy Southern interests.
Lee's bust stayed in the Hall, but the Hall of Fame jury resisted successfully considerable pressure to induct Jefferson Davis.

The Daughters of the Confederacy prevailed again in 1957 when Stonewall Jackson was inducted.

On August 16, 2017, the president of Bronx Community College Thomas Isekenegbe sent this letter to the students and faculty:

The busts of Lee and Jackson will be removed and put in storage.   I fully support this decision.

1 comment:

Nuncle said...

A fine, clear piece here. Thanks.