I confess to being more or less ambivalent about the issue of Confederate statues; I think there is a Payne relative somewhere back in the forgotten ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia, but overall our southern sentiments do not extend so far as to really caring all that much about what happens to a monument of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, both of whom, one should remember, fought a war in order to preserve the institution of slavery in what is literally my backyard.
Except…I sort of do care. Not for the sake of some mawkish and misplaced sense of southern “pride,” as if the obvious regional majesty of the southern United States rises and sets on the Ordinance of Secession. Nor is it for the sake of preserving some honorable monuments erected by a chastened and wounded body politic: many of these statues were erected decades after the war, some of them as late as the 1940s or 50s, in large part to send a message to those pesky black people who were getting overly pushy about the whole 14th Amendment thing.
No, I care about the monument zeitgeist solely as a matter of long-form political concern, namely that this whole charade is quite obviously not about the monuments but about political power.
Recently someone trenchantly pointed out that Confederate monuments are like national debts: the Left only really cares about them when a Republican is in office. That is doubly true now, when our current political moment consists largely of grown adults pretending that Donald J. Trump, washed-up real estate tycoon and New York Democrat up until about five minutes ago, is ushering in a New Third Reich. In such an environment, where you have respectable college deans referring to the president as a “Nazi-in-chief,” the impulse to seize the opportunity is going to be strong: if people are already riled up to that extent, then it’s going to be fairly easy to convince them to tear down a bunch of bronze statuary, even if they hadn’t thought twice about it over the past eight years.
So that’s what’s happening. And the darkly mobbish and paranoid behavior surrounding this whole affair has been a thing to witness. In Durham, they pulled down a statue and then took turns kicking it—an exhibition of political theatrics that it’s almost impossible to believe actually happening, until you see the video and the allegedly grown-up men and women doing it. Somebody at UNC got the word ahead of time and put up barriers around their “Silent Sam” statue, but that didn’t stop an angry mob from forming around it. The statue “promotes violence,” according to one protester, and so it should be put in “a museum” (wouldn’t that just make the museum a violent place?). Baltimore decided to just go ahead and do the mob’s work for them, tearing down statues while the city slept (“Deeds so manifestly righteous, popular, and proud,” one fellow remarked, “they must be done unannounced in the dead of night”). In Ohio, somebody decapitated a Confederate statue in a Confederate cemetery. And in perhaps the most outlandish display of political theater so far, the city of Charlottesville covered its Confederate statues with black tarp. They did this ostensibly as an act of “mourning” for Heather Heyer, the woman killed by a white nationalist terrorist attack during the neo-Nazi chaos, but…I mean, for goodness’s sake, seriously, Charlottesville—just man up and be honest about what it is you’re really doing.
No, this isn’t about statues, or even the Confederacy; if it were, they would have come down years ago. This is about a violent zeitgeist, or the threat of it, controlling our political discourse. Indeed, virtually all of the monument removals have come in the days directly after the Durham mob pulled down the Durham statue; more than a few municipal authorities must have taken note. This is not a majoritarian fad sweeping the nation; more than half of all Americans believe in leaving the statues up—including a plurality of black Americans! I guess they do not know what is best for them.
So this is about power. And of course, the thirst for political power is never satiated by the quench; it must always find something new to dominate. So the conquest must be expanded to encompass new horizons and new objects to destroy: an Abraham Lincoln statue in Chicago, for instance, or the vandalization of a monument dedicated to “genocidal terrorist” Christopher Columbus. Some people are even demanding that Mount Rushmore be blown up, because–well, hell, because why not? Why limit ourselves to a few paltry statues and obelisks? Set your sights on high, baby! And then destroy whatever it is you’re looking at.
At Slate last week, Jamelle Bouie took issue with Donald Trump’s comment that tearing down the CSA statues was a “slippery slope” that could end with statues to Washington or Jefferson coming down as well: ” The reason we memorialize [Washington and Jefferson] is not because of their slaveholding,” he claims, but because of the other, great things they did. Robert E. Lee, meanwhile, “is only famous because he led Confederate armies.” This is not a bad point, though very quickly it become a moot one: a few hours after Bouie said that the Washington-and-Jefferson-are-next argument was “dumb,” Angela Rye appeared on CNN and announced that, well, Washington and Jefferson are next. Why does she feel this way? Because of their slaveholding, of course!
So do not be fooled. The Confederate statues may all end up coming down, and everyone will be fine and we’ll all move on. Except some of us won’t move on—and those folks will come after Washington next, and Jefferson, and then maybe they’ll start working their way up, eventually coming after Coolidge, FDR, Kennedy, Reagan, both Bushes; by that point they may even be frothed-up enough to knock down the image of Barack Obama that they’ll have carved into Mt. Rushmore after blowing the others up. And then maybe they’ll really get started.
You might think, “There’s no way it will get that bad.” And you might be right. But you’re probably wrong.