As you might know, I haven’t been exactly the world’s most consistent fan of the Social Justice movement, nor has it been the most consistent fan of me.
I cringe when I read about yet another conservative college lecture shut down by mob violence; or student protesters demanding the firing of a professor for trying gently to argue and reason with them; or an editor forced from his position for writing a (progressive) defense of “cultural appropriation”—a practice that I take to have been ubiquitous for all of recorded history, and without which there wouldn’t be any culture at all. I cringe not only because I know that I was in the crosshairs once before and could easily be again, but also because, it seems to me, the Social Justice scalp-hunters are so astoundingly oblivious to the misdirection of their energies, to the power of their message for losing elections and neutering the progressive cause, to the massive gift their every absurdity provides to the world’s Fox Newses and Breitbarts and Trumps.
Yet there’s at least one issue where it seems to me that the Social Justice Warriors are 100% right, and their opponents 100% wrong. This is the moral imperative to take down every monument to Confederate “war heroes,” and to rename every street and school and college named after individuals whose primary contribution to the world was to defend chattel slavery. As a now-Southerner, I have a greater personal stake here than I did before: UT Austin just recently removed its statue of Jefferson Davis, while keeping up its statue of Robert E. Lee. My kids will likely attend what until very recently was called Robert E. Lee Elementary—this summer renamed Russell Lee Elementary. (My suggestion, that the school be called T. D. Lee Parity Violation Elementary, was sadly never considered.)
So I was gratified that last week, New Orleans finally took down its monuments to slavers. Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech, setting out the reasons for the removal, is worth reading.
I used to have little patience for “merely symbolic” issues: would that offensive statues and flags were the worst problems! But it now seems to me that the fight over Confederate symbols is just a thinly-veiled proxy for the biggest moral question that’s faced the United States through its history, and also the most urgent question facing it in 2017. Namely: Did the Union actually win the Civil War? Were the anti-Enlightenment forces—the slavers, the worshippers of blood and land and race and hierarchy—truly defeated? Do those forces acknowledge the finality and the rightness of their defeat?
For those who say that, sure, slavery was bad and all, but we need to keep statues to slavers up so as not to “erase history,” we need only change the example. Would we similarly defend statues of Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels, looming over Berlin in heroic poses? Yes, let Germans reflect somberly and often on this aspect of their heritage—but not by hoisting a swastika over City Hall.
For those who say the Civil War wasn’t “really” about slavery, I reply: this is the canonical example of a “Mount Stupid” belief, the sort of thing you can say only if you’ve learned enough to be wrong but not enough to be unwrong. In 1861, the Confederate ringleaders themselves loudly proclaimed to future generations that, indeed, their desire to preserve slavery was their overriding reason to secede. Here’s CSA Vice-President Alexander Stephens, in his famous Cornerstone Speech:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon 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. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.
Here’s Texas’ Declaration of Secession:
We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable. That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding states.
It was only when defeat looked inevitable that the slavers started changing their story, claiming that their real grievance was never about slavery per se, but only “states’ rights” (states’ right to do what, exactly?). So again, why should take the slavers’ rationalizations any more seriously than we take the postwar epiphanies of jailed Nazis that actually, they’d never felt any personal animus toward Jews, that the Final Solution was just the world’s biggest bureaucratic mishap? Of course there’s a difference: when the Allies occupied Germany, they insisted on thorough de-Nazification. They didn’t suffer streets to be named after Hitler. And today, incredibly, fascism and white nationalism are greater threats here in the US than they are in Germany. One reads about the historic irony of some American Jews, who are eligible for German citizenship because of grandparents expelled from there, now seeking to move there because they’re terrified about Trump.
By contrast, after a brief Reconstruction, the United States lost its will to continue de-Confederatizing the South. The leaders were left free to write book after book whitewashing their cause, even to hold political office again. And probably not by coincidence, we then got nearly a hundred years of Jim Crow—and still today, a half-century after the civil rights movement, southern governors and legislatures that do everything in their power to disenfranchise black voters.
For those who ask: but wasn’t Robert E. Lee a great general who was admired by millions? Didn’t he fight bravely for a cause he believed in? Maybe it’s just me, but I’m allergic to granting undue respect to history’s villains just because they managed to amass power and get others to go along with them. I remember reading once in some magazine that, yes, Genghis Khan might have raped thousands and murdered millions, but since DNA tests suggest that ~1% of humanity is now descended from him, we should also celebrate Khan’s positive contribution to “peopling the world.” Likewise, Hegel and Marx and Freud and Heidegger might have been wrong in nearly everything they said, sometimes with horrific consequences, but their ideas still need to be studied reverently, because of the number of other intellectuals who took them seriously. As I reject those special pleas, so I reject the analogous ones for Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, and Robert E. Lee, who as far as I can tell, should all (along with the rest of the Confederate leadership) have been sentenced for treason.
This has nothing to do with judging the past by standards of the present. By all means, build statues to Washington and Jefferson even though they held slaves, to Lincoln even though he called blacks inferior even while he freed them, to Churchill even though he fought the independence of India. But don’t look for moral complexity where there isn’t any. Don’t celebrate people who were terrible even for their own time, whose public life was devoted entirely to what we now know to be evil.
And if, after the last Confederate general comes down, the public spaces are too empty, fill them with monuments to Alan Turing, Marian Rejewski, Bertrand Russell, Hypatia of Alexandria, Emmy Noether, Lise Meitner, Mark Twain, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Frederick Douglass, Vasili Arkhipov, Stanislav Petrov, Raoul Wallenberg, even the inventors of saltwater taffy or Gatorade or the intermittent windshield wiper. There are, I think, enough people who added value to the world to fill every city square and street sign.