This is one of the biggest reasons there was so much hand-wringing about the Confederate flag being taken down from the state Capitol grounds in Columbia, S.C., earlier this year. From the Associated Press:
“New Orleans is poised to make a sweeping break with its Confederate past as city leaders decide whether to remove prominent monuments from some of its busiest streets.
“With support from Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a majority on the City Council appears ready to take down four monuments, including a towering statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Their ordinance has sparked passionate responses for and against these symbols, and both sides will get one more say at a special council meeting before Thursday’s vote.
“If approved, this would be one of the most sweeping gestures yet by an American city to sever ties with Confederate history.”
As I wrote at the time, I favored the flag’s removal in Columbia — but I also understood that some people were reluctant not because they are racists, but because they wonder where the whitewashing of history would stop once it got started. Recall that the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP has even proposed sandblasting the carving off the face of Stone Mountain.
What appears set to happen in New Orleans isn’t going to allay those concerns. There is a counter-proposal, mentioned toward the end of the AP story, to add monuments and rebrand the areas in question: “turning Lee Circle into ‘Generals Circle’ by adding a statue of Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, and making Jefferson Davis Parkway into ‘Presidents Avenue’ by adding a statue of Abraham Lincoln.” In general, I think addition is a better option than subtraction. But it’s not clear if such alternatives have a chance in New Orleans.
There is a slippery slope argument here — your hero could be tomorrow’s unacceptable symbol — but I don’t think that quite gets at what’s dangerous here. As long as the discussion is about what to remove, we are talking about inclusion via exclusion. We will not end up with less marginalization if we focus on who is offended by an incomplete telling of history rather than who is buoyed by a more complete rendering. We will just redistribute the marginalization. We will not promote a broader distancing of ourselves from past symbols and causes and heroes that need not define who we are today. We will just harden attachments that otherwise might have softened in time.
If 150 years seems like enough time for everyone to have gotten over a war, recall William Faulkner’s observation: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The past reverberates in the generations that follow, changing each successive one in different ways but never quite vanishing. Removing symbols that have lost their resonance with many will not speed up the process of resolution for the remaining few; it could, perversely, slow that process down.