FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Statues in Defeat: the Confederacy, Treason and History

Photo by Eli Christman | CC BY 2.0

Statues of historical weight tend to represent heroism – of sorts. It might be of the doomed variety, and often is.  Rebellious causes assume the visage of a stony form, to gaze soullessly across promenades or parks, often ignored by many who have long lost a sense of their meaning.

In history, their removal is an act that flies directly into the wrinkled face of memory.  Sometimes, as happened in the case of the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn commemorating the Soviet “liberation” of Estonia in 2007, the figure is relocated.  The statue must change with the times.

Others, such as the defiant figure of the Hapsburg Croatian official, Ban Josip Jelačić, return to their place of erection, in his case, to a post-civil war Zagreb.  (He had been, in 1947, placed in a socialist deep freeze, an uncomfortable reminder of Croatian nationalism in Titoist Yugoslavia.)

The whole nasty business in Charlottesville, Virginia that unfolded on August 12 started with a gathering of neo-Nazis and white supremacists over a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

The figure of the distinguished general was set for removal by agreement of the municipality, a point the protesters disagreed with.  Counter-protestors demurred.  It turned bloody, with the death of Heather Heyer, and two Virginia State Police officers, Trooper-Pilot Berke M. M. Bates and Pilot Lt. H. Jay Cullen, who perished in their helicopter after monitoring the protests.

The subsequent and desperate effort to identify some ground of equivalence between protestors (Nazis or anti-Nazis) and the premise of protest (White Supremacists or pro-Unionists), is only understandable in the context of civil war, one which forever reminds the states of the Confederacy of defeat.

That failure entails a vigorous jostle over the still smoking remains of an era where the defeated cry for some recognition, be it in their military achievements against the industrial might of the north, or the various war time heroes who did much with little.  The other, more venal element, is that of slavery, codified and structured, a so-called peculiar institution that also went with the Confederacy’s effort to secede.

The effort to mark that period with a coating of equivalence resounded with US President Donald Trump, never a history boffin, and more of its mugger.  If you were to remove General Lee from his podium, “are we going to take down statues to George Washington?”  Trump’s personal lawyer also got busy in the equivalence business: “You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington (because) there literally is no difference between the two men.”[1]

Hardly very sharp observations. For one, Washington was Lee’s shadow in terms of military prowess, and fortunate to be facing forces more incompetent than his own.  (To measure achievement against an adversary such as Lord Cornwallis is setting the bar low.)  But he was saved by one point: founding father patriotism.

Some of the Confederate figures, it is true, dazzle in their competence.  To Lee’s own exploits could be added the able Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.   But both men were marked by a common cause of perfidy, that bit of treason against the Union that would have seen slavery, not merely retained, but expanded.  Brilliant they have been, but they fought for that institution, a world of plantations, cotton and pre-industrial tradition.

The modern pro-Confederate protestor finds succour in these seemingly fallen figures, suffering a perverse variant of what W.E.B. Du Bois discerned as a “double consciousness”.[2]  But this is not the consciousness of the “black soul” of Du Bois’ analysis, one where white eyes mediate a black identity. This is, rather, the plantation identity, an anachronistic, ostracised, alienated awareness that was firstly defeated in 1865, subjected to the trauma of slave emancipation and Reconstruction, then given over to the efforts of desegregation and the civil rights movement. Theirs is a consciousness of contrived victimhood, a grand failure.

For such figures, these white folk of torment, the punishment merely continued, and they, being part of the union, endured a punishment by being forced into accommodation, accord and settlement. With Trump’s victory in November last year, the waters stirred.  That forced, imposed consensus of what might be deemed wrong, inappropriate and outrageous, the views of the defeated from the Civil War, could now gradually bubble to the surface, to again be reclaimed in a public fashion.

Such reclamation has been boisterous, noisy, and ugly. It has taken the form, not of genteel Southern manners and tableside grace, but the virulence of KKK protest and neo-Nazi enthusiasts. It manifested in the form of a neo-Nazi who decided to drive into a group of countering protestors in Charlottesville on August 12, resulting in Heyer’s death and injuries to 19 others.

History is often a messy ordeal.  Reconstruction was the belt taken to the back of the southern states, and the response was one of memorial retribution.  We might have lost those pre-war institutions, went this sentiment, but we shall damn well make every effort to frustrate change.  You took away our slaves, but you won’t take away our monuments.  Jim Crow laws transmogrified into stone and reminders of heroic exploits, what might have been if only the Confederacy could have held out.

The Charlottesville echo is reverberating in other states concerned that the Confederacy matter may become a contagion.  University of Texas President Gregory L. Fenves announced late Sunday night that he would remove four Confederate statues from the Austin campus. The statues, in light of the violence in Virginia, had become “symbols of modern white supremacy and neo-Nazism.”

For Fenves, the statues depicting General Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney Johnston, John Reagan and former Texas governor James Stephen Hogg, were reminders that had to be done away with.  “Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans.  That remains true for today for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry.”[3]

University of Houston student Mark Petersen, saw it differently.  This was an erasure, one of history one directed at his people, those “of European descent who built this country.”[4] A history of gore, but also a history of treason.

The removal of such monuments, accompanied by such statements as those of Fenves, is the sound of the victor’s narrative favouring that side of memory.  It is the victory of the Union, with its all binding mysticism, reaffirmed, and the memory of the Confederacy revived to only remind all of what went wrong.

Notes.

[1] http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-george-washington-lee-slavery-20170820-story.html

[2] http://www.gutenberg.org/files/408/408-h/408-h.htm

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2017/08/21/university-of-texas-takes-down-four-confederate-statues-overnight/

[4] http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/university-texas-removes-four-confederate-statues-overnight-n794411

More articles by:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

July 19, 2018
Rajai R. Masri
The West’s Potential Symbiotic Contributions to Freeing a Closed Muslim Mind
Jennifer Matsui
The Blue Pill Presidency
Ryan LaMothe
The Moral and Spiritual Bankruptcy of White Evangelicals
Paul Tritschler
Negative Capability: a Force for Change?
Patrick Bond
State of the BRICS Class Struggle: ‘Social Dialogue’ Reform Frustrations
Rev. William Alberts
A Well-Kept United Methodist Church Secret
Raouf Halaby
Joseph Harsch, Robert Fisk, Franklin Lamb: Three of the Very Best
George Ochenski
He Speaks From Experience: Max Baucus on “Squandered Leadership”
Ted Rall
Right Now, It Looks Like Trump Will Win in 2020
David Swanson
The Intelligence Community Is Neither
Andrew Moss
Chaos or Community in Immigration Policy
Kim Scipes
Where Do We Go From Here? How Do We Get There?
July 18, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
Politics and Psychiatry: the Cost of the Trauma Cover-Up
Frank Stricker
The Crummy Good Economy and the New Serfdom
Linda Ford
Red Fawn Fallis and the Felony of Being Attacked by Cops
David Mattson
Entrusting Grizzlies to a Basket of Deplorables?
Stephen F. Eisenman
Want Gun Control? Arm the Left (It Worked Before)
CJ Hopkins
Trump’s Treasonous Traitor Summit or: How Liberals Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the New McCarthyism
Patrick Bond
State of the BRICS Class Struggle: Repression, Austerity and Worker Militancy
Dan Corjescu
The USA and Russia: Two Sides of the Same Criminal Corporate Coin
The Hudson Report
How Argentina Got the Biggest Loan in the History of the IMF
Kenn Orphan
You Call This Treason?
Max Parry
Ukraine’s Anti-Roma Pogroms Ignored as Russia is Blamed for Global Far Right Resurgence
Ed Meek
Acts of Resistance
July 17, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Trump & The Big Bad Bugs
Robert Hunziker
Trump Kills Science, Nature Strikes Back
John Grant
The Politics of Cruelty
Kenneth Surin
Calculated Buffoonery: Trump in the UK
Binoy Kampmark
Helsinki Theatrics: Trump Meets Putin
Patrick Bond
BRICS From Above, Seen Critically From Below
Jim Kavanagh
Fighting Fake Stories: The New Yorker, Israel and Obama
Daniel Falcone
Chomsky on the Trump NATO Ruse
W. T. Whitney
Oil Underground in Neuquén, Argentina – and a New US Military Base There
Doug Rawlings
Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” was Nominated for an Emmy, Does It Deserve It?
Rajan Menon
The United States of Inequality
Thomas Knapp
Have Mueller and Rosenstein Finally Gone Too Far?
Cesar Chelala
An Insatiable Salesman
Dean Baker
Truth, Trump and the Washington Post
Mel Gurtov
Human Rights Trumped
Binoy Kampmark
Putin’s Football Gambit: How the World Cup Paid Off
July 16, 2018
Sheldon Richman
Trump Turns to Gaza as Middle East Deal of the Century Collapses
Charles Pierson
Kirstjen Nielsen Just Wants to Protect You
Brett Wilkins
The Lydda Death March and the Israeli State of Denial
Patrick Cockburn
Trump Knows That the US Can Exercise More Power in a UK Weakened by Brexit
Robert Fisk
The Fisherman of Sarajevo Told Tales Past Wars and Wars to Come
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail