Thomas Carmody

State Rep. Thomas Carmody Jr., a Shreveport Republican in the moments before his legislation to protect Confederate monuments was debate in the Louisiana House on Monday, May 15, 2017. Rep. Polly Thomas, R-Metairie, is on the left.

Advocate Photo by Mark Ballard

The Legislature is partying like it's 1861, with pro-slavery apologias that made no sense then and less now, and a pointless new debate over Confederate monuments.

Even for those of us who want General Lee and the others to stay where they are, it seems a divisive and unnecessary bill, a majority-white Legislature intruding on local decisions because of the majority-black cities questioning the old monuments.

Is this the Legislature's business? Hardly, and the bill mandating public votes on war memorials — including those of the "War Between the States," itself a racially charged phrase — can only further damage the current session's failure to grapple with the state's bigger problems.

House Bill 71 by Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, is about more than its author's ignorance of Civil War history; he told the House that slavery did not ignite that terrible war, a view at odds with the historical record. Given Louisiana's horrible racial divisions in Carmody's own lifetime, it takes conscientious levels of denial to advance that view in any serious forum.

Nor is it going to help save the Confederate monuments in New Orleans, where HB 71 apparently would not apply, as it is not retroactive. The mayor and City Council decided, unwisely but democratically, to take down the monuments.

The Legislature often meddles with local government in Louisiana. Decisions that in most states would be purely local are changed or circumscribed by state law. On the flip side, local governments get state benefits from their political kowtowing to the State Capitol, so that they don't have to face the responsibility of raising taxes on their own.

Making the State Capitol further into a city council is not a good idea. Carmody's bill is another case of making the structure of government worse, whatever the merits of his cause.

Worse, for the public's interest, stoking racial antagonisms in a divided House is not good for the already strained legislative process. "We can't seem to get the economic engine of our state going (but) we're here today to re-fight the Civil War," state Rep. Sam Jones, a Democrat and former mayor of Franklin, told the House.

Perhaps lawmakers in the 65-31 vote on the Lost Cause will now come together over tough votes on tax reform and sentencing issues. Those things are of far more vital importance to Louisiana in the here and now than Confederate monuments or battle flags. Nevertheless, those have been flashpoints in our long struggle to come to terms with slavery and its enduring consequences.

In the last years of Robert E. Lee's life, he was an important advocate of reconciliation between North and South. One cannot help but think he would be saddened at this debate.

In a letter to one of his sons, Lee said that duty is the sublimest word in the language. In politics, when duty is hard, emotional appeals to divert attention from the legislative body's failures are an alternative to compromise and progress.

This is an old story, over many generations, of Louisiana politicians preying on fears to avoid real issues. Perhaps the Senate, now facing Carmody's bill, will avoid the mistakes of the past.

The Lost Cause is truly lost, but the lost causes this year — balancing the budget, reforming the tax code, reducing the burden of incarceration — matter to the living.

Perhaps the Carmody bill would have come along anyway, as there is a renewed debate in Shreveport over the Confederate memorial on the lawn of the Caddo Parish Courthouse. But the New Orleans struggle helped fuel this controversy, even though that was certainly not the intention of Mayor Mitch Landrieu or the City Council.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.