In a season ostensibly devoted to peace on Earth and goodwill toward men, New Orleans residents have continued to debate, often with acrimony, the fate of four public monuments with links to the city’s Civil War past. That debate entered a new phase Wednesday, when the New Orleans City Council voted to remove the monuments from their prominent places in the city’s landscape.
A vote intended to close a painful rift in the city’s civic life seems destined to sow continuing discord, which is perhaps an inevitable outcome of a decision-making process that was flawed from the start.
The controversy drew widespread attention and comment across south Louisiana and from other parts of the country, too. That interest was understandable, given the Crescent City’s iconic presence in the life of the state, the region and the world.
New Orleans is known around the globe, and people know it largely through its distinctive landscape. What should — and should not — be a part of that landscape has rested at the heart of an argument that began over the summer, when Mayor Mitch Landrieu called for the monuments to be removed, suggesting that they were raised to honor what is no longer deemed honorable: a political system dedicated to racial oppression. The monuments in question are statues of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard, as well as a memorial commemorating the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place, a white rebellion against the city’s biracial Reconstruction-era government.
These historical fixtures point to an era stained by moral failing, as any record of human enterprise invariably does. Some have argued that New Orleans needs more aspirational icons than champions of the Confederacy. Others have countered that the past, in all its checkered complexity, cannot and should not be annulled simply because we no longer wish to look at its leavings.
These are reasonable arguments that deserved a better airing than they got. In announcing his opposition to the monuments before the public review process had begun, Landrieu suggested that the fate of the monuments was already sealed. We continue to believe that a public referendum on the issue was a better way to build consensus on such a controversial question.
This dispute has, at the very least, gotten people talking about their collective past, which cannot be a bad thing in a country plagued by historical illiteracy.
As William Faulkner, a former resident of the French Quarter, famously observed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That past will continue to loom large in New Orleans, regardless of what happens to these monuments.