There’s a wry proverb, widely if not conclusively attributed to Ambrose Bierce, that war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography. In other words, as this old chestnut suggests, we generally don’t bother to learn the map of the world until a conflict forces us to do it.
If there’s a corollary to this comment on our cultural illiteracy, maybe it’s the thought that we don’t bother to think about our community landmarks until a tragedy brings us to see them in new ways.
We’re thinking specifically of the new debate about Confederate monuments in New Orleans, a discussion that touches on questions resonating across Louisiana and, indeed, the whole South.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently suggested that the big statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, which dominates a St. Charles Avenue traffic circle named in Lee’s honor, should be in a museum, not a public place of honor. A citizens committee is considering what, if anything, should be done about a number of city monuments featuring Confederate figures. The issue is especially emotional right now because a 21-year-old white supremacist was recently charged with killing nine members of the historically black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
We anticipate similar discussions about Confederate monuments in other parts of Louisiana. If there’s a silver lining to any of this, it’s the welcome news that residents are actually talking, in a sustained and vigorous way, about their own history. As one national survey after another makes clear, we Americans simply don’t know enough, or bother to learn, about our own past. The Charleston shootings have us talking, in some detail, about the legacies of a long-ago war, and that kind of scrutiny is a healthy thing for a democracy.
Any view of the Confederacy must acknowledge its central reality — that it was a political system devoted to the perpetuation of twin moral evils, slavery and white supremacy. History also reminds us that racially inspired injustice didn’t start with the Confederacy. Andrew Jackson, memorialized in Jackson Square, was a military hero who also owned slaves and brutalized Native Americans. But Jackson’s leadership in preserving the Union inspired Abraham Lincoln as a useful model for the presidency. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson have equally complicated legacies as slave owners who helped build institutions that would eventually advance liberty for all Americans, including those of color.
Such contradictions tell us that historical figures were often conflicted souls, touched by competing impulses toward darkness and light.
Maybe that’s been the most sobering aspect of this debate so far. In peering into our past and revisiting those grave men in their odd costumes, we’re seeing people who sometimes look, a bit uncomfortably, like we do.