It would seem that the ongoing battle over monuments, street names, and the like occurs against a much broader backdrop than is implied by the rhetoric immediately surrounding it. Many who talk about erasing the memory of slaveholders really care less about them than about a more general effort to tear down this country’s entire culture and the values behind it. Many defending the statues similarly care less about protecting the memory of Confederate generals than about defending that broader culture and its values. We should then not kid ourselves. This larger battle will go on, even if all the statues fall and all the streets or schools get new names.
To be sure, some of today’s combatants have a singular focus on the particular issues at hand. Many, people of color especially, may understandably feel such deep wounds that they cannot brook any celebration of anyone who defended slavery, no matter how otherwise admirable. Some who would protect the statues embrace the white supremacy that lay at the root of slavery and the Confederate cause. But for most citizens, those who feel neither deep wounds nor racist views, the conflict is indeed broader, whether they can articulate it or not.
Four recent incidents hint at this more general context. Chicago has seen statues of both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln defaced. Someone spray painted the words “fuck law” on Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. And in New Orleans, the words “Tear it Down” were spray painted on a statue of Joan of Arc. Washington, one must admit, did own slaves, but he was no Confederate. The only connection Lincoln has with slavery is that he succeeded in ending it. The connection between St. Joan and slavery has to stand as a source of bewilderment. Perhaps it was just a mistake, a moment of excessive anti-monument enthusiasm. A recent Wall Street Journal editorial suggested facetiously that one or more of these incidents might have reflected the judgment of a Middlebury College history major. Whoever committed these acts certainly showed his or her ignorance of what people are saying currently.
But in the context of the broader cultural battle, these attacks show no ignorance at all. They make complete sense, in fact. These historical figures in one way or another exemplify the values of this country’s shared historical culture. To those who would attack that broader culture, they are as obnoxious as is any Confederate general. These attackers are people who see the culture as bereft of decency, who write and teach that its history is a long series of inequities and abuses carried out by people with no admirable qualities at all, except perhaps for Sacco and Vanzetti. One has to wonder, given their view, how such a corrupt, abusive culture has managed in this latest generation to produce so many high-minded social justice warriors. One would expect that having reproduced its vices through so many generations, its most recent iteration would share all those ugly traits. But stranger things have happened. Perhaps the generation yet unborn will, when it comes of age, find such an offensive consistency in today’s SJWs.
The desire to attack the broader culture no doubt springs from a diversity of origins. Some may simply feel that society has dealt them a bad hand and rather than see that as simply bad luck they prefer to lay it at the feet of racism or classism or chauvinism or some other despicable trait. They have a powerful personal interest to discredit the prevailing culture and its origins. Some may feel privileged and consequently feel a powerful guilt. They might strive to redeem themselves by attacking all that has put them in such and enviable position and given them the attendant unenviable feelings. Others may simply dream, as communism once did, of a better society than has ever existed. Even if they have little affinity for communism, they may still harbor the belief that history can make room for better people if only it can sweep away common practices and the values behind them. The list of those with reason to attack the existing culture no doubt runs much longer than this sample and creates some strange allies.
Whatever the justice of the attacks on the bronze and stone Confederates, all involved should keep in mind that they fight on this wider battlefield. Perhaps, if people can think more broadly about their motives and those of others, they can find, if not common ground, then a way to approach this particular dispute with less partisan zeal. Perhaps that is asking too much. Perhaps, to steal the words of the Robert E. Lee character in the epic film, “Gettysburg,” this war will just go “on and on.”