Sunday, May 7, 2017
I’ve watched the monument controversy here in New Orleans with interest. Every time I think I have a side somebody on that side says or does something I disagree with and I’m back to undecided again. (Sometimes that “thing I disagree with” is just being a redneck, or being a self-righteous hipster.) I think it would be easier to take a side if more than one side was represented in the decision making, but it’s down to one white person, specifically Marshall Mitch Landrieu. My superego understands Mitch’s desire to bowdlerize this town into a sober, racially harmonious, wealth-attracting Disneyland, but my ego and id resist. He’s the Giuliani of the South. You know how everything about New York City is “better” now but it’s too expensive/no fun to live there? Policies have an effect. Anyway, that’s too much about the mayor. What I’m saying is this decision is being made by one white person.
My take on the monuments controversy is that it’s either a black fear thing or a white guilt thing.
The most convincing argument against the monuments’ presence is that they were put there to frighten black people. If that’s the case, we should take them down. But do they really scare black people? I don’t know, and this is why I wish the people had been consulted. It seems like a really patronizing thing to assume. It also seems really silly to think many black people are going to come out and tell me, a white man, “yes, I’m scared of those things, you got me there.” I can only talk to the intent, not the actual effect. I always thought of the monuments as sops to the Lost Cause people, whose numbers were so large - typically you assuage the losers with meaningless symbols to discourage them from re-arming. Letting the losers memorialize their dead is part of healing a conflict. (The stupid, recently-removed White League monument is the kind of thing that happens when you don’t give the losers anything to feel good about; they go crazy and kill some cops and put up a statue to themselves about it.) It was pragmatic to let these Rebel sympathizers put up their statues when they did. Now their numbers and economic power have decreased enough that we can safely wipe them off the map, probably. In the trade-off between black fear and white umbrage I’m more sympathetic to the former. The problem is, I’ve mostly heard the black fear arguments from whites. Not only whites - I’ve read quotes from blacks acknowledging that they feel the intended effect was to remind them of their expected position. But I’ve heard it mostly from whites, and I don’t know if I believe it.
I haven’t seen evidence of black fear but certainly no one is going to intentionally show it to me. It feels patronizing to assume it’s there and maybe ignorant to pretend it’s not. I don’t think I or Mitch Landrieu should be the ones to decide on that.
Regarding white guilt, I think I feel it is involved with the monuments because I only have this conversation with white people, and mostly with white people who think my thoughts/feelings on the matter are indefensible. My main feeling, which I guess I should describe now, is that symbols don’t matter as much as people say they do. We live our lives in the shadow of symbols that are crucial for their adherents and which make no difference to those who don’t believe. Every day I have to listen to somebody explaining that they do something because God wants it that way, but to me there is no God and if there were he wouldn’t care about the stupid thing you care about to please him. Symbols are bullshit. Statues are receptacles for piss and pigeon shit. In a way all statues are for losers: if you dominate the landscape, what use is a statue? The Pyramids are rad, but you’re still dead, Mr. Pharaoh.
Anyway, a lot of the white arguments I hear (from people I like and who may be right) are that the municipality shouldn’t reward the racist losers with acknowledgement. As if a statue is a reward and everybody wasn’t racist. As if we could fix the past now. As if removal will do anything but upset hicks and assuage our guilt. (though maybe that’s enough?) Maybe our guilt shouldn’t be assuaged, maybe we should have to drive by a statue of the feckless President of the Confederacy, who died here (and got a plaque for that too), and feel bad. The problem is our white guilt is too tied up with our neighbors’ white pride. The thing that should make them feel bad about being white makes them feel good! So it kinda comes down to: should there even be feeling-triggers along our thoroughfares at all? Can we reduce this history to a traffic hazard? But also, more seriously: can we, as whites, reduce our guilt by removing reminders of it? If so, should we? Are we doing this as a kindness to black people or a kindness to ourselves? Either way it feels really inadequate.
The guy at the top of Take Em Down Nola, Malcolm Suber, wants to go nuclear and remove all the Confederate associated names from the streets of New Orleans, like Galvez, Governor Nicholls, etc. I think that’s kooky but it’s the only logic I can get behind. (Nobody said any of this was logical. Or should be.) He’s the guy who showed up at the Andrew Jackson statue with a bunch of people and ropes. He also said of the monuments, according to the New York Times, ‘Instead of just taking them down, Mr. Suber, an African-American activist and organizer, would like to see the city pass out sledgehammers and “let everybody take a whack — just like the Berlin Wall.”’ If I felt like that were a popular opinion and it could be achieved without too much collateral damage I’d have to support it. It is, however, a controversial opinion.
This was a lot to write to essentially say: I don’t think it matters much what happens. Taking down the statues will hide history but not change it, racism won’t end. Maybe we want to hide history from ourselves. Will it make us less fearful? It might. Maybe the old canards about knowing history and repeating it are wrong. Maybe Henry Ford was right when he said “History is bunk.” (Maybe he meant the history people are taught is bunk.). But I don’t guess leaving them up helps anybody but these Arkansas folks who are suddenly full of purpose. Without the statues down here maybe they’ll stay up in Arkansas, doing community activism for the benefit of all. Polishing their own Confederate statues.