Sunday, August 27, 2017

Statues of limitations


IT’S BEEN A rough year for the bronze and limestone paragons of the old South. Partly as a reaction to the horrific events in Charlottesville, S.C. on August 12, and partly the result of people fed up with having the agents of some of the worst of human behavior vaingloriously rammed down their throats, the statuary commemorating the leaders and soldiers of the Confederate States of America are getting a makeover across the country. Let us count some of the ways:

On Aug. 13, a 105-year-old Confederate statue in Atlanta, Ga., was spray-painted and physically damaged by protesters reacting to events in Charlottesville, CBS News reported.

On Aug. 14, In Durham, N.C., a monument to a Confederate soldier was pulled down Saddam Hussein style, the whole thing videotaped for posterity at its location, in front of a government building.

On Aug. 15, in the city of Baltimore, Md., in the dead of night, city officials conducted a statuary surgical strike, a quick broad-brush removal of several Confederate statues, from several different locations, more or less at once. The Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument, on Mount Royal Avenue? Gone. The Roger B. Taney Monument, at Mount Vernon Place? Absent. The Lee-Jackson Monument? If you haven’t seen it already, odds are now, you won’t. Same for the Confederate Women’s Monument, on West University Parkway.

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On. Aug. 15, faced on one side with obeying a law barring removal of rebel memorials and abiding the wishes of the citizens on the other, the city of Birmingham, Ala., concealed a prominent, 52-foot-high Confederate monument with plywood.

Aug. 17 was an especially busy day in the annals of racist tribute desecration. The Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway monument in Gold Canyon, Ariz., was tarred and feathered, the New York Daily News reported. A Confederate monument in Phoenix was spray-painted the same day, AZCentral reported.

A Confederate statue outside the county courthouse in Leesburg, Va., got hit by American graffiti, a scrawl that read “You lost,” The Washington Post reported.

Also on Aug. 17, the visage of Confederate icon Robert E. Lee was defaced at the chapel on the campus of Duke University.

Days later, on Aug. 19, the university chose to remove the limestone statue altogether. In a letter to students and staff, Duke president Vincent Price said he took the action “to protect Duke Chapel, to ensure the vital safety of students and community members who worship there, and above all to express the deep and abiding values of our university.”

And on Aug. 23, the city council of Charlottesville, Va., voted to shroud two statues, of Lee and Gen. Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson — an act almost certain, eventually, to precede their outright removal. Other monuments to the Confederacy have been concealed, vandalized or brought down altogether in Washington state, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, New York, and other states.

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IT’S HARD to know exactly when a society (or the culture that animates a society) comes to clearly decide that a given way of doing things no longer works, no longer makes sense, no longer enhances the life of the collective (if it ever did).

We’re at that point when it comes to the Confederacy. The wider national culture, ever subject to change, has nonetheless crossed a tipping point on homage to the renegade states of the Civil War.

Maybe it’s a consequence of the unromantic times we live in, but wistful longing for the quaint trappings and hoop-skirted deceptions of the era of the Peculiar Institution is under fire — has been, incrementally, for generations, as progress and time marched on, the surviving soldiers of the Confederacy died out, and 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained stripped away the storied gentilities of the Old South where it really resonates: at the movies.

Over recent years, and certainly in recent months, the unthinkable has happened: Bringing down the iconographic infrastructure of the Confederacy is now a Thing. It’s a touchstone of the time, a statement, it’s cool, it’s correct (not politically but humanistically). It’s not just tolerated; in a time of rampant Trumpian relativism, opposing the symbols of our national dalliance with barbarism is one of the few comforting moral absolutes we've got left.

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People are increasingly willing to express the belief that they see no gray area on this; visible stands against the Stars and Bars and what it represents aren’t revocable. Just like the white supremacist fash bros at the tiki-torched march in Charlottesville discovered after losing their jobs and apartments and friends when the pictures went viral — you can’t hide where you stand.

That’s as true for anti-Confederate protesters as it was for the opposite number. And for those against the social normalization of the Confederacy, they’re taking a visible stand on humanistic principles, one they’re perfectly comfortable with, and one that our society generally approves of. That makes it easy for people to do. Again and again and again.

There’s been a furious debate about HBO’s planned 2018 series Confederate, which will reportedly speculate dramatically on a United States in which the South won the Civil War. While the particulars of the series are nothing but speculation right now, it’s the premise — slavery in modern-day America — that’s got people angry and concerned.

But the what might be of a TV show years from today can’t supplant the power of what is, at this minute: a movement to render obsolete the emblems of the worst that’s within us. Erasing American history isn’t so much wrong as it is impossible. Almost as impossible as people of conscience not resisting that loathsome history in its bid to become our latest, tragic, current event.

Image credits: Lee-Jackson monument removal: Denise Sanders/Baltimore Sun. Robert E. Lee statue (detail): Duke University. Monuments map: The New York Times. Publicity still from 12 Years a Slave. Confederate protest protest: @ianbremmer.

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