Just up the road here sits the city of Baltimore: population about 620,000 and steadily declining. It has, according to Wikipedia, the most number of public statues and monuments per capita than any other American city. But as of the time of writing this piece, the number of those monuments has been dropped by four. Perhaps some may consider this an insignificant number in comparison to the volume of existing memorials—after all, in the city of monuments, the public square could spare a few of them, right? That dodges the point, of course, but then again, what is the point? Why bother tearing down the statues in the first place?
The demolition of statues and defacement of memorials is a hallmark of violent regime change. In general, this sort of behavior is used by groups in an attempt to control the flow of information. Memorials, after all, exist to keep within human memory that which they memorialize. Tearing them down, removing them, or attempting to limit their exposure or modify their appearance all constitute attempts to change whatever the present historical narrative is. That said, this still can be understood in two general ways: demolitions done by those already in power in order to consolidate their grip on the rest of the country, and demolitions done by a population recently liberated who wish to overturn the present narrative. I’ll cite a couple examples using the same recognizable regime.
Bolshevism destroyed much of the Russian people in material and did long-lasting damage to the Russian soul. The attack on Russia by Soviet socialism was not per se an internal threat that raged within every Russian man. It was not religious in nature. The Bolsheviks were not the end result of a gradual shift in the Russian social state. Violent revolutions, by their very nature, are not such things. Gradual shifts manifest in political displacement and, if it comes to violence, the violence remains limited in scope and sector. But the overthrow of the Czar, the murder of his family, the destruction of Russian tradition, the subsequent civil war, and the institution of the horrific Soviet regime all imply a limited group of people desperately trying to maintain their grip on centralized authority. Understood this way, it is impossible to view the Soviet regime a regime that anyone who wasn’t a Soviet actually wanted—it was certainly not one that the impoverished Russians, who constituted most of the Russia, actually wanted.
So with this in mind, the erection of memorials glorifying Stalin, Lenin, Marx, Pavlik Morozov, and countless faceless tributes to the mobs of mythical communist workers all represented the regime’s attempt to legitimize their narrative. Tearing down those statues was not merely an act of spite against the previous regime, it was an admittance that the Soviet propaganda system did not work as advertised. Stalin was glorified only on the lips of populations who had guns to their heads. Lenin was only saluted to ironically by Russians too drunk and depressed to put up a fight. Ripping it all apart was the Russian’s soul reasserting its place in history, after having been crushed beneath the oversized heels of a small ruling elite class.
Contrast this practice with the earlier attack against the Orthodox Church during the revolutions. Imagery and icons were destroyed not out of an earnest reassertion of cultural identity, but out of the intent to stamp out that identity and supplant it with a politically-charged alternative narrative. The difference is crucial. Although both instances of demolition are manifestations of opposing groups vying for power and altering the flow of information, only one of them acts in accordance with vox populi and the substantive culture of the people. The other goes directly against the grain and attempts to nullify that culture, but it has nothing—only bureaucracies and confused philosophical jargon—to replace it with. In other words, the latter misses the point: culture cannot be legislated into being or administrated by fiat, it is the unconscious groundswell of the society—the very air that your ideas float around in. Attacking the culture again and again will certainly change it, but it won’t force it in the direction which it is attacked. Attacks on culture split culture, if long enough in persistence and duration; split cultures, if left unchecked and un-mended, eventually become separate and irreconcilable social organisms. It is only when a single nation’s people has become so irrevocably split in such a way that internal violence becomes long, violent, and bloody warfare.
With this in mind, I address this worrying debate over the place of Confederate monuments in American public spaces. It is true that the Confederacy lost the Civil War, obviously. It is true that a key pillar the Confederacy’s economic platform was the preservation of their ‘peculiar institution’, and in fact, a key pillar of their political platform was the denial of slaves any claim to the dignity of citizenship for so long as they remained slaves. It is true that racism was alive and well throughout the American continent, particularly in the South, during the century that the War took place.
But none of this makes a difference. Attributing to the Civil War memorials the same intent that stood behind the Soviet memorials is an act of historical illiteracy, both in terms of what the Confederacy represented and in terms of why the monuments were erected in the first place. The Confederacy did not fight on the sort of baseless ideals that powered the intelligencia of the Bolshevik partisans; for the CSA, the Civil War was an attempt at a second American Revolution. They sought to reinstitute the Federalism, trade policies, and democratic ethos of the social state that the founding colonies had originally went to war in order to defend some ninety years beforehand. A multitude of factors drove the rebellious states into all-out secession and war, and it took generations for the matter to degenerate to such a degree. Of principle concerns were these: the overrepresentation of Northern legislation in Washington, the levying of tariffs that disproportionately impacted Southern economies for the worse, and the fear that Northern abolitionists sought to overturn the evil cornerstone of both the Southern economic model and their cultural life.
But it is more than economics that drive countrymen to kill each other. There had been a divide in their cultures, present even at the Union’s conception. Tocqueville speaks of this at some length, anticipating the struggles—though perhaps not their severity—some forty years before violence became the only answer. The point of all of this is that the Confederacy did not arise as a centralized minority attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of an entire population of people. Southern men were not forced at gunpoint into armies and then sent to their deaths in labor camps if they dissented. There was a distinct sense of consent among those who were wielding the rifles, and not to be ignored, there was also a distinct sense of respect for their opponents on the battlefield. At least at first.
So the people whom these statues stand in memorial of are not cut from the same totalitarian cloth that draped about the sculptures of Soviet squares. The Confederacy stood directly against regulation, centralization, and the apotheosis of the State. In many ways, it stood so far against these things that it turned out to be a logistical nightmare that, had it survived the War, would have required radical restructuring in order to survive the first tax season. It did not seek to impose a new metaphysic of Man, its revolution did not look to overturn the traditional order of things, and it did not intend to resort to genocide in order to achieve its goals. It was not a powerful minority who hijacked the political order in an attempt to change the social order. It was, in fact, the exact opposite of that.
This brings us to the monuments themselves. Though erected in the public square, at times with public funds, but often with private, what purpose are the monuments supposed to serve? The CSA did not win the war, so they cannot serve to reinforce the Confederacy’s propaganda. A case can be made that they were intended to service the narrative that survived the war—a narrative serviced by the disastrous handling of Reconstruction, the state-mandated and spiteful institution of the Jim Crow laws, and the formulation of the Klu Klux Klan as a militant wing of the Democratic party, to name just a few. But such a case ignores who, exactly, these statues are depicting. Robert E. Lee was not an ideologue, he was a general and a pragmatic military tactician, and the same could be said for any number of military leaders who were immortalized in granite and bronze. Even the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was not particularly ideological and administrated primarily according to practicality. Theoreticians and naïve revolutionaries had little room to maneuver in the Confederacy. All of this, coupled with the sheer volume of different figures that were immortalized, should make it clear that the Civil War monuments were not attempts to canonize leaders according to what they stood for. It is the Marxist attempt to create narratives which results in heroic statues of Lenin standing as referents to his genocidal ideals, in part because, when it comes to the famous Marxists, the people themselves were scumbags. The more traditional route, and in fact the route taken by the monuments of the Civil War period, was to create sculptures that evoked the memories of what these figures actually did. It is somewhat typical of American cultural identity to respect the fallen adversaries by keeping their names alive in society, either in the form of geographic formations, memorial structures, or—as is the case with countless Indian tribes—multi-million dollar helicopter gunships. A similar principle is at work here.
Of even greater importance is that, unlike the cases of the Indian conflicts, the Civil War was fought internally. Both sides attributed to themselves the label American, even if they distinguished it further with labels like Dixie and Yankee. They were fighting their fellow countrymen, not exterior threats that were dangers to their civilization or way of life. For them, the danger to their way of life was part of their own country. The struggle was a violent dialogue over the nature of Man and the nature of government, but it was not a political argument at heart. It cost some six hundred thousand lives, four years, immeasurable wealth, and countless untold tragedies whose echoes resonated for the next hundred years, and all in order to answer the question: can the Dixie ethos live within the same Union of States as the Yankees? And ultimately, the answer was yes, although both sides had to cede ground in order to make it possible. Shelby Foote, author of one of the landmark histories of the Civil War, remarked in 1994 how the divisiveness between the North and the South was quelled only by a great compromise. Not unlike brothers that have tired each other out from brawling in the mud, neither side wanted to admit that it was entirely in the wrong, but both sides were willing to admit that the other was probably right.
This makes it extraordinarily difficult to paint merely one side or the other as distinctly evil. But because of this, it cannot be said that the Civil War monuments glorify institutional racism in the way that Soviet monuments glorified nihilistic centralized authoritarian control. Civil War monuments were not erected to tower over the people and remind them of their sins; they were erected out of respect for the history.
What this means for today, as a significant part of American culture legitimizes Marxist attempts to tear down our history, should be getting clearer to anyone who hasn’t caught on yet. For now, these Leftists claim to want them merely out of the public sphere. “Put them in museums,” they argue, because these statues are little more than historical eccentricities. The Confederacy was vile, they believe, horrible, and we’re so much better than those white slaveholders now, so the statues of Lee and Jackson can be sequestered away in a history museum next to the cousins of Australopithecus and the wax recreation of the Whiskey Rebellion hillbillies. Memory can be preserved in the archives that no one goes into anymore, and it should be hidden away in museums curated by people sympathetic to the Leftist ideologies. The public square, they’re telling us, has no room for memorials to our own country’s history. It should memorialize vague notions of internationalism and it should have space for abstract art—the former of which merely confuses onlookers while the latter stands as testament to only one artist’s incredible vanity. But most importantly, the public space should not have space for public consciousness. What can define a nation if not its people’s history, which provides the framework for their public consciousness? Where can a people’s consciousness be inferred if not in its public spaces? History is not found in museums; it’s found in the stories passed on from one generation to the next. And it’s not respected in textbooks; it’s respected in the monuments the civilization has decided to erect. The museums and textbooks are simply ways of trying to understand the cultural history that is kept alive within the spirit of the society.
But already some on the Left want to come for Washington’s statues, and soon Jefferson and Lincoln and all the rest will follow. The country should be awake by then, and if they aren’t stopped at that point, then expect to see more major monuments destroyed and legacies forgotten. The racial injustices found at the genesis of the American experiment will be used to bludgeon Americanism into submission. This violence against our past will continue to escalate. Everyone knows this by now. What the Leftists underestimate, however, is the general resiliency of the American spirit when it comes to the influence of postmodern collectivism. We are entering a period of tribulations, however, with worrying statistics of youth who actually buy into all of this nonsense.
Nonsense it remains, however. In the end, Truth always prevails, sooner or later.