The Seduction of Silence
Everywhere you look, everything you read, and almost everything you hear these days regards either the existence or the removal of iconic historical monuments to those who fought for the losing side in our “long national struggle.”
Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis, Gens. Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson and many other leaders of the fight against Northern oppression were and are remembered by stone and metal monuments, throughout the south and across the land they once fought for. These monuments aren’t restricted to museums and cemeteries, either. They stand or are mounted on horseback in public spaces like parks, courthouses and city hall entrances.
Our own local icon to national jurisprudence, former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, once gazed across the fountain and gardens of Frederick City Hall and sat on the graceful lawn of our historic State House in Annapolis.
Justice Taney’s hawkish image is now relegated to storage, his once famous visage now hidden from prying eyes by tarps thrown over his statue. It’s almost as if removing his monument wasn’t enough, they had to cover him up like an obscenity.
The City Hall bust was yanked out by a local monument company, in the full light of day. The Frederick City Mayor and Board of Aldermen held public hearings and workshops, and both sides were given ample opportunity to voice their opinions.
That rational process played out long before a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters at a rally in Charlottesville, VA. The rally had been organized to protest efforts to remove a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from public display.
Rally organizers included hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and neo-fascist groups like the American Nazi Party. Any time these idiots gather, it entices their opposite number from the left to gather, hoping for a physical confrontation, or at least a lot of media coverage seeking a physical confrontation.
In Charlottesville, they achieved their goal. Both sides came prepared for battle with pepper spray, baseball bats, axe handles and 2’x4’ boards. As the two sides were in the midst of a pitched battle, a car driven by a 20-something white racist from Ohio roared through downtown Charlottesville and into a crowd of counter protesters. A young woman named Heather Heyer died under the wheels of this monster’s automobile.
Suddenly, the Civil War monument removal argument had a new martyr. Ms. Heyer, 31, who just joined a rally to lend her voice to a chorus claiming that symbols of the Southern rebellion are not universally embraced, now becomes the face of any arguments in favor of erasing the remaining objectionable remnants of our history.
Not that taking down a statue actually alters history, far from it. One might argue that hiding these monuments actually encourages ignorance.
Philosopher and writer George Santayana told us all about the dangers of ignoring the lessons of history. Hiding faces because we don’t like that person’s contribution to our national history is a recipe for repetition.
The left’s reaction to the horrors of Charlottesville is both predictable and objectionable. As with past race relations matters, leading liberals, and the media through which they communicate, immediately adopted the position that anyone who defends these historical monuments must be a racist. It’s like a rhetorical political neutron bomb, call someone a racist and they have no valid retort.
Sadly, there really is another valid argument. It doesn’t take a historian to plead the case for maintaining these Civil War figures as a visible part of our public artwork. Walk past Stonewall Jackson astride his trusty steed Little Sorrel with your child, and you can explain the conflict, it’s basis in the South trying to protect it’s “peculiar institution” of slavery (if you believe that) or state’s rights (if you believe that). Either way, what a great teachable moment!
Now, you’ll either have to visit a museum or Civil War battlefield, because this trend of monument removal is just getting started. Soon, there won’t be any of these structures left. Most will disappear in the dark of night, without the benefit of a public debate. That’s being done to avoid competing crowds of protesters, reenacting scenes like Charlottesville.
Elected officials and civic leaders would rather avoid controversy than try to manage it, whether avoidance makes sense or not.
The dividing line in these arguments mirrors our national political divide. Liberals support erasing these images from the national conscience. Conservatives are appalled that we have to go to that length to accommodate a vocal minority of the population.
Some of us are just nauseous over the whole thing. We see that a black American might be angry about having to gaze upon Lee, Jackson or Taney in the public square, especially in places where “justice is blind,” but not really. We don’t necessarily think the statues should all be removed, but we’re comfortable with an open, honest discussion between good people who disagree.
The anger, the hateful rhetoric and the threats of retaliation – political or otherwise – prompts us to keep our opinions to ourselves.
Staying silent in this environment is seductive.