23 December 2017

Who's Winning the Confederate Monument Debate? Part 1

The monument debate falls into two categories: remove or keep (though some actually prefer destruction). When considering just that aspect, the answer to the question is rather obvious. Many Confederate monuments, as well as some to other Americans, have been removed. Buildings, schools and roads have also been renamed. I suspect this trend will continue to one degree or another. But if we drill down deeper into the discussion on monuments, the answer to "who's winning?" becomes a bit more complicated.

The remove folks certainly are winning the emotional and political debate. The results speak for themselves. But what about the intellectual and serious historical debate? I would proffer the remove argument is losing. There is substantial evidence to support my argument.

First of all, numerous polls reveal a sizeable majority of Americans are opposed to removing Confederate monuments. That majority is even greater when the question goes to monuments to Jefferson, Washington and other historical figures not associated with the Confederacy.

For example:"A majority of Americans think Confederate monuments should be preserved in public spaces, according to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, a view that is at odds with efforts in many cities to remove them."

And a NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll that . . .

"asked voters if Confederate statues should remain or be removed. Sixty-two percent of the poll’s participants said that the statues should remain. Only 27 percent of the participants believe the statues should be removed." 
"Only 27 percent . . . believe the statues should be removed." Not even 1/3 of those polled. Given the barrage of negative news about these monuments, that is rather stunning.
Even in some urban areas like Richmond, Virginia where one would assume the vast majority of liberal leaning voters would favor removal of "offensive" monuments, a majority are opposed to such removal.

As dramatic as those polls are (given the anti-monument media frenzy), the numbers are even more lopsided when it comes to monuments related to the Founding Fathers. A recent Breitbart article cited a Rasmussen Poll:
Ninety percent of the 1,000 likely voters in the August 17 to August 20 poll opposed the removal of Washington or Jefferson from the Mount Rushmore monument as they were asked: “Two of the four presidents honored on Mount Rushmore were slave owners. Should that monument be closed or changed?”
When asked “Should George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s names be removed from public places and statues in their honor taken down?” 88 percent said the monuments should be conserved, and only 7 percent said they should be erased.
So, if you remove the politicians, the media and progressive historians, it's quite clear that the "remove" side of the argument has clearly lost the debate in terms of the viewpoints of the majority of Americans. It's really not even close. But what about the historical and intellectual arguments; setting aside the polls, politics and emotional arguments for the moment? Again, it would appear the remove side loses handily. The first case in point:

The Civil War Times recently (October 2017 issue) published the opinions of their advisory board and "highly respected scholars and authors" regarding the monument controversy. Their answers ran the gamut but a clear majority favored keeping the monuments in place. Let's parse some of their comments and boil them down to the essentials . . .

First we hear from the director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War (Shepherd University), James J. Broomall:

"The removal of Confederate monuments troubles me as much as the destruction of a historic building or the total 'rehabilitation' of a battlefield." Mr. Broomall continues and falls in line with the current negative narrative in vogue suggesting these monuments may carry a "dangerous message if they remain silent." I'm not quite sure what he means by that but, bottom line, he does seem to come down on the side of "keep" with added signage and "additional memorials."

Next up we hear from Catherine Clinton who is a historian at the University of Texas:

While Professor Clinton acknowledges the "remove" arguments, she too seems to favor keeping the monuments in place:

"Perhaps we would be better served by funding counter-monuments . . . shared spaces can become places where conflicting interpretations of circumstances might be highlighted."

Next, the CEO of the American Civil War Museum of Richmond shared her thoughts. However, Christy S. Coleman's contribution sounds more like a publicity statement for her museum than an opinion, pro or con, regarding Confederate monuments. In other words, she takes no position and plays it safe. (That's not a criticism, just an observation on my part.)

Professor and Civil War author, William C. Davis chimes in with his opinion stating, "Removing statues in New Orleans  and elsewhere is unfortunate, however understandable." I would consider that a "keep" position. Professor Davis goes on to note changing demographics and politics and the impact this has had on the debate. He astutely points out: "Confederates represent a part of our history. Judge past figures by today's values, and our Capitol's 'Statuary Hall' would become 'Empty Statuary Hall.'"

I think Professor Gary Gallagher next gives the most detailed opinion and solution and the one (except for "contextualizing") that I find myself most in agreement with: "In my view, eliminating parts of the memorial landscape is tantamount to destroying documents or images--all compose parts of the historical record and should be interpreted as such. I favor adding text that places monuments within the full sweep of how Americans have remembered the Civil War. I also support erecting new monuments devoted to previously slighted groups or events."  Another "keep" vote.

Historian Lesley Gordon of the University of Alabama is a "remove" vote. Without quoting his remarks, I found them rather shallow but they are in step with most of the political wrangling in favor of removal.

Retired Gettysburg National Park historian, D. Scott Hartwig, like others acknowledges that the history associated with some monuments are "for some, painful." But he tempers this acknowledgement with a reality: "Monument removal, however, becomes more problematic when we apply it to any monument or memorial associated with the Confederacy, as if by removing these symbols we can somehow repair the past and heal wounds. . . . It seems more likely to heal one wound and open another. . . . Rather than tear down monuments, build new ones, where appropriate that tell the story of those who struggled bravely for freedom and equality." Another astute defense for "keep."

Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer then compares removing "Confederate tributes" to "destroying artworks that may have both historical and aesthetic value." Holzer also notes, correctly, that some of these statues, like the ones on Monument Avenue in Richmond, "surely deserve to survive as stellar examples of American sculpture." Holzer continues noting that, . . . even Stalin did not order the destruction of the great statues of the czars in St. Petersburg . . . " Holzer admits he "remains torn" so in reading his complete thoughts, it would appear he really did not want to commit either way. Again, not a criticism; just my observation.

Next up is the always colorful, Robert K. Krick who needs no introduction. He begins his contribution with: "We live in an age riven by shrill and intemperate voices, from all perspectives and on most topics." Krick then takes a swipe at those who have used this topic for their own, self-righteous moral preening: "A casual observer, readily able to convince himself that he would have behaved similarly in the 1860's, can vault to high moral ground with the greatest of ease. Doing that gratifies the powerful self-righteous strain that runs through all of us, for better or worse. In fact, it leaps far ahead of the Federal politicians (Lincoln among them) who said emphatically that slavery was not the issue . . ."

Krick then lobs a dead cat into the moral reformer worship service: "It is impossible to imagine a United States in the current atmosphere that does not include zealots eager to obliterate any culture not precisely their own, destroying monuments in the fashion of Soviets after a purge and antiquities in the manner of ISIS. The trend is redolent of the misery that inundated the planet during the aptly named Dark Ages, arising from savages who believed, as a matter of religion in that instance, that anyone with opinions different from their own was not just wrong, but craven and evil, and must be brutalized into conformity."

I believe we can confidently consider Mr. Krick to be solidly in the "keep" camp.

Following Mr. Krick is West Point Museum curator, Michael J. McAfee. Mr. McAfee would be 180 degrees from Mr. Krick. McAfee labels the Confederates "traitors" (a rather shallow opinion when one considers the loyalties of 19th century Southerners.) But that's a post for another day. McAfee states that "monuments marking their participation on the battlefields" should be left alone. But that undermines and contradicts his whole premise. If they're "traitors", then why should there be any monument to them on any American battlefield? That's seems to me rather absurd on its face. He then states, "tear down those that only commemorate the intolerance, violence, and hate that inspired their attempt to destroy the American nation." McAfee is a solid "remove" (with the exception of graciously allowing the "traitors" to be commemorated on American battlefields).

Next we have the opinion of Mr. Joseph McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project. McGill leapfrogs right over the Confederate monuments and goes after the Founders instead: "This nation was founded on an underpinning of slavery . . ." He then condemns both Jefferson and Madison for their involvement in slavery. Despite this opinion (and it IS logical if you hold the same opinion of Confederates), Mr. McGill states his position clearly: "That said, I am in support of Confederate monuments remaining on the landscape. . . . In this sanitizing of history, we will eventually get to our Founding Fathers [many already have], some of whom were slave owners. How would Washington D.C. look without the Washington Monument or the Jefferson Memorial?" It is a question I've not seen any of the loud "remove" voices in the blogosphere answer. McGill is a solid "keep."

Next we have Independent Scholar and author, Megan Kate Nelson. Ms. Nelson offers what is arguably the most extreme (and absurd in my opinion) suggestion I've read to date: "I would like to propose that Confederate memorials should neither be retained nor removed: They should be destroyed, and their broken pieces left in situ." Nelson further states this destruction should be government sanctioned and local citizens allowed to use a "cudgel" to participate in the destruction. (I'm not sure why she prefers a cudgel - which is most often a short stick or club - to a sledge hammer, but I assume she has her reasons.) No need to go further. Her suggestion is problematic for a whole host of reasons and I assume readers are well aware of those reasons. I'll count Ms. Nelson in the "remove" column.

Following Ms. Nelson is Profess or History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Professor Ethan Rafuse. Professor Rafuse begins by stating: "I respect the sacrifices and hardships of the common soldier of the Confederacy endured, and the character and military skill of some of their leaders, while also disagreeing with those who wish to pay homage to the cause they fought for." He also adds, ". . . I cannot help but think the time and energy being devoted to the removal of monuments could be spent in more constructive ways." Rafuse raises other valid points as well. I'll count him a "keep."

The next opinion offered is by Thomas V. Strain, Jr. who is Commander in Chief of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Frankly, I have to say Strain seemed to blow an opportunity to present a valid argument for keeping Confederate monuments and statues. His remarks were little more than shallow sound bites though he is, of course, in the "keep" column. He is correct in stating, "it is obvious that only a few people actually support the removals."

Finally, we have University of Southern Mississippi Professor of History Susannah J. Ural who also lands in the "keep" column. Professor Ural seems to take a middle of the road approach, i.e. put the monuments in museums and battlefield parks "where historians and interpreters can help visitors learn about the motives behind the Lost Cause." Those motives are more complicated than many modern historians seem to be willing to be able to discuss without extreme criticism from one side or the other, so I don't see that as a solution. I consider Ural a "remove" vote.

So, from one of the most respected and widely read Civil War publications we have the opinions of 15 "highly respected scholars and authors" regarding the removal of Confederate monuments. Of those 15, we have a solid majority of 9 who are either clear "keep" votes, or who lean heavily that way. We then have 4 who favor removing and 2 who did not take a position either way. That's a 2 to one majority. And, as previously pointed out, polls show an overwhelming majority of Americans prefer to keep Confederate monuments in public spaces.

So I ask  again, "Who's winning the monument debate?"

(Part 2 to follow soon. Stay tuned.)

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