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Bulldozing Monuments and the War on American History

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Editor’s Note: The following is a debate with Timothy Sandefur of the Pacific Legal Foundation over the New Orleans City Council’s December 17, 2015 decision to remove four monuments relating to the Confederacy. Read Sandefur’s article here.

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On December 17, the New Orleans City Council voted to remove four Confederate statues from the city, using obscure “nuisance” laws to strip these over 100-year-old historic monuments from their places of display. Mayor Mitch Landrieu said it was a “courageous decision to turn a page on our divisive past and chart the course for a more inclusive future.” Of course, the plan to remove the statues is itself divisive as a number of preservation organizations have filed lawsuits to save the monuments.

The New Orleans statues to be removed are of General Robert E. Lee, General P.G.T. Beauregard, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The city will also remove an “obelisk dedicated to the Battle of Liberty Place” according to CNN. The Lee and Beauregard statues are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The most controversial of the monuments on the chopping block is the Battle of Liberty Place monument—dedicated to a Democratic white supremacist paramilitary group that fought the state and federal government during Reconstruction. But an adjacent commemoration was constructed in 1974, which states, “Although the ‘battle of Liberty Place’ and this monument are important parts of the New Orleans history, the sentiments in favor of white supremacy expressed thereon are contrary to the philosophy and beliefs of present-day New Orleans.”

There are times when it is acceptable for monuments to come down: Americans tore apart a statue of King George III during the Revolution, Lenin and Stalin statues were destroyed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and most Americans today remember the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue during the second Iraq War. These were all revolutionary events in which an old regime was entirely replaced by a new one, a clean break with the past.

However, the war on Confederate monuments is part of the most recent effort by national activist groups to strip elements of American history deemed offensive and not in line with their current, ever-evolving political agenda. They wish to do more than create a new political order, and insist that the only way for the U.S. to move forward is by entirely erasing the past.

The anti-Confederate monument activists are not just setting their sights on the Confederacy, but American history as a whole—deep down they make little distinction between the Confederate founders and the Founding Fathers of the United States. There are plenty of reasons for critics–both contemporary and modern–to attack the Confederacy, especially the ideas that were at its cornerstone. Yet neither the ideas nor the personal character of the monuments’ likenesses are particularly relevant in this crusade. All that matters is that they are currently politically incorrect.

Those who argue to remove the Lee and Davis statues, for instance, claim that the two illustrious men were traitors and not even from New Orleans, so the statues are inappropriate on those grounds. However, this is clearly not their real standard. The statue of Andrew Jackson is next on next on the agenda, yet Jackson saved New Orleans from British capture during the War of 1812 and was one of the staunchest unionists, known for his famous phrase, “Our federal union, it must be preserved!” He had deep ties to New Orleans and was the furthest thing from being a secessionist. But Jackson owned slaves and killed Indians in war, so he must be purged alongside Jefferson Davis. Similar arguments can be made about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and a never ending list of now unacceptable historical figures.

America doesn’t need a whitewashing of history, it needs a renewed commitment to the leaders and inspiring people, heralded and unheralded, who made this country what it is today–and an understanding of those who may have caused it harm. New monuments and reinterpretations of the past will undoubtedly arise, but this should not necessitate the bulldozing of priceless and irreplaceable works of art.

The current efforts to fundamentally transform history are fueled by people who believe America has been rotten since day one and want nothing less than total political and cultural revolution. It would be a travesty and a foreboding sign for America’s future if there is no attempt to preserve these monuments against the push of a temporary majority or—more accurately—an incredibly vocal and insistent minority.

In the last few years alone, leftist activists have been relentless and often successful in their pursuit of dismantling this country’s past in an attempt to recreate the nation in their own image. Amongst many other examples they have attempted to remove: Alexander Hamilton from the $10 bill, Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson from annual Democrat Party dinners, President William McKinley’s name from Mount McKinley, and even progressive forefather Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton University. And perhaps most disturbing of all is the effort to dig up Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife from their graves in a park in Memphis, Tennessee. Even the dead are not allowed to rest.

For the modern Robespierres there is simply no difference between the ideas of Thomas Jefferson who wrote that “all men are created equal” and Confederate founders such as Alexander Stephens who claimed that “our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”

Backers of the movement to eradicate the Confederate monuments in New Orleans claim it is an attempt to bring unity to the to the now mostly-black community, yet it does the exact opposite. As Ian Tuttle wrote in National Review, “The Left’s Confederate-eradication frenzy is not meant to promote healing or encourage dialogue but to enforce conformity,” he continued. “…the goal of folding up the Confederate battle flag — or discarding a bust or renaming a school — is not to facilitate racial unity by minimizing the visibility of potentially hurtful displays. The goal is to impose a uniform ideological perspective on dissenters.”

When this agenda is stoked and accepted, monuments will increasingly face a permanent and revolving ideological test, subjected to destruction after sudden shifts in power and minor changes in the cultural milieu.

New Orleans suffers with rapidly climbing murder and crime rates, some of the worst roads for a major city in the United States, unsafe drinking water, and sky-high levels of debt. It is only now starting to build an effective system of education based around school choice, after scoring among the worst in the country for generations. Is the crusade to remove the monuments going to change any of this or fix racial tensions? No. And it will come at a great additional cost.

A city that struggles to fill potholes should perhaps be focused more on the immediate problems at hand than demolishing century old statues. As Ellen Carmichael noted in National Review, “One New Orleanian said he spoke with a contractor who said that the cost to remove just the statue — without its foundation — and store it for a single month would top $1 million. This could instead be used to pay for the salaries for 228 new police officers during that same period.”

If Americans continue to back down to the relentless attempts to erase our history—essentially everything that falls outside of the constantly shifting and increasingly narrow band of ideas acceptable to the modern intellectual left—there will not be merely fewer statues of Robert E. Lee and old Confederates. There will be little of this country’s history and ideas left to protect, reflect on, and uphold. We will live in an intellectual and moral wasteland in which the only views deemed acceptable to express or examine come from the loudest and most indignant purveyors of social justice haunting college campuses.


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