Watching a Confederate Monument's Removal: One of Many Battles to Come in a Nation of Alternative Facts
I arrived at Lee Circle just before 10:15 on the night before the statue was scheduled to be removed. Amid the smells of cigarette smoke, the street, sweat, and the murmur of bad historical arguments beneath the beating of drums, I glanced up at the likeness of Lee cast against the fast-moving clouds of a humid New Orleans night. As I stood there looking at the oxidized face of Robert E. Lee illuminated by the blue strobe of police lights, I realized that one day we will have to do the hardest thing a previous generation can do for a rising one: give them the proper context. America doesn’t really do well with context.
In this current round of the debate about Confederate iconography, context is lost. There are no participation trophies in the South; they are victory trophies celebrating the collapse of Reconstructed governments. The Lee statue, the first of the four monuments, was erected in 1884; and the final monument, to P.G.T. Beauregard, was erected in 1915. The dedications of the four monuments are book-ended by the 1883 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the section of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that made racial discrimination in any public accommodation or service illegal and the release of the film "Birth of a Nation" in 1915. The film sparked the resurgence and rise of the Ku Klux Klan to a national political power and terrorist group. The context makes it clear that these statues enshrine a promise to maintain white supremacy; and if one looks around Louisiana and America, that promise has been kept.
The removal of the monuments has its own less discussed and more urgent context. The national push toward the removal of Confederate icons was sparked by the murder of nine black worshipers by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. What makes the situation in New Orleans different is the earnest and confrontational support the removal effort has received from progressive white quarters in the city, especially in anti-fascist circles. Why has this topic been adopted with such passion in white quarters, whereas in past years it would have been considered a peripheral issue at best? The answer is clear: Donald Trump was elected president, and this has created a consciousness in white progressive America that has not been seen in generations.
White America is at war with itself and is torn between a social justice ethic that seeks to let go of privilege and an anti-social justice ethic, which seeks to hold on to privilege for as long as possible. This ideological and increasingly physical conflict goes beyond the well-trodden “culture war” framing and goes beyond the white community itself. We are in the midst of a clash of civilizations, to invoke Samuel Huntington’s notion.
In a world of “alternative facts,” the statues are historically and politically contextualized as monuments to war heroes. “Alternative facts” is not a new concept in American life, and the Confederate monuments are evidence that this idea, which elected a president in 2016, is inter-generational. Progressives, especially the white ones, have identified protecting Confederate iconography with support for Donald Trump’s vision of America. In removing the monuments, a powerful message is being sent to Trump’s America: Your civilization is about to fall, just like these monuments, and our time is finally at hand. Both sides of this current controversy get this message. The clash between supporters and opponents of the removal is not a battle over history; rather, it is a battle over the future.
My campus sits on St. Charles Avenue and is a short streetcar ride from Lee Circle. As I write this, the last Confederate monument in New Orleans is being removed. I have more questions than answers, and an uneasiness concerning what will come next. I wonder what will happen when the statues are gone. I wonder what I will tell my children when they ask me about this time in America. I wonder: What will be the next battleground in America’s clash of civilizations, and who will win the war in white America—and what will that mean for the world?