Life is funny. Turn back the clock and tell twenty-year-old me, “Girl, someday you are going to defend Confederate General Robert E. Lee.” That Jersey girl would dismiss you with a short, sharp, two-syllable sentence, a sentence I cannot reproduce in a family-friendly essay. When I was young, I felt about the South what all liberal people around me felt about the South. “Ew.”
There’s a process that sociologists call “othering.” One attributes positive qualities to oneself, and attributes the opposite of those qualities to the group one “others.” I knew that people from the New York metro area were the smartest in the country. People from the South were stupid, and probably infested with cooties. The mere thought of Southern food was nauseating. What did they eat? Possum and cornpone. The Beverly Hillbillies ate possum. Truth to tell, I had no idea (and still have no idea) what “cornpone” is. If I ever moved so much as one toe into Dixie, I’d be arrested by a cop speaking with a thick drawl and wearing mirrored sunglasses. I’d receive no Constitutional protection and would rot in jail where I’d have to sing Negro spirituals I knew by heart from listening to my mother’s LPs. All morality stopped at the Mason-Dixon Line. They did bad things down there. Dark, twisted things. While playing the banjo!
Remember that famous slap that Sidney Poitier delivered to the face of a Southern white man in the groundbreaking 1967 film, In the Heat of the Night? My mother and I witnessed that slap together in a movie theater. She loved seeing American oppression topple. She was a big fan of Paul Robeson, an African American Jersey boy who had made it all the way to Mother Russia.
I vividly remember a journalistic discussion during the Civil Rights Era. It went something like this: “When we report violent crime, we often identify the race of the criminal. By doing so, we associate the words ‘black’ and ‘criminal’ in the mind of our audience. We want to eliminate that association. Therefore, in future news reports of violent crime, we will not mention the race of the criminal.” A similar discussion took place, a few years later, around the words “Palestinian terrorist,” and then, later, “Muslim terrorist.” Journalists decided that they would just use the word “terrorist.” Later even that word, “terrorist,” became suspect. It was changed to “militant.”
A very different policy reigned when it came to the South. Journalists, scholars, artists, and ministers were eager to use their power with language to brainwash us into conflating the South, Southern culture, and Southerners with racism. As Shelby Steele has described, in a rapidly secularizing America, racism took the place that sin used to occupy. You could, like Bill Clinton, commit a mortal sin – adultery – and still be president. You couldn’t, though, as Eisenhower and LBJ allegedly did, be thought to use the N-word and survive politically. The South became our national cesspit of sin.
Thousands of years ago, following a lengthy and painstaking ritual described in the Mishnah, Jewish priests laid all the sins of the community on a goat. They adorned this goat with a scarlet, woolen thread, lead into him wilderness, and threw him off a cliff. The high priest prayed, “Oh Lord, I have acted iniquitously, trespassed, and sinned before you. I and my household … Oh Lord, forgive the iniquities, transgressions, and sins … On this day he will cleanse you from all your sins.”
Modern, secular liberals, no less than ancient Israelites, believe in sin. That sin is racism. Unlike the ancient Israelites, liberals do not confess their own sins. They confess others’ sins. Liberals, obeying urges even more primitive than those described in Leviticus, select the South as the goat. At least the ancient Israelites confessed their own sins before sacrificing a goat. Remember: othering is all about creating and then emphasizing opposites. When a liberal stands up in public and scapegoats the South and Southerners as racist, that liberal is publicly identifying himself as not racist, as, in fact, the opposite of racist – as pure. This scapegoating rewrites history, and erases any slaves that lived up North. Liberals locate all sin in the sin of racism, and locate all racism in the South. More on this selective outrage, below.
Metonymy is one linguistic tactic that serves the scapegoating of the South. In metonymy, we take one property we associate with a larger idea, and use that property to indicate the larger idea. For example, we use the words “Wall Street” to refer to all bankers.
“Birmingham,” the name of a Southern city, site of a 1963 church bombing; “redneck,” a word for a poor Southern white whose neck is red from working in the fields; “mint julep” or “moonlight and magnolia,” which now refer to improper romanticization of the antebellum South, and denial of the harshness of slavery; “cornpone,” which has come to mean “rustic, unsophisticated;” Bluegrass banjo music, which filmgoers inevitably associate with the anal rape in Deliverance: all these previously neutral words and cultural markers are now metonyms. We can use them as powerful, shorthand invocations of demonization and scapegoating of the entire South, every Southerner, and every aspect of Southern culture, from food to music to people.
Metonyms bypass rational thought. They immediately set off little explosions inside our brains. We feel emotions before we can think thoughts. Mere mention of the word “Birmingham” does not bring to mind a city with a history and decent citizens who are more or less just like us. Mention of “Birmingham” immediately brings to mind the horror of the 1963 church bombing that took the lives of four little girls. In our minds, when we hear the metonym “Birmingham,” it is always 1963, and black lives are always being sacrificed by powerful white supremacists.
In their defiant song “Sweet Home Alabama,” which tried to take on and defeat scapegoating of the South, Lynyrd Skynyrd mentioned Birmingham, but their song was not powerful enough to rewire our brains. When we hear “Los Angeles” we don’t immediately think of the on-camera torture and attempted murder of white truck driver Reginald Denny at the hands of black criminals. When we hear “Knoxville” we don’t think of the torture-murder of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsome. When we hear “Birmingham” we do think of the bombing. The South has lacked the cultural clout to defeat its scapegoating, and the reduction of its cultural markers to metonyms that evoke images of racism and racists.
How did I get here? How did I mature from a brainwashed girl who thought the South was the geographic embodiment of evil into a woman who resists demonization and scapegoating of the South? I went to graduate school. One of the first things my professors and peers learned about me is that I am working class, Catholic, and Polish American. These are not good things to be in graduate school. I was assumed to be stupid, unclean, and racist – because of my class, religion, and ethnicity. What I thought of Southerners, and for the same mental processes of demonization and scapegoating, my grad school betters thought of me.
In the same way that markers of Southern culture are used as code to communicate “racism,” markers of my culture were used to communicate the same sin. Words like “hardhat,” “blue collar,” “factory worker,” “church-going,” and even just the word “Poland,” were not neutral communications of actual realities in all their complexity. These words were metonyms used to scapegoat and demonize. Being treated like a leper in grad school provided me with many “Aha” moments. Here’s one. I was at a party in Berkeley, chatting with a new acquaintance. We were hitting it off. I asked her name. I recognized it; she was a potential employer to whom I had sent my resume. This liberal Berkeley professor said, without any shame at all, “Oh, you’re her? I got your resume a while back. I took one look at your name at the top of the resume and threw it away. I immediately imagined some surly, stupid, heavily-accented Eastern European.” She laughed. She thought it was funny. Here she was discovering that I could eat with a knife and fork.
Yes, yes, yes, you may be thinking. Americans do stereotype the South. So what? There are good reasons for removing Lee’s statues.
Okay, let’s look at some cold, hard facts. The American Institute of Architects list the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC fourth on their List of America’s Favorite Architecture. In 2016, the Jefferson Memorial welcomed three and a half million visitors. It is the third most popular presidential memorial, more visited than Mount Rushmore. My visit was a religious experience. I read, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” It was as if I felt Jefferson’s immediate presence. In his courageous commitment to human freedom, Jefferson was my ally and kin. He remains my favorite Founding Father. Without him, I do not see my America coming to be.
The neoclassical Jefferson Memorial is patterned after the architecture of Monticello, a slave plantation. When he was 44, Thomas Jefferson, historians say, and I believe, raped his 14-year-old slave, Sally Hemings, his deceased wife’s half-sister. Hemings bore six children to Jefferson, all of them slaves. This Jefferson is my enemy.
If we employ a scale that measures human failings, and apply that scale’s report to which monuments we keep and which monuments we gauge out, that coldly rational scale offers us no reason to keep the Jefferson Memorial and tear down a statue of Robert E. Lee.
Andrew Carnegie is the eponym of New York’s Carnegie Hall. Carnegie made much of his immense fortune off Bohunks like me. During the 1892 Homestead strike, Carnegie’s people murdered my people. One account reports, “The Hungarians, Slavs, and Southern Europeans … were a savage and undisciplined horde, with whom strong-arm methods seemed at times indispensable.” Savage and undisciplined. Use us, defame us, and kill us. This history hurts me. I feel no need to tear down Carnegie Hall. Carnegie gave away 90% of his fortune – $80 billion in today’s dollars. Carnegie funded three thousand libraries. I love libraries. The world is a complicated place. The world’s complication is larger than my pain.
This is what maturity demands: that I recognize that the unique heroism of Thomas Jefferson gave me my country, and that that same man was imperfect in the way that other men of his time were imperfect. John Adams, his contemporary, utterly rejected slavery. I admire Adams, but he did not give me the Declaration of Independence.
I know a man, Otto, who has had to travel this route to maturity in his own life. In unguarded moments, Otto, perhaps without even realizing it, has expressed real love and admiration for his father. His father was strong, hard-working, and a skilled iron worker. Otto’s father abused him in ways too painful to detail here. In fact, Otto’s father was a Nazi. Otto writes about the unique challenges of coming to term with an abusive, Nazi father in his essay “Ripples of Sin.”
Otto’s father was unique in his life. No father, no Otto. Thomas Jefferson is unique to me. No Jefferson, no America. These men’s unique gifts demand that we react not only to the horror we feel at their crimes, but, rather, that we incorporate everything we feel about these men into our final analysis. When we do this, we mature. We see not only Jefferson and Otto’s dad in new and deeper ways. We also see ourselves in the only true source of light we can shine on ourselves if we want to be grown-ups. In my worst moments, I have been as bad as Jefferson in his worst moments. I want to overcome what is worst in me and live up to what is best in me. Knowing the dark truths about Jefferson, and feeling an overall tingle and tearing up when I think about the words in his memorial, bring me closer to being my best self.
What about Robert E. Lee? Is he unique in some way that requires us to mature to the point where we can tolerate his statue in our midst? Lee is not important to me, a Yankee, but Lee is uniquely important for Southerners.
Lee was “The Marble Man,” one who disciplined himself ruthlessly in order to perform with the perfection that he demanded of himself and others. He shone at West Point and earned accolades in the Mexican-American War. His immediate family and in-laws included people who broke the law to educate slaves, and raised money to free slaves. In an 1856 letter to his wife, Lee wrote, “slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former.”
In an 1861 letter to his son, Lee wrote, “As an American citizen, I take great pride in my country … I can anticipate no greater calamity … than a dissolution of the Union. It would be an accumulation of all the evils we complain of, and I am willing to sacrifice everything but honor for its preservation. I hope, therefore, that all constitutional means will be exhausted before there is a resort to force. Secession is nothing but revolution.”
After being invited to serve the Union army, Lee paced back and forth during the day and prayed at night. He could not take up arms against Virginia, his home state. He commanded Confederate forces, and became the bloodiest general in US history, losing the largest percentage of his men. The carnage saddened him. Lee “aged twenty years in twenty months.” When loved ones saw recent photos, they thought it could not be he. He suffered a heart attack in 1863; some theorize this affected his performance at Gettysburg. In spite of ill health, he soldiered on to the bitter end.
Anyone with any human depth can only reflect when contemplating Lee’s biography: what would I have done? What would you do if you had sworn to uphold the Constitution, and given your life to being a perfect patriot and soldier, and your home state, imperfect as it was, was invaded? We must acknowledge that it would be a damnable choice guaranteeing nightmares either way.
The irreconcilable facts of Robert E. Lee’s biography – patriot, traitor; compassionate patriarch who lead a record of young men to their deaths – emerge from the chaotic, multidimensional, whirling fan of real life. Liberals demand that we view the South and indeed America only through the lens of condemnation. Real life shatters their command. Life’s complexity emerges in shards that we must rearrange as our compassion and depth allows.
I don’t know, but I do guess, that many Southerners who cherish Robert E. Lee’s statues do so for the following reasons. Their conquerors continue to depict them as lowlife scum. In him, they see an honorable man who excelled at everything he put his hand to before the Civil War. They see a man who was not an unambiguous champion of slavery but rather, like all of us, he was a person who was born into an unjust world he could not single-handedly fix. A man who hoped that the passage of time would resolve the world’s problems. They see a man whose decision to fight was informed primarily by his attachment to his home.
Look, I’m not a Southerner. Why should I get worked up about liberal discourse about statues of Robert E. Lee? Because that discourse is a microcosm of how the left insists we talk about America. Leftists in power distribute glasses through which I am ordered to see my own identity and my own history. I must see America and Christianity as oppressors. Any nuance is denounced and punished. I am not allowed to feel proud or to acknowledge success. I am not even allowed to see shades of gray. I am denied respect and compassion for my fellow countrymen with whom I disagree.
This enforcement of a rigid, monochrome view is in stark contrast to how liberals manipulate narratives they choose to privilege. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have attempted to make palatable even the most extreme jihadi atrocities with references to the Crusades. On February 3, 2015, ISIS released a meticulously produced video of the burning alive, in a cage, of captured Jordanian pilot Muath Al-Kasasbeh.
President Barack Obama responded to ISIS’ hideous crime, on February 5, 2015, two days after the snuff video’s release. Americans were waylaid by horror. They looked to their president for moral and strategic guidance. Obama’s response is breathtaking. Obama told Americans not to exercise a “sinful tendency” to “get on our high horse” and judge ISIS torturers. Don’t be “so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us.” Don’t think that “somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.” Rather, Americans must “start with some basic humility” Obama counseled against any criticism of Islam, mentioning how wise the Founders were to create, “freedom of religion.” Free speech, also granted by the Founders, must not be used to criticize Islam. We must “stand shoulder-to-shoulder” with Muslims.
Nowhere in his almost three-thousand-word speech does Obama thoroughly and unambiguously condemn the immolation of Al-Kasasbeh. Rather, he condemns “slavery and Jim Crow.” There you have it, ladies and gentleman. Are you upset, shattered, even, because you have just watched an innocent man burned alive in a sadistically choreographed freak show? Well, then, your president just told you that you should condemn slavery and Jim Crow. All sins are located in racism. Racism is located in white Christians living in the American South.
Obama also mentioned the Crusades and Christians who “committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Scholar Bernard Lewis has pointed out that these references to the Crusades are illogical on a couple of points and obscure rather than illuminate. No matter. Mention any jihadi crime and some liberal will pipe up, “The Crusades!”
Liberals demand that we acknowledge the complexity of life and human motivation when it comes to jihadis. Liberals demand that we exercise humility and show compassion when confronting jihadis’ unspeakable crimes. Liberals forbid us from doing this work when it comes to the South.
The left’s draconian approach to the South is a recipe for continued conflict. Liberal Seattle, Washington, hosts a massive, sixteen-foot-tall statue of Lenin. For me and others whose loved ones survived the Soviet Empire, Lenin is the architect of our Hell. I think, immediately, of the Katyn Massacre, when Soviets shot 22,000 captured Polish army officers in the back of the head and buried them in mass graves. If I lived in Seattle, I would not work to tear down Lenin’s statue. I would work to educate the citizenry so that they wanted to tear it down themselves.
I would do this – work respectfully for grassroots education and popularly-supported change – because when the hand of Big Brother reaches down from above to erase people’s popular history, things end badly. If there is one thing that the French Terror, Nazism, and the twentieth century’s People’s Revolutions have taught us, it’s this. The self-described pure ones who erase the past and begin anew with a sparkly new calendar are those most likely to fertilize the earth with more human corpses than she can rapidly consume.
As someone who has written a prize-winning book addressing WW II, I’ve often tortured myself and others with this question: what was the final match that touched off the conflagration? If I could turn back time and change just one detail, I would eliminate the Versailles Treaty’s imposition of financial reparations on Germany. That stipulation contributed to many average Germans feeling misunderstood and dominated. Hitler gorged on those feelings. Had Germans not felt so humiliated, Nazism would have lost appeal. We should respect Southerners and their understanding of their history for our own good. We should push for change with patience and compassion – the same patience and compassion that liberals demand for ISIS murderers.
Who celebrates most joyously when a Lee statue is taken down? White supremacists. Nothing polarizes people and inspires them to man the barricades like the feeling that they are under attack by others whose goal is, effectively, to erase them by rewriting their history. “You will not replace us,” chanted protesters on May 14, 2017, after the sale of a Lee statue in a Charlottesville, Virginia park. If you don’t want to empower white nationalists like Richard Spencer, then don’t communicate to Southerners that you want to erase them.
The attitude informing Southern monument removal is triumphalism: “We won, you lost; we are good, you are bad; shut up and let us tell your story in a way that makes us heroes and you villains.” Here’s a typical sample of triumphalist rhetoric: Lee was a “traitorous inbred coward and terrorist” and Southerners “were evil. Period.” For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Triumphalism is a provocation: “I’m shoving you because I want to shove you, but I’m also shoving you because I’m spoiling for a fight. When you push back, I’ll get the fight I crave.”
The Left’s selective application of respect, patience, and compassion, combined with the Left’s selective outrage, vitiates and disgraces any attempts leftists make to fight racism and slavery. If you have never condemned slavery as it exists today, including among Muslims in African states like Mauritania, you have never condemned slavery. If you care only about racism and slavery committed by white Americans, you really don’t care about racism or slavery. You care about demonizing and scapegoating white Americans. You are merely exploiting natural human repugnance at injustice to advance your campaign of hate against white American Christians.
In May, 2017, while journalists were recording every detail of New Orleans monument removal, another story broke. This story received a fraction of the attention. A low-caste woman in Haryana, India was gang raped, mutilated, and killed. Her body was left for dogs to consume.
There are an estimated 160,000 million Untouchables in India. In all my years of being a meeting-attending, petition-circulating, protest-marching leftist, I never heard a single one of my comrades breathe a single word about the caste system. Borders did not stop us; we were devoted to resisting apartheid in South Africa and many are obsessed with Israel’s every misstep. Untouchable women raped; Untouchable children used in human sacrifice: unworthy of leftists’ concern. “Racism,” leftists guarantee, is a word we associate with the American South.
There’s a final reason monument removal bugs me.
The other day I was walking down a narrow street in Paterson, NJ, a majority-minority city, and one of America’s ten most unsafe small cities. Paterson children are among the most likely in the nation to grow up in single-parent households. It is a heroin hub. A 2016 study found that only seven percent of Paterson’s high school students were college-ready. Mayor Jose Torres was recently indicted for corruption. Paterson’s streets are notoriously strewn with garbage.
I heard loud beeping and impatient yelling. I saw the source: a black man was sitting in the middle of this narrow street. It was rush hour. At least twenty cars were backed up behind him.
I approached the man. “Are you okay?” I asked.
He moved slowly and with apparent difficulty. Perhaps he was having a heart attack, or stroke. Perhaps he was on drugs. “I’m fine!” he snapped.
I was not convinced. “Can I help you?” I asked.
I walked away. I walked away because I am white, and the man was black. If I risked helping him, I might touch him. I might call the police. With any of these actions, I risked being interpreted as a stereotypical, racist white.
I bet that man has no idea of the monument removal controversy. That controversy has no impact on his life. Those cheering on monument removal would probably not be caught dead in his neighborhood. After years of observation, and participation in, left-wing fixes for the underclass, I have become convinced that conservative thinkers like Shelby Steele, Walter E. Williams and Thomas Sowell are the ones offering real help to people like the lost and desperate black man sitting in traffic. Making headlines out of antiquated monuments is just more Kabuki-theater virtue-signaling, just another attempt to tell a story that does not advance black people’s lives.