Dan Popp
These dishonored dead
By Dan Popp
August 21, 2017

The current fever to tear down statues of Confederate Generals – and others, possibly yet to include the Founders of the country – is a study in mass hysteria.

These statues are "reminders of racism!" some wail.

But does anyone really believe that Robert E. Lee had a statue erected in his honor because he held certain beliefs about race? Clearly the General was not being memorialized because of how he felt about "people of color." (By the way, he was against slavery.) Why then was he so honored?

Well, that question is the whole point, isn't it?

That's the purpose of a statue or a plaque or a public memorial: To get you, the ignorant passerby, to ask, "Who was this, and why did someone believe him worthy of a statue?" And when you read the inscription and perhaps do some research, you've taken a step out of the darkness of ignorance into a little bit of light about the man or woman, and the noble quality that he or she was thought to exemplify.

So the war on statues cannot be a war on racism, since the subjects were not memorialized for their views on race. The war on statues is a war on knowledge, and a war on nobility. It's a war on knowledge because that's why statues are put up: to inform future generations. And it's a war on nobility because the statue represents not Lee-as-Lee or Jackson-as-Jackson, etc., but some noble part of the person that we should study and emulate.

If we can only make statues of perfect people, then we we'll only have statues of Jesus, who doesn't like graven images.

How far is the current madness from the attitude of Abraham Lincoln. In his speeches and correspondence Lincoln seemed to look past the war, to a time when America would have to be reunited. He tended to talk about both sides as if they were the same (sound familiar?).

In July 1863, in a bloody 3-day battle, the Union repulsed the Confederate army at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In his famous speech dedicating the cemetery there, President Lincoln made no distinction between the brothers in gray and the brothers in blue; he even took pains to include both "the living and the dead" as worthy of memory. To quote just a part of that Address,
    The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion....
"These honored dead" included the Confederate dead. While the war still raged.

Lincoln, Grant and others on the Union side didn't dehumanize their foes as is common in war today. They recognized such qualities as honor, valor and nobility, even in their enemy. To a Northern solder his Southern counterpart may have been dead wrong in his reasons for fighting, but to fail to recognize his good human traits would have been to lose something human in himself.

At that time, long forgotten now, the American mind was capable of holding two seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time: This man is morally wrong / This man is in some ways better than me.

It should be a cause of wonderment for us to come across a Confederate statue. In what other country has a defeated foe been honored? Why did post-slavery America permit it? Why not erase all memory of the Confederacy then, when the wound was fresh, if erasing memories is such a good idea? What kind of men and women were these, who saw elevated human qualities even in enemy leaders? And what kind of foes were these who inspired such statues, sometimes against their will? Surely they weren't just one-dimensional evil racists, honored for their hatred?

The mob tearing down monuments will never ask such questions, and they will do their best to prevent succeeding generations from asking them.

© Dan Popp


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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