Sanitizing History: New Orleans Removes Confederate Statues

The city of New Orleans is removing four statues of Confederate icons, and this move has prompted tense protests and raised complex questions about federalism and freedom of speech.  A statue of Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis was removed under the cover of darkness – beginning at 3:00 AM – by work crews that hid their faces behind masks.  Two more statues in the city will be removed shortly, but nobody knows exactly when and where work crews will descend. 

Both supporters and protesters of the removal were present in the pre-dawn hours, separated by police officers. Fortunately, no violence erupted, and the process occurred without undue drama.  Recent drives to remove Confederate statues, monuments, and place names throughout the South have met with both support and protest, usually falling along partisan lines. Republicans tend to view demands to remove Confederate imagery and names as political correctness and top-down oversight run amok. Democrats support such moves as important to reduce hate speech and remove “rallying points” for racists and xenophobes. 

Should cities and states be pressured from outside to remove historical monuments that glorify unpleasant and controversial parts of their respective pasts?

Few members of polite society would argue that we should fight to keep statues of Confederate generals and political figures, but there is a danger in trying to remove relics of the past. Even though statues honoring the Confederacy may generate strong emotions, many of them negative, removing them may lead to something worse than anger: Ignorance.

Similar to liberal initiatives to remove unpleasant speech on college campuses, ostensibly to create “safe spaces” where students can be free from “triggering” experiences, trying to erase the legacy of the Confederacy could hinder democracy, pluralism, and freedom of expression. It stifles debate, which is decidedly un-American. The stifling of debate can also backfire by allowing extremism to percolate behind the scenes, hidden from view. When nobody can speak of it in public, it may strengthen in private while its foes forget about it.

Removing the Confederacy from public view makes it easy for the public to forget about it.  Already, our culture is woefully weak when it comes to knowledge of history: In schools, the field of social studies has become watered-down almost to the point of irrelevance. Obsessed with math and science, we have relegated subjects like History and Government to little more than babysitting. In Texas, a proposed House bill would remove the approximately 70-question U.S. History exam, the passing of which is required for graduation, with a 10-question quiz taken from the U.S. naturalized citizenship exam.

The new test will be much easier to pass and further erode our society’s average knowledge of history and civics. And, make no mistake, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.  Forgetting the evils of slavery and segregation, epitomized by the Confederate States of America, only means that such ills can rear their ugly heads once more. It begins, as many problems do, through complacency.

With no more Confederate statues dotting the landscape, we are allowed to avoid talking about the ills of the Confederacy and Jim Crow. Over time, because we have stopped talking about these ills, we begin to forget about them. We forget they were problems.

Years later, when an extremist in the South does begin praising segregation, the public will not react with sufficient disdain. Alarmingly, many citizens may even be supportive of the concept if the extremist is eloquent and couth. Many decades removed from formal segregation, and no longer hearing much about it in school, people could be easily manipulated to support ideas like “voluntary segregation” to avoid “racial tension.”

If people no longer understand the historical horrors of racism and discrimination, they come to view them as innocuous. 

The South may indeed remove its homages to the Confederacy, and to the Jim Crow era, but outsiders should not be too hasty to demand their removal. Not only will removing the harmful images of our past prevent us from learning from our collective mistakes, but we may strengthen the supporters of such harmful images by invigorating those who thrive under a persecution complex. When racists and xenophobes can argue that they are under attack, particularly from social and geographic outsiders, they draw strength from playing the victim.

When the general public has long forgotten about racism, discrimination, and segregation, the racists and xenophobes will have not. And, with no icons of our society’s past mistakes left to educate and inform the public, it will be harder to repudiate the more eloquent among the racists, xenophobes, separatists, and extremists. We need to keep the past alive enough to reference our strengths and our weaknesses and show where growth has occurred.

Removing our past also tacitly absolves those who perpetrated its ills. As a society, we should not forget what millions allowed to transpire. If we don’t know what was wrong, then are we really right?

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