Sandblasting History

A call has gone out to eradicate the carvings on the face of Stone Mountain in Georgia.  The work depicts Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis, presumptive heroes of the Confederacy. In the wake of movements to remove Confederate iconography from government buildings, parks, and other, especially federal, properties, this would seem to be another symbol of the co-called Lost Cause in need of removal.  Sentiment is running high on both sides of the argument and a quick read of the issues would suggest that, yes, this ought to be removed.  It’s in a public park, supported by tax dollars, and represents three personages one could easily label traitors to the United States.  As far as it goes, I have no quibble with the labels.

The carving is another matter.  On Facebook I recently opined that this is like the Taliban blowing up the Buddhas in Afghanistan. An extreme comparison, perhaps, but the more I think about it the more I’ll stand by it. In a few centuries or more, when all this is part of some dusty chapter in history books with little left to stir the blood, it may well appear more like the usual eradication of the loser’s history by the victors.  A history people then might well be annoyed at not having to hand.  It will by then just be an interesting carving.  The politics will likely have faded into quaintness (we can only hope) and the judgment will be that temper trumped reason and a work of art was destroyed to appease the passions of the moment.

I doubt that argument would have any traction with either side just now—those wanting it effaced who see it as emblematic of current (and past) injustice and those wanting it preserved feeling their heritage is being tossed aside with no regard for feelings.  My suggestion that preserving for a later time when it has lost all immediate meaning may seem facile and probably will find offense on both sides—those who may see my position as a negation of their outrage or those who see my demotion of its symbolism to mere novelty over time.

But what about all those other emblems being removed?  What about that?  Well, what about that?  They’re being removed, not destroyed.  Those who appreciate them will not have lost them, but they in fact have no place as part of the representative symbols of our country.  The Confederacy was a rebellion against elected authority, it lost, and is now gone.  Heritage is a personal thing but it has a public function, certainly.  However, public heritage is a matter of democratic symbolism, not the maintenance of symbols of a presumed right subsequently proven nonexistent.  A government building may (and does) have as part of its function to represent a national mythology (and when I use that word I intend no denigration, but rather a definition that what is being represented is a distillation of feeling, committment, and identity that transcends mere event, indeed which exists usuall in spite of event) relevant to us all as a commonwealth.  However earnestly it may be construed, the Confederacy represents nothing we are required to preserve in any positive iconography.  Its existence was a perversion of the core beliefs informing the Union as codified in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  It could well be said that the Civil War represented the final referendum on the principles espoused in the Constitution, and those principles won.  This is the reality with which we live today.

I digress, but with purpose. The symbols of the Confederacy are being removed from government property, finally relegated to places and in the keeping of hands with no official function in the representation of the United States.  Removed.  Not destroyed.

I think that is a very important distinction.

Destroying monuments is, in my opinion, like burning books.  Even something as vile as Mein Kampf I would refrain from destroying.  Destruction like that—the purposeful attempt to eradicate a symbol of history—invites a peculiar kind of martyrdom.  It makes the symbol into something it did not start out to be and gives it new life and meaning.  It becomes a different, though kindred, cause celebre and then you have to figure out how to fight that new fire.

Kemal Attaturk wanted his country to be secular, out of the hands of the imams.  He knew better than to destroy the mosques, because then he would have created a monster he could never kill. Instead he turned them all into museums. Nothing was destroyed but they lost their power to fuel rebellion.  When the Soviet Union fell, all the statues and monuments were taken down.  A few may have been destroyed, but officially they were all simply removed and placed in a kind of graveyard where they have become the ghosts of a discredited era.  Not symbols of a lost cause waiting to be rallied around.

It would be best if the Stone Mountain carving could be removed.  Hard to move a mountain, though, so it becomes a thorny logistical problem.  Maybe the state could auction it off to a private owner.  But I would rather it remain to outlive its putative symbolism than be sandblasted and thereby become, Phoenix-like, a symbol for a renewed set of tensions.

When the Taliban dynamited those Buddhas, the world was shocked.  Attempts had been made to dissuade them.  The Buddhas had for most the world long since ceased being religious icons and were just seen as art.  It was senseless to destroy them, especially out of the anger of a shortsighted ideology that will likely fade into oblivion in time.  By the time the Taliban have become a footnote in a history text for all their other crimes, the destruction of those Buddhas may continue to represent everything about them.  We rightly decry the loss of so much art at the hands of missionaries burning their way through Central and South America.  The brilliance of church art from the Middle Ages has few examples remaining in place because of the temper of the iconclasts of the Reformation and the Clunaic movement.  All these people thought they were fighting evil and by their lights were right to eradicate these symbols.  They did cause themselves more problems by so acting, sometimes in the short run, often enough in the long run.

To be clear, I have zero sympathy with the romanticism of the Confederacy and the dewy-eyed revisionism of the antebellum South.  It is accurate to say the seceding states committed treason.  I will take my lead from Lincoln, though, who did not and would probably not have gone there.  Hard as it was, he saw them as misguided, strenuously arguing a case that had no merit but needed arguing.  The aspects of Reconstruction that exacerbated the animosities the War created probably would not have been part of his policy had he lived, but by treating them as, in toto, traitorous states in need of occupation and “rehabilitation” created the subculture which today struts like a barnyard cock with nothing to do but crow and has become fodder for opportunistic politicians feeding on the poorly understood sense of victimhood based on borrowed wounds.  Rather than give them one more thing to be angry out, it would be better to simply ignore them until they become a forgotten irrelevance.  The pathetic attempt to assert the secession was all about “state’s rights” rather than slavery is so clearly an attempt to rewrite history—history which is right there in all the various declarations of secession, justification number one, the presumed right to keep their slaves—that it would be sad if it weren’t getting people hurt on the streets.

Make Stone Mountain into a teachable moment.  Put up a sign right there that says “These Three Men Acted Stupidly In Support of an Immoral Cause” and talk about it.  And talk about the people who can’t see the truth in that claim, the people who erected a monument to stupidity.  That might serve our purpose much better than just erasing them.  Because we’ll do that and then many of us will assume the argument is over and then later be very surprised to find out that it was only the beginning of a new one based on the same old tired ignorant nonsense.

Finally, if we’re going to get all righteous about Stone Mountain, maybe we might consider that the original owners don’t think too much of Mount Rushmore.