Using History, Historic Symbols and Power

New Orleans is going through an upheaval. It is not the only place where the upheaval has taken root, but it is one of them. And that upheaval deserves our attention.

The upheaval is over statues.  More specifically, it is over public monuments to leaders of the Confederacy, such as Robert Lee and Jefferson Davis.  Here is Robert Lee, formerly a general of the Confederate army, standing proudly at the top of an enormous column in New Orleans

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and down he comes

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And here is Jefferson Davis, formerly president of the Confederacy

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And down comes old Jeff Davis

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The arguments for taking these monuments down is straight forward. The men they commemorate were traitors to the Republic who led the fight to secede from the union rather than allow a president to come to power who dared to talk about slavery.

But why are these statues coming down just now? After all, they have stood there for many, many years. The answer to that question is a bit more subtle. The monuments were erected after the civil war by local folks who identified with the above-mentioned leaders even though the cause they had espoused had been lost. Even though fighting for such a cause had led to unimaginable devastation. Erecting the monuments demonstrated defiance and local pride in certain traditions.

I use the phrase “certain traditions” as sort of a grab bag of values. Some of those values were and are undeniably honorable. And even the most fierce defender of the union had to recognize that the United States needed and needs local pride in order to move forward. So the monuments were accepted. Unfortunately, at least one of those values is undeniably dishonorable. The dishonorable one was and remains the continued insistence on white supremacy over blacks.  That insistence was institutionalized in slavery. But abolishing slavery did not destroy the value that made slavery possible.

Blacks have by and large allowed whites to get away with expressions of that dishonorable attitude for a long time. But more recently, media attention given to police killings of young black men has changed the equation. Equally so, the cold-blooded murder of a congregation of peaceful black worshipers by a young white man who was spurred on by racial hatred has changed the equation. Blacks have started to realize that symbols do matter. They empower. They legitimize.  And if blacks are to ever get beyond being stigmatized, those symbols will have to be removed.

At the end of the day, we know intuitively that this is all about power. Not just who has the power, but what legitimizes power. Rules do not legitimize themselves. Legitimacy is conferred by something more important. Something that we cannot easily see until it is disturbed. Call it social cohesion. Or call it community values.

And from time to time, these legitimizing forces are disturbed. We are living in such a time now. As we do so, we may be surprised by the passions that the disturbances unleash. And we may not like the fact that those passions distract us from day to day peaceful routines. Too bad. We will have to re-establish a consensus on what we accept as normal before we can go back to living normally.

This consensus relates to more than just race relations. Americans are these days prone to a certain amount of arrogance based on the notion that the country is supremely powerful in commercial and military terms. And the exercise of American power around the world in places like Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria seems normal to us.

But it is odd that as we intervene, we are blind to the notion that deploying American military forces does not automatically legitimize the power structures that the military is trying to impose.  Local peoples have their own reasons for either allying with or resisting American military intervention. And it is those local reasons that will, in the end, determine who will prevail.

It is very odd indeed that Americans seem not to realize this because that is how America became a country in the first place. Local reasons versus the might of the British empire.  And it is odd because America just recently experienced how local reasons in Vietnam intensified and prolonged a military conflict that we expected would be easily won. And it is odd that only a few Americans now are working on the local reasons why terrorist organizations flourish in crisis zones.

It is less odd that the reasons why Americans suffered such a devastating civil war back in the 1860’s still resonate.

This quote from an American military man about the so-called “war on terrorism” says quite a lot

“We just can’t keep killing our way out of this problem.”

That makes sense to me. People fight for reasons and ending the fighting means understanding and addressing the reasons why conflicts fester. But will this idea inform policy makers like Donald Trump? That is less clear.

Stay tuned.


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