The Myth of Moral Superiority
Searching for nuance where it has never served our most immediate, individual ends… and why it is most necessary…
“…the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.” So said the now removed Battle of Liberty Place Monument that stood until April 24, 2017 in the city of New Orleans. So, let’s start at the beginning. Are we talking about “white supremacy” in the sense that white people are better than everyone who is not white, or are we talking about “white supremacy” in the sense that white people had control over everything? Regarding American governments, or I should perhaps say regarding that which governs America, the latter has always been true, to a large extent, from the moment of the country’s founding right on until now. The former, as a pesky point of scientific fact, has never been true in any form ever. A monument attesting to the facts of white control may be distasteful but, given the context wherein it was erected, it is difficult to call it inaccurate, or incorrect. From the time the white man arrived on the continent with a propensity for either exploiting or exterminating anybody who wasn’t he himself, he has been as in control as anyone ever was anywhere, and arguably, more or less, still is… To call it “wrong,” or “right” is a moral judgment that has to do with the pollution of facts by opinion, and the pollution of opinion by need; our problem in a nutshell. On the other hand, however, a monument that stands as a means of assuring the citizenry of a city in an American democracy, the majority of that citizenry being black, that white people were at some point somehow factually established as superior beings, or that they remain so, is not only specious in the extreme, but there isn’t a tenable argument that can be raised against such a monument’s removal.
It’s just bad luck for the Confederate apologists — most of whom, by this point, are honestly, deeply ignorant of the hard facts in the case of Southern racial violence and oppression — that the presence of this hapless little monument and the wording inscribed upon it seems to bespeak both superiority of power and superiority of being. It’s bad luck that neither is a comfort to the majority of New Orleans’ citizens who are, one, not cozy with the idea of white people’s purported superiority, and two, fed up with the endless bias of white American control. So down with it. And to those who would attempt to posit an argument to the contrary there is very little to say. It’s like talking to the Taliban about the sanctity of religious doctrines other than fundamentalist Islam. Any argument posed could only be self-serving – that’s what all arguments of this sort are. And while one is welcome to seek refuge in the delusion that they are part of some “species” of human that is qualitatively ascended, truth, democracy, and anything like an even playing field will not assist them. As time trudges ahead, the argument, and its manifestations, and its monuments will needs be prosecuted by one form of blunt force or another. And the only response to it will ever be blunt force in return, “Fuck you. Get an intellect. Grow up and join the 21st century.” So yes… Fuck you, and fuck the Battle of Liberty Place Monument.
We will go nowhere on this immutable point of contention, and I am willing to accept that sad fact, when between us it arises. There is no useful discussion to engage when a person’s premise, however absurd, defines his existence and to concede it would mean conceding his very being. Men kill one another for less. In such a case I can only let democracy, if it is working, sort it out and, in the case of the Battle of Liberty Place Monument, it has. But because we are us, it can never end there. Government by the people only works if a citizen is informed, not only of the facts in whatever the case, but if he is also able to determine through self-analysis what is truly necessary to all, and what is needful only to himself and his tribe.
Three more monuments were removed from the city’s sight in the months of April and May. They were monuments to men — men having all been adjudged perpetrators of the crimes of the Confederate South — and Mayor Mitch Landrieu made the final condemnation of them and their effigies in a somewhat windy speech on May 19, 2017. In his speech, he speaks of these men as “being on the wrong side of history and humanity,” and refers to the Confederacy as a “4-year brief historical aberration.” In a culture where platitudes have become the language of the self-serving self-righteous, he can be forgiven for being no different from anyone else. But we are in history. Not only do we make it, but it makes us. It happens as a result of our actions, and we react to its happening because we are reactionary beings. And there it is, in all its untethered, inevitable motion. There is no one side or the other of it that we can possibly stand on. We make our human choices in the moment of history that we find ourselves, based upon the circumstances that confront us, and are whisked along with it. We trundle along the space/time continuum like a bunch of drunken dumb-asses, occasionally “fixing up” one thing just to blindly fuck up three or four others, each of us individually able to nominally discern some blurry semblance of right from wrong, but cumulatively inept at determining a direction, how we will go there, or what it is we will demonstrate by our aiming thither. The war between the states was no more aberrant than any other political schism born of people’s divergent beliefs, in turn born of people’s divergent perceptions of needs. It was no more aberrant than a country of drunken dumb-asses who, in a combination of ignorance, self-service, self-righteous rage, resentment, and apathy have raised an infantile and incompetent clown to the highest office in the land. We are all on the same side of history. We do all things together as history makes itself of us and our individual strengths, but cumulative ineptitude.
Mayor Landrieu says in his speech, “There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.” But I’m not so sure this is so when the way that history happens does not really change, when men acting out of animal instinct and precious little spiritual maturity are no more nor less what they were in 1864. The mayor paints the image of Robert E. Lee and his accomplices, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis, whose monuments in one fell swoop have also been removed, with personal disdain. But as of 1862, it is not as if they could any of them have thought as he thinks, or taken some similar ethical stance regarding matters that were presented to them from the time of their births and throughout their lives on different terms entirely. They could have done nothing in their circumstance that would have satisfied the mayor’s moral views born of his late 20th/early 21st century existence. And yet even so, Lee did indeed have his own strong ethical reservations about slavery and secession both. That he felt some solemn obligation to the state before the country and chose not to champion but dutifully serve its objectives, paints for me the picture of a reluctant and thoughtful warrior, acting upon constitutional principles, the strength of which by design had defined the world into which he was born and grew to manhood, not the picture of a villain, unworthy of reverence or even remembrance that Landrieu’s reductive language paints of him. I will grant that he and countless others who rallied to the cause of the South had need to cherry pick only the highlights from the Constitution that served their amoral ends. But, if we take but one good hard look at the coterie of scoundrels, cowards, opportunists, and demagogues, from the highest office on down, presently scampering about the halls of American government — who too are in this very present making a history for none of our progeny to be proud of, have no doubt — Landrieu’s diatribe grows casuistic, and the men whose memorials he lambasts, if they are not admirable, are at least equal in ethical stature and perhaps better than many we know. I will strongly suggest that no matter what horror he was a party to, the middling political mind that was Jefferson Davis, given the time and place of his birth, education, and upbringing, had not the same data upon which to base his ethical decisions as does Jeff Sessions. I have much less concern with the memory of a dead secessionist than I do with the agenda’d meddlings of a living racist in high office.
Now, for a moment, let’s look at war. It is a thing that, in the hundred and fifty years since the struggle between the states, has only changed in the ways by which it is engaged. It remains, however, as Clausewitz said, “a continuation of politics by other means.” American politics in what we prefer to call a democracy remains the rallying of a plurality of votes behind causes (read needs) most often spun up and set forth by and to serve the ends of the wealthy and powerful. War, as Clausewitz’ extension of such, is the sending forth of men (and now women), most often less wealthy and less powerful, to prosecute those ends in physical battle. This was so in 1862, and it is so now. The passage of time, and with it the advance of technology, changes the means by which we pursue our causes, but men’s causes and the human condition that gives rise to them are inalterable. How do we speak of the right or wrong side of history when nothing has changed? Men remain men. And while they do, the bourgeoning technology increasingly presents us with the means to illustrate and magnify ever more what we are as humans. What we are is not flattering. Mayor Landrieu’s moralizing is broadcast to the world via uncountable internet platforms. It is then strip-mined for quotations to be used by millions of indifferent men and women as Tweet fodder, who from the safe and comfy chair in which their fat asses are planted can with a few key strokes signal their own virtue to the world as being among those on the “right” side of history. Those on the other side of the argument do the same. All of them on either side screaming, “We are with the good guys! Recognize us!”—none on either side being necessarily of much more worth than the mildew on a dead dog’s balls if we measure merit by contribution and not simply a right to life. And time trudges ahead. And here we sit.
It is no one’s suggestion that anyone need grow complacent about their personal contribution to the shaping of history. And by any intelligent metric Mayor Landrieu’s contribution and the obligation he feels to make it are laudable. We might wish however that he and so many others spend their adamance on the shaping of it in the present, not litigating pasts about which people’s perspectives have long ago been shaped and now, for better or worse, are banked upon. Arguably, Mayor Landrieu is attempting to do that, but he begins by deeming another’s heritage unworthy of reverence, and robbing them of its vestiges. We are capable, I think, of moving forward with the statues standing there… While Mayor Landrieu lambasts the Confederacy, he lauds Abraham Lincoln, calling him “…our greatest President.” He also exalts John F. Kennedy as “one of America’s greatest heroes and patriots.” But Lincoln was the man who said,
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races — that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
And JFK, if being the notoriously womanizing, privileged beneficiary of the well-heeled white American elite doesn’t slightly tarnish his greatest hero status, barred Sammy Davis Jr. from his inauguration, after the latter had been intrinsic to the campaigned to get him elected, because Davis had married a white woman. What side of history were Landrieu’s heroes on? Shall we take down all of their statues as well? But Kennedy made his choices amidst the energies of 1961, when interracial marriage was illegal in 31 states. And Lincoln made the above remarks in 1858, during the fourth of seven political debates with the Illinois senator, Stephen Douglas, as a response to Douglas’ attempt to paint him as an advocate of total racial equality. While I personally don’t particularly subscribe to the kowtowing done to either of these historical figures, Lincoln’s 1858 audience of Illinois voters could not possibly have conceived of a black man that was their biological equal, and who thus should be their social and legal one as well. And Kennedy, even a hundred years later, acted against the backdrop of a country still quite infantile in its maturation on matters of racial equality, with nothing less than the presidency in the balance. What would you or I have done in either case? And let me take this one step further and just set us all straight on the fact that, since first contact as a country with the aboriginal people of the North American continent, every American president, either actively or passively, has presided over policies that have led to the genocide of the Native American unto this day. Let us remove every statue of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt, shall we? Let us remove every monument to every person who helped to advance the doctrine of manifest destiny, and vilify each and every American who, knowingly or not, has profited by it (that would be all of us, but the way). Only dumb-asses play this game. Play it if you’d like but know that, if you are playing it, you are, by default, morally superior to no one. I can only speculate how I would have behaved in the time and circumstance of Lincoln or Kennedy, but I can tell you with utter assurance what circumstances dictate that I do now if anything is to ever change, and that is that I not so cavalierly, so self-righteously judge the minds and motivations of others from a frame completely separate and apart. If it is the size of our brains that separates us from the animals, it will be our ability for nuanced thought that will rescue us from ourselves and the propensity for knee-jerk moralizing that we do to whatever end suits us in the moment, no different from Kennedy, Lincoln, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu. And wouldn’t it be hugely ironic if Robert E. Lee, just a soldier, with weighty decisions before him, and the prevailing schools of thought, might have done it the least of these?
Mayor Landrieu understands that “The Lost Cause of the Confederacy” was and remains an idea wholly invented by the descendants of the slave holding South to romanticize and sanitize a crime against humanity so abhorrent that it now cannot clearly be defined, as no one could possibly own having perpetrated its abject horror, or even own being the several times removed relative of one who did. I understand it with him, but I can go him one better and, speaking from the perspective of a black American male, I will posit that the horror, while having evolved through many a permutation yet driven by the very same needs and natures that gave birth to it, remains a horror to this day. It remains in the disparity of American wealth. It remains in the disparate numbers of African-American men at penal servitude. It remains in every American extra-judicial murder of a black American that happens every day. Racism remains racism because men remain men. And there are aspects of this horror that Mitch Landrieu, irrespective of all his sense of altruism, from inside his white shell could never and will never see nor understand. However, with the low hanging fruit of someone else’s monuments summarily removed at his behest, he may feel better about himself, and that too is a very human need and a driver of history. I understand. I don’t fault him. It isn’t my place.
But those who formerly took comfort in New Orleans’ monuments to the Confederate South will feel wronged, will despise the Mayor and all who would side with him in this matter. They will strengthen their tribal barriers, and if they even nominally change their beliefs in response to the injuries they will feel the mayor has personally perpetrated upon them, it will be towards investing ever more deeply in the absurd and untenable. Time and cultural evolution will eventually, perpetually roll on around them just as it would have their statues had they been left stand. There is an impatient desire to speed the process that is completely natural. But such expedition requires tactics born of perceptions far more nuanced than these. However fantastical and counterfeit the story upon which a people define themselves, it is theirs, and it is no one’s right to disabuse them of it, nor can any good come of summarily imposing your truth over a lie that defines a people entirely. Perhaps we should more deeply examine our all too human need for hero worship in the first place, but if we are to revere men at all — And I think it is a dangerous proposition to do so — I would sooner erect a statue of Frederick Douglass (or Benjamin O. Davis Sr., or Jr., or both, and Barack Obama, and MLK into the bargain for that matter if the majority electorate please) alongside that of Robert E. Lee, rather than fabricate reasons to indict the latter’s remembrance and justify his effigy’s destruction. At two plus million dollars for the monument’s removal, they will need to find some other well of funds to erect representations of their suddenly enlightened New Orleans. How would it have been to have spent the money once, and have two standing statues of two different men who, each in their individual space and time, made complex contributions to what our America is today? Or for fuck sake quit belly-aching over fucking statues altogether and find two million dollars to send seven deserving and rag-ass broke American students to Dartmouth for four years! But we leaning left are deluding ourselves if we believe that all our bloviating about what is “right” has contributed anything more or better than any of the men spoken of in the pages above did. We are as delusional as any Confederate apologist still crowing about states’ rights. Is not the image of those two statues standing side by side at least the metaphor for our multicultural America that we will name but not honestly and intently create, even as it creates itself despite us and our stumbling efforts that advance and retard its process in equal measure? Two statues of two men who would have had nothing in common except their humanity. And who can fault either of them for that… unless we fault ourselves as well?