Monday, August 14, 2017
Free speech requires considerable personal responsibility.
And as we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia this past weekend, just because you have the right to advocate for a particular viewpoint doesn't mean you actually are right.
For the freedom of speech to be respected, the topic of that speech needs to be carefully vetted based upon parameters that honor some overall benefit for society. Abortion opponents, for example, argue in public that abortion denies free speech to the unborn. Advocates of exclusively heterosexual marriage believe that biology (not just social protocols) overwhelmingly supports the existence of both a man and a woman in a family joined through marriage.
Meanwhile, what happened in Charlottesville centered around a myopic view of history that holds no benefit for society today. History's general consensus of the Civil War is that even if America's Southern heritage held some virtue for the people of its day, that virtue was tainted by slavery, which is based on racism. Even if one argues that the South went to war to protest the North's violation of states' rights, those rights most Southerners coveted involved the ownership of other human beings.
Otherwise, what's so special about Southern Gentility? It may be quaint, but is quaintness a quality worth commemorating at the expense of human dignity for people who aren't white-skinned?
Mind you, it's not that most Yankees weren't racists. The movement of blacks from the South to the North in the generations following the Civil War sparked plenty of contention, particularly when blacks began living next-door to whites in the close quarters of Northern cities. After all, "red-lining" was especially deployed in places like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. White flight after World War II wasn't just caused by suburbanization; in fact, it could be argued that white flight exacerbated suburbanization. Even Abraham Lincoln, the "Great Emancipator," didn't believe blacks were equals with whites; he simply didn't believe in slavery.
When the city leadership in Charlottesville decided to remove statues and monuments originally dedicated to Southern heroes such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, they did so in an effort to ameliorate the old city's stubborn homage to what has become a stilted exercise in Old South romanticism. Sure, it's politically incorrect to publicly admit to being a racist, but at least for white folk, it's a lot easier to perpetuate nostalgia than support ways to help today's heirs of slavery believe that anti-black racism really isn't as pervasive as it may seem.
When the Soviet Union fell, many monuments to it and its progenitors were summarily removed. When Saddam Hussein was removed from power in Iraq, most all of his statues were toppled. The eradication of former symbols of power is generally what happens when one way of thinking or acting is supplanted by another, and the former holds no significant virtue to continue celebrating.
Nevertheless, while the removal of statues and memorials to Civil War's Southern apologists seems like an easy way to correct the public narrative in terms of slavery, Charlottesville may have missed an important opportunity. You see, while in this case, the eradication of a statue likely will do little to eradicate the homage people want to pay to that statue's honoree, Charlottesville could have left the monuments standing, yet with a less biased interpretation of why these figureheads from the Old South's past remain important.
Because yes, as we saw in Charlottesville, to some people, Lee and Jackson obviously remain important figureheads of a bygone era. Precisely because that bygone era isn't as bygone as it should be. Obviously, as those boorish bigots demonstrated this weekend, hard-line racism is alive and well, and not just in the South, as witnessed by the Ohio residence of the guy who plowed a vehicle into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one of them.
Instead of perpetuating Lee and Jackson as figures to be celebrated and revered, as the Charlottesville of yesteryear intended when those memorials were dedicated, today's Charlottesville could have left them as reminders of the deeper complexities behind our War Between the States. Lee, Jackson, and others represent the often-conflicting values we humans juggle, between morality and economics, and politics and justice - just to name a few. After all, the Civil War didn't just happen, nor was it over when it was over. Hard emotions led to it, sustained it during five bloody years, and have continued to be stoked by it, even all these decades later.
So, obviously, the legacy of the Old South - and the Old North, for that matter - still matters. But why that legacy matters could be the more accurate narrative Charlottesville should ascribe it.
Of course, the folks who side with the bigots would call that "revisionist history." Even if, in actuality, it was the trite, watered-down version of the Civil War that has been taught in public school classrooms ever since that was the revisionist history.
However, if the statues indeed need to come down, what is the opposing moral stance in aid of the public good? Is the veneration of whatever passes for Southern Gentility so pure and virtuous a notion that the vile celebration of bigotry is warranted? Why exactly do white supremacists believe so ardently that historical figures like Lee and Jackson deserve attention in the public square? Even an academic veneration of Old South figures should not conjure such vehemence. It's not really that whole Southern Gentility thing after all, is it? It's mostly the representation of Lee and Jackson as champions of a white-centric society, isn't it?
That is a notion with no public moral beneficence. So it is wrong. Period.
If anything, this past weekend in Charlottesville proves that just because you have the freedom to say something doesn't mean you're right.