On a recent evening I squandered half an hour on a public television program about Confederate statues in New Orleans. It was a gross waste of time. It began and ended with the usual incivilities in which zealous advocates shouted at one another with little or no informed reference to history or art.
More careful consideration is urgently needed. The North Carolina Historical Commission is weighing the fate of Confederate monuments on the state capitol grounds. And there is the continuing enmity to “Silent Sam” on the UNC campus. As I write, it has been splashed with red ink by a person identified as a grad student in the university history department.
Selective assault on the markers of the past is an assault on the memories they symbolize. It is a form of iconoclasm – image-smashing – and it had a bad name when I studied history. Seventeenth century English Puritans destroyed beautiful stained glass windows and other irreplaceable works of sacred art in ancient churches — in the name of anti-"popery." There was similar Reformation vandalism in Luther’s Wittenberg, before Luther himself reminded the zealots that even Catholic aesthetics had its proper place.
My own generation came of age in the 1950s amid warfare in which civilization and its values were often at stake. We had the good fortune to be inoculated against attacks on historical memory by the journalism of George Orwell. He had written a celebrated dystopian novel “1984,” and his journalism reinforced the inventive terms in the novel — the “vaporization” of unfashionable political figures, who were banished into a realm of the forgotten which Orwell dubbed “the memory hole.”
As a student of historic memory I understood that its keynote is inclusiveness, the bad and disfavored with with the good, without which history becomes distorted and unbalanced. I confess to feeling a certain sympathy with Confederate symbols, for ancestral reasons. But I would defend them as firmly if the structures under attack memorialized, say, William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general whose march through Georgia in the last year of the Civil War anticipated later forms of “strategic” warfare on civilian populations. In some quarters Sherman is today condemned as a proto-war criminal. He himself said, “war is cruelty; you cannot refine it.” But that truth is not accepted by detractors who associate him with “Bomber Harris,” the devastator of German cities in World War II and the US Strategic Air Command over Japan.
Eventually the double-think (another Orwell term) that animates the present assault on Confederate monuments will be as much deplored as is Puritan iconoclasm in the holy wars upon “popish” stained glass in the Reformation era. Puritanical censure is not conducive to the grasp of historical perspective. Orwell understood the evils of doctoring memory to fit fashion. Nazism needs no elaboration. Stalin’s Soviet Union likewise had approved scientists — Lysenko in genetics, Pavlov in psychology — whose “science” emphasized the conditioning of human minds and spirits to fit ideology.
Even the American Historical Association has recently chimed in with a statement justifying the attack on Confederate monuments on grounds that these works were “part and parcel of...legally mandated segregation and widespread disenfranchisement...to intimidate African Americans politically and isolate them from the mainstream of public life.”
In fact, as historians of the civil rights movement of the Sixties know, the association of inanimate monuments with racism and segregation is almost entirely in the minds of those who choose to believe it. Those who lived through, and approved, that beneficial phase of American history would be hard pressed to think of a single instance when a monument got in the way of the overdue defeat of Jim Crow. The premier professional organization of American historians should correct, not parrot, the puerile cant of white-collar vandals who deface public monuments.
Do I equate those who vandalize Silent Sam and other Confederate monuments with the totalitarian assailants of human nature? Of course not. That would be a distortion as grotesque as the association of memorials with the evils of racism. But old or young, they are fellow travelers in forms of historical prejudice whose dangers and implications they do not understand. Their elders in the history departments and law schools should not be enablers.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.