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Moving N.O. monuments lacks foresight, tolerance

At a public meeting to gather input on whether New Orleans should tear down four historic monuments, the intemperance and intolerance most often exhibited by supporters of that notion illustrates exactly the imperative of, for the most part, their preservation as is.

An idea harbored by Democrat New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu that he made public almost six months ago advocates removal of statues of three historical figures – Robert E. Lee at the top of a column within Lee Circle, P.G.T. Beauregard at the main entrance to City Park, Jefferson Davis at the intersection of Canal Street and the eponymous Parkway – and the Battle of Liberty Place monument, which doesn’t actually reside at the location where the Reconstruction-era fracas occurred, from city grounds, with installation of them perhaps in museums. All of these fixtures having existed a minimum of a century, many don’t want them removed (including a healthy minority of blacks) even as some special interests have argued that somehow these offend because they appear to valorize figures and events that promote racism.

The meeting turned raucous with bombastic displays from representatives of both sides of the argument, but with the excitability heavily weighed towards the monument opponents, demonstrating again that in robust democracies that the right to take offense at some assumed slight exists only because full political rights and protection against discrimination already have been achieved by the group claiming aggrieved status. No one has the right not to feel offended in our system of government, but as the objects in question reside on public property, informed democratic vetting by policy-makers as to whether the city should allow these to stand their grounds should prevail.

That begins by balancing the emotional preferences of the community with the nature and purpose of the present siting of the objects. As one portion of it may see these as overall negative, another may deem them in the aggregate as positive. Evaluations must go beyond the emotive and incorporate the value their placements in public bring to society as a whole.

For example, one easily could take “offense” at the Marx-Engels Forum in Berlin. Karl Marx in particular held some reprehensible prejudices about certain people and the ideology he manufactured appeals to the worst in people, stressing envy, division, and the use of power to take from people what rightfully is theirs, both the fungible and spiritual. Its application has caused hundreds of millions of deaths and had billions live in a miserable denial of their human rights. Berliners suffered that personally for over four decades, and the commemorative area created under communist governance is but a short distance to the wall also built by communism where in that area dozens died trying to gain freedom.

Yet such a place should continue to stand. Forcibly it became part of Berlin’s history and can serve as a reminder of evil. Monuments that in their original conception and placement may intend to valorize the noxious need not retain those meanings, for free societies have the wherewithal to make these serve their own purposes rather than in the reflexive adopting of the imperative of Pol Pot that demands a return to the year zero.

So when applying an intellectually more rigorous analysis to the question in New Orleans, the case to remove them from outdoor public view largely disappears, most easily discerned in the case of the displaced Battle of Liberty Place monolith. Ostensibly built to celebrate a victory by white supremacist forces (in the guise of state forces battling the integrationist federal government, although the reasons for national government support of integration often weren’t the most noble), its removal in 1989 for street repairs and subsequent shunting away to a more obscure location presaged the present controversy.

There’s no reason that it should not serve as a signal laying bare the bankruptcy of the white supremacist argument now in the dustbin of history as well as reminding of a regrettable incident the very happening of which shows the meritorious evolution of America to match its deeds to its words, even if a century late. Not only should it remain, it needs restoration at its old prominent location with signage educating the public about the disastrous consequences of the event and how over the decades brave and farsighted people overcame these. Reminding the wayfaring public of the historical importance of the event benefits the community.

The generals’ statues also deserve to rest in peace. Unlike the monument that focuses on an event, they represent individuals who fought in the service of an enterprise that had its salutary aspects but had these overwhelmed by an inherent evil underpinning its formation. Yet the historical value of them merits their retention: both were important figures in the Civil War (if Lee not being the most important for the entire Confederacy) and the city has evolved for a century and more with their statues in their places, these becoming part of its fabric. Also note their sculpting, with their intended present locations in mind in that process, by one of the most famous sculptors of the period, Alexander Doyle, whose work appears in several other outdoor locations in the New Orleans area.

Beauregard, because of his area lineage, has the better justification, while Lee had little connection with the area. Still, the latter has a good case for his overall impact on the post-war South’s coming to terms with its defeat and necessity of change (as described well here). And, both monuments have a National Register of Historic Places designation, in their current spots.

Which also raises the question of consistency. For example, the 160 such places in the New Orleans area include Jackson Square with its depiction of the seventh president – slave owner and massacrer of Indians Andrew Jackson. If the Confederate generals, who both owned slaves at one time and fought for a government seeking to perpetuate that custom, receive opprobrium for that, why doesn’t General Jackson receive the same, whose loyalty to the Union not only licked the Indians but afterwards and then as president prompted actions that, for example, encouraged a walking genocide?

So why does Jackson’s representation get a pass? Because the real-life figure was president? Because those of American Indian descent make up a tiny portion of New Orleans’ population? Because he was a Democrat? Or perhaps, even as this gets ignored concerning the Confederate generals, he was a significantly historic figure whose actions had some impact on New Orleans and his statue has become intertwined with the city’s history and existence. Thus, why should their statues get treated any differently than his?

This leaves the Davis statue, who had little connection to the area other than the period of his Confederate presidency over the city and going there to die. Already a memorial exists at the location of his expiration (First and Camp Streets), and a marker in Metairie Cemetery indicates his temporary burial site. The monument isn’t on the historic register and doesn’t signify a notable location. Moving it neither detracts from the charm of the city nor erases anything of historical significance.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is in the business of destroying symbols it thinks offensive; New Orleans policy-makers need not take a similar if less drastic approach. The continued existing presences of these markers can educate and serve as reminders that, by our countenancing these as they are, we have grown beyond the intolerant attitudes expressed by many in their desire to have these fashioned in the first place. Mimicking that intolerance through these removals does not become an enlightened society.

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