The Damnatio Memoriae of Progressivism

            In the ancient world, when one political regime placed another, the new rulers often attempted to blot out the memory of the former by having their names and images removed from official buildings, monuments and documents.  The Roman Emperors of the late fourth and fifth century did this, for example, when Christianity became its official religion, and it wanted to blot out the name of a former official who was pagan. Charles Hedrick detailed this episode in History and Silence, a wonderful work of history which sought to approach the paradox of this erasure of memory, which modern scholars have dubbed the damnatio memoriae, since the very erasure itself calls attention to what has been erased.

I thought about this recently because of the proposed removal of monuments to figures who are considered politically controversial has become a hot topic as of late, in particular the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans.  I have relatives in the New Orleans area, and have visited the city many times.  It is a place I very much love.  And yet I confess I had forgotten that there was a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans, until news of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s intention to remove it came to my attention.  I have always enjoyed visiting the Confederate War Museum in New Orleans, and I have some admiration for “Southern” culture, including some sympathy for the Southern position on states’ rights.  But chattel slavery was such an obvious evil that I have never susceptible to the dubious allure of “The Lost Cause” or similar temptations.  My relatives from the New Orleans area, who are the descendants of slave owners, feel much the same way.  For myself, I do not have any great feeling one way or the other about the removal of such a monument.

Having said this, the reasons for removing such monuments seems highly problematic to me.  The attempt to blot out the memory of slavery and racism is motivated, no doubt, by a desire to proclaim that history has moved on and triumphed over this evil, by denying it any hint of public sanction.  Less noble motivations are doubtless involved; removing such monuments is an easy way for politicians and activists to burnish their progressive bona fides without having to make any real sacrifices of any kind.  Whether Lee’s statue remains or no, blacks in the Desire projects and other dangerous areas of the city will continue to suffer the effects of violent crime, and such problems have proved intractable for many urban areas across the country. It is far easier to remove symbols that may be offensive than to try and deal with problems such as these.

But more objectionable than this is what this sort of view of history seems to dominate the minds of progressives.  David Blight has noted that during the late nineteenth century, communities South and North, abetted by racist historians, sought to obliterate the memory of slaves and freed blacks in the role of reconstructing the nation after the horrors of civil war.  This meant s from monuments, celebrations of the Civil War and other occasions of communal memory.  To erase that memory for him was to erase the humanity of those blacks who had suffered so much and yet contributed much to the rebuilding of the nation.  Is it necessary, then, for justice to be served, to obliterate the memory of the slaveholders in return?  Robert E. Lee is a difficult case, because he was so unique:  Lee really was a “great man,” a term I put into quotation marks for a reason, since it is a term both overused and abused.  But he also owned slaves—how can one celebrate his memory since he perpetuated such an evil? Doesn’t that mean celebrating slavery as well?

The fact of the matter is that the actions of the mayor and of the despicable campus activists who agitate for the removal of all sorts of things from public life which they deem offensive are much more about the present than the past.  They are about asserting power over those in the present who identify with Robert E. Lee or Columbus or whomever, as part of their heritage.  (Since the election of Donald Trump, I imagine such erasure of public monuments also confirm them in their conviction that they are on the right side of history.) I doubt most of them care little, if anything at all, for the past.  They use it as a prop for their future oriented morality play, in which anything deemed insufficiently progressive must be re-written or wholly blotted out.  If they really cared about the history of slavery, and the historical complexity they so often trot out to justify things like the crimes of various Communist regimes from around the world, they would find a use for a monument to Robert E. Lee.  Instead of removing it, they could put up next to it a statue of Toussaint L’Overture, the great liberator of Haiti. If Lee is a great man, then L’Overture was an even greater one:  he defeated the armies of the French Revolution and Napoleon alike, and set up a republic in what was if memory serves the only successful slave revolt in all human history.  Renowned for his integrity and charity toward former white slave owners, he was only defeated by Napoleon’s treachery.

Now, L’Overture was not an American citizen, it is true, but the creole culture in which he lived has much in common with the culture of southern Louisiana, and so I think a monument to him would not be out of order.  But mostly, the comparison between the two men would help teach the lesson that history is complicated, and does not deal neatly in partisan themes.  This is because L’Overture was a also slave owner like Lee. The comparison between the two could lead, I would think, to more healthy reflections on the nature of slavery and race relations than simply removing statues to satisfy partisan political appetites.  But then that would presume that the real purpose of those who wish to erase the monuments of Lee, Columbus, and others, are really about gaining knowledge of the past, instead of trying to censor it.

~ by Alypius on June 13, 2017.

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