A Monumental Proposal

Maybe we don’t need to remove the Confederate memorial statues.

Maybe we only need to remove the plaques that say who they were—rendering them appropriately anonymous and allowing them to slide into the same kind of obscurity that’s befallen most of the civic sculpture littering the American landscape today. Or maybe, if the statues really are necessary for the preservation of history, then we should rewrite the plaques to get the history right.

For openers, every plaque should begin by saying “This is one of the soldiers who lost the Civil War. His failure—the defeat of the Confederate Army—allowed the United States to remain united, grow, and become one of the most prosperous and influential nations on earth.”

Additional inscriptions might include thoughts like these—

“In his battles against the Union forces, he was literally an enemy of the United States. Just like the British soldiers who opposed the Colonial forces during the Revolution—and who, apparently through some oversight, have never been honored with statues like this one.”

“He was fighting against the unification of states that had been won piecemeal from not only the British, but also the Dutch, the French, the Spanish—and, of course, the Native Americans. He was fighting for an approach to government that defined our country not as a union, but as a confederation of still-independent states. Sort of like Iraq. Or the NFL.”

“He was fighting against the inexorable progress of technological and economic changes that began in the Industrial Revolution—which meant he was fighting mostly for the benefit of the wealthy plantation owners, struggling to preserve an antiquated agrarian economy that depended for its viability on an abundant, unpaid labor force.”

“He was fighting not just for the preservation of slavery, which had existed in one form or another throughout history’s previous millennia, but for the perpetuation of the Confederacy’s ‘peculiar institution,’ a unique perversion of the practice based on the dehumanization of an entire race.”

“He was fighting not to justify the taking of slaves as spoils of war—as the Roman Empire did to the Greeks, for example—but to sanction the enslavement of an entire race with the rationalization that they were somehow inferior, even subhuman. He was fighting for economic expedience, and against biological truth.”

“He was fighting against the course of human events, against freedom and democracy, against life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He was fighting against America.”

No Attaboy

There are times when language matters. There are times when what’s said, and how it’s said, and by whom—and what’s not said, and by whom—all matter a lot.

And you can trust an old English teacher to notice those times. This is one of them.

The president’s first statement about the violence in Charlottesville, as lots of people immediately noted, contained an ad-libbed escape clause for his alt-right constituents: he blamed the “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” Looking up from the prepared statement, he repeated “on many sides.”

There were, of course, only two sides—the alt-right “rally” participants on one side, and the counter-protestors on the other. But words like “alt-right,” “white supremacist,” “K.K.K.” and “neo-Nazi” never crossed the president’s lips.

The criticism of that rhetorical failure was pretty close to universal, with the only notable exceptions being the supremacists themselves. And yet it took another two days for the president to condemn those groups by name (something like twenty times longer than it took him to condemn Ken Frazier when the Merck CEO resigned from his manufacturing council).

He identified them, reading robotically from the videoprompter, as “criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

And people immediately started lining up to give him credit for finally doing the right thing.

But he did not do the right thing. His delivery was wooden, expressionless—in marked contrast with his usual rhetorical excesses. He was, as several people have noted, clearly speaking in the manner of a hostage with a script his captors have demanded he recite as the price of his continued survival. Sort of like those old movies in which the American POW cleverly inserts some code words that tell the home folks he doesn’t really believe what he’s being forced to say.

In fact, there were code words—even in this second statement. There was yet another escape hatch for the white supremacists—more subtle in its wording, but still an escape hatch. He blamed the violence on “the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups.”

Other hate groups”? Doesn’t “the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists” kind of cover it? Who’s left?

Oh, right. The same ones as in his first statement. The counter-protestors. He still doesn’t deserve an attaboy—from anyone but the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, and white supremacists.