Post-Confederate Memorials

Joseph Bottum offers a Girardian analysis of the current craze for knocking down monuments (Weekly Standard). Along the way, he explores the origins of the Confederate memorials, observing that “The list of removed statues and memorials seems mostly to prove what busy beavers the United Daughters of the Confederacy were from the 1910s through the 1960s.”

This surge in Confederate memory was driven by the political needs to the Democratic party: “it was with Woodrow Wilson in 1912, and especially with Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, that Southerners became central to the coalition that formed the Democratic party. And since even Northern Democrats had to make excuses for their Southern brethren, there seemed no one able to say boo to the Daughters of the Confederacy as they seeded the American landscape with memorials to what they called the War Between the States. Stonewall Jackson once slept here? Jefferson Davis once passed through? Robert E. Lee visited? A Confederate veteran spent his twilight years nearby? Up went a plaque.”

The boom in Confederate memorials was also driven by the civil rights politics of the mid-twentieth century: “Many of the grander memorials (the gigantic bas relief on Stone Mountain, for example) date from the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1910s and 1920s, and many of the rest were erected during the civil rights protests of the 1950s and early 1960s. . . . the barely concealed agenda was intimidation of Southern blacks—as though to say, ‘We will oppress you, just as our forefathers did.’ The Confederate flag was raised over the South Carolina statehouse in 1962, 102 years after secession, for a racist reason, and its message was clear.”

Bottum thinks that such tainted memorials deserve to be removed. But he’s concerned to show that the iconoclasm, a social contagion driven by the Internet, won’t stop. It hasn’t, and it can’t. As Bottum puts it, “Every schoolteacher knows the state of American knowledge about history is abysmal, in the literal sense of the word: It opens on an abyss. The abolishment of old memorials isn’t a slippery slope. It’s a slippery cliff. And once we fall off the edge, there’s no apparent social consensus, no visible ledge, that might stop us.”

There’s nothing to stop us until every mark of the past is purged from the landscape.

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