Vandals for Social Justice

I seem to be part of a small minority of peace-and-justice advocates who don’t want to remove offensive monuments. I’ve taken to the street in opposition to every war waged by the USA since 1970 (when I took off my military uniform for the last time), but I think the memorials should be left standing. Yes, I’m offended when I consider the corrupt legacy of Christopher Columbus, whose statue stands prominently here in Hartford,  but I’d rather suffer the offense than remove the statue and forget how we once venerated him.   

The embedded mass media tell us it was the removal of a statue of rebel general Robert E. Lee that sparked the exhibition of Nazi paraphernalia in Charlottesville last weekend. Maybe, but the event was billed as an assembly of right-wing groups from around the country. I watched some of the “protest,” and I kept seeing the same faces over and over. It looked like a minuscule group, maybe a few hundred. If that’s the far-right, it’s tiny and not worth the attention it got from the media. These same media mock us when we turn out a few thousand to resist war, but I didn’t hear a single reporter suggest that the turnout for this convention was pathetic.

I’m embarassed to be on the same side as the Nazis on the question of Lee’s statue. Lee was a good general, not because of his dedication to slavery or to killing but because of his ability to get his subordinates to carry out orders.   There haven’t been very many good generals, because you don’t rise in the military without kissing a lot of butt, and that selection process eliminates the most qualified leaders. Lee was as good a general as Grant, but Lee’s civilian commanders were deficient, while Grant’s eventually gained competence.  Plus Lee’s sponsors openly espoused a brutal, altogether American ethic that still infects us. His image reminds me of all that.

It’s true that most of these memorials went up during a renaissance of bigotry in the 1920’s, accompanied by a surge in Ku Klux Klan membership and a rash of racist mob violence, but that’s not a good reason to desecrate them. In fact, it may be the best reason to keep them. Once they’re gone, they can no longer remind us of the circumstances that motivated their creation. After all, a memorial is meant to keep an event in memory, not necessarily to celebrate the event.  Nobody celebrates the crucifixion of Jesus, but it’s depicted everywhere.

Somebody recorded the destruction of one monument. It was a statue of an anonymous rebel infantryman meant to honor the soldiers of the confederacy. I found the scene unpleasant. I’m probably not alone in thinking memorials to soldiers should be preserved, no matter which side they were on, in recognition of their devotion to duty and their willingness to sacrifice for each other. It’s not impossible to oppose war and honor soldiers. Most veterans respect pacifists, and many militantly oppose war. The mob scene I witnessed discredits me and the movement I advocate and puts me in mind of the vandals who blew up the Buddhist monoliths in Afghanistan. This crowd looked disturbingly similar to the ones you see in pictures of lynchings and cross-burnings.

Does anybody else think it’s odd that people should get all riled up over monuments to a war that ended a long time ago and express so little concern over wars that our leaders are waging today? I hope we don’t find it as easy to forget our legacy of violence and exploitation once we’ve removed all the memorials.

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