The Monuments & Memorials Controversy

Monument: “Something venerated for its enduring historic significance or association with a notable past person or thing.” Memorial: “Something, such as a monument or holiday, intended to celebrate or honor the memory of a person or an event.”

As a historian, I’m into monuments and memorials. I want historic events and significant people in history to be remembered. Sometimes, I want them remembered because they deserve honor; other times, they should be remembered as valuable lessons of what can go wrong.

Auschwitz is a memorial to those who lost their lives in Hitler’s Holocaust. No one of sound mind would consider it a veneration or celebration of a historic event. Yet it serves a purpose: a reminder that we should never allow this to happen again.

So even awful things that have occurred in history should be recalled for our benefit. We have to be sure, though, that we have the right reason for the monument or memorial.

Which brings me to the current desire of some to tear down monuments to those who served the Confederacy during America’s Civil War. A lot of heat has been generated on this issue, but a lot less rational thought.

A little personal history here. In my early days studying history, I had sympathy for the Southern position because I believe in our federal system of government that leaves most decisions to the states. My concern for overreaching federal power led me to think that Lincoln and the North should have allowed the Southern states to secede without intervening.

Then something happened: I studied more. I came to realize that the secession was illegitimate constitutionally; I eventually saw that the states’ rights argument, in this particular case, always revolved around defending slavery as a positive good; I saw more clearly the attitude of the South and its aggressiveness in seeking to spread slavery into more areas; and I read a lot of what Lincoln had to say and gained tremendous respect for his constitutional basis and decency as a man.

In short, I changed my mind about the Civil War. Those who took leadership in the South, both in its government and in the military, were in rebellion against the legitimately elected American government.

Now, I may have just lost some readers who continue to believe otherwise, but stay with me.

I don’t paint all Southern leaders with the same broad brush. I know that both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson didn’t like slavery. I have respect for how Lee conducted himself once he understood the war was lost. He used his reputation to put down the suggestion that the South should continue the conflict through guerrilla warfare. He called for unity.

While I disagree with his decision to join in the rebellion, his personal character can still be admired despite the flaws in his thinking. So I can understand why some want to erect monuments to him. When it comes to character, his is far and above most of those who are now either promoting or protesting any memorial to him.

And the mania for tearing down all monuments relating to the South during the Civil War has gotten out of hand. Protesters in Durham, North Carolina, took matters into their own hands and tore down a statue without any authorization. They constituted a mob, and we don’t have mob rule in America.

When rational thought is dismissed, where will we end up?

Where do I stand on those Civil War monuments to the South? It depends. If they are simply memorials to those who lost their lives, I have no problem with them. They mark a tragic event in American history. If, however, they are there to celebrate those who openly rebelled against the government, basing their rebellion on how wonderful slavery is and defying the Constitution, I have no problem with their removal, especially due to the horrific memory of slavery and racial prejudice that affects so many today.

It also depends on the location of those monuments. For instance, when I visited the Manassas Battlefield, I took this photo of an iconic statue:

This marks the spot where Thomas Jackson stood like a “stone wall” and rallied his troops in the battle, thereby earning his nickname. It is appropriate to have this statue at this particular spot. It notes a significant historical event. Leave it alone. Learn from it.

So while I’m not a full supporter of keeping all such monuments, neither do I believe it is right to succumb to mobs and allow them to be torn down without regard to the rule of law. Consider each monument and memorial individually and make a decision on each, taking into account whether they advance historical memory in the right manner or if they inflame passions with the wrong emphasis.

There is also the matter of the slippery slope. Some are so exercised against what took place in history that they are beginning to promote the argument that the Founders, because some were slaveholders, ought to have their memory erased from our national consciousness.

Tear down the Jefferson Memorial, some would say. Destroy the Washington Monument. Rub off Mt. Rushmore. It gets silly, but also dangerous to real history. Even though some Founders owned slaves, those who know history also know their consciences bothered them about an institution that existed before they were born and into which they were placed. They thought a lot about how to end that institution because they believed it was detrimental to the nation.

Those who cannot make a distinction between the attitude of the Founders and those who later took up arms to defend slavery are too simplistic in their analysis. In most cases, I fear, analysis is lacking; emotion reigns.

Let’s revisit this issue of which monuments are proper, but do so rationally.

A Compromised Principle, Unfortunately

The guideline I try to follow when considering whether I support a policy action is whether it actually advances the position I ultimately want to see enacted. I have stated that stance in these words before and will do so again:

A compromised principle leads to unrighteousness, but a principled compromise is a step closer to the principle’s ideal.

For instance, on abortion, I don’t take an all-or-nothing approach. If a proposed bill decreases the number of abortions, I support it because lives will be saved. I then hope for further steps that will get policy even closer to my ideal.

Obamacare repeal is now on the front burner in Congress. I’m trying to figure out whether what the Republican Congress is proposing is truly an advancement in repeal—a principled compromise—or if it is instead a compromised principle.

I’m willing to be patient if I know that the proposed bill is only a first step toward an effective repeal and replacement. I also know that some compromise is probably necessary due to lack of unity among Republicans on what should be done. I don’t really envy Mitch McConnell’s job:

The problem, as this political cartoon illustrates, is that some of the ducks are more like chickens—they are afraid of losing their prestigious Senate seat by supporting something that will anger too many voters.

The House bill already was rather weak; the Senate bill, which was released yesterday, is, by most accounts, even weaker, as most commentators predicted it would be.

Already four senators—Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Ron Johnson—have declared they cannot support it in its current state. They say it does nothing to reduce premiums and it leaves most of the infrastructure of Obamacare in place. Even the principal architect of Obamacare, Jonathan Gruber, gleefully declared that this proposed bill keeps Obamacare basically intact.

Obamacare’s regulatory scheme remains untouched; insurance companies will continue to receive subsidies (from taxpayers, keep in mind); it says it will reform Medicaid (but not for a number of years, so who really believes that will happen?); Planned Parenthood is defunded (for one whole year; after that, it reverts back to current funding); the individual mandate and taxes do go away, but all the regulations continue as before.

Those four senators who said they cannot support the bill are now going to try to strengthen it. If they don’t succeed, and they stay firm in their opposition, it will go down to defeat, and rightly so.

Why rightly so? It’s not enough of a principled compromise; it leans heavily toward a compromised principle.

How often were we told by Republicans that once they got control of Congress and the White House that they would destroy the Obamacare monster once and for all? Well, here’s the reality:

This is so sad, it’s hard to know what else to say.

The Republic Is Saved?

So the big shutdown is over. The republic is saved. We may now go about our business borrowing more money and digging an even deeper hole. And on top of it all, nothing was done to chip away at the Obamacare nightmare.

I understand political realities. With a Democrat Senate and Obama in the White House, nothing drastic was going to happen. But when the final result appears to be a total cave, the disappointment among those who take these matters seriously is palpable.

Critics will continue to harp on Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and others who stood tall in their attempt to draw attention to the principles of constitutionalism and reined-in government. As I’ve said before, I’m not sure they chose the right strategy to advance those principles, but they nevertheless performed a valuable service by making the arguments.

The public, and unfortunately many of their Republican colleagues, became skittish about a shutdown that was anything but a real shutdown and about the horror stories of default, even though tax revenues are enough each month to cover all debts, Social Security, and most other aspects of the government. Are we really to believe we can’t live within our means? With 83% of the government functioning as usual, are we truly in dire straits?

Obama and his minions used this “crisis” to their advantage, helped along as always by a subservient media. Not everything went the way they hoped, however:

Capt. Obama

The trashing of the WWII veterans was one of the biggest missteps the administration could have made. It highlighted the arrogance of those in power:

Get Off My Lawn

And all for a compromise—if one can call something this lopsided a compromise—that solved virtually nothing and will be replayed again in a few months:

Pull Him Free

Yet the administration/media theme will forever be the irresponsibility of only one party—the one that at least had some members willing to tackle the tough issues and put us on a path to recovery. If only the media had any integrity, they would be informing an ignorant public about the true source of most of the irresponsibility:

So Irresponsible

We’re back at square one. We’ll rerun this scenario again in the near future. I wonder what a united Republican party based on the principles Cruz and others enunciated would look like? What could it accomplish?

Heroic Heritage

Historic anniversaries abound this week. Yesterday was one that almost everyone in America knows: D-Day. How many, though, can talk about what took place at the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc on that day?

One of the most heroic actions of D-Day was the scaling of those cliffs by a special Army Ranger battalion. Their mission was to take out the guns at the top that could have devastated the invasion force on all the other beaches. Those Rangers achieved their goal despite numerous challenges that almost led to disaster. I recommend a good book about their exploits: Douglas Brinkley’s The Boys of Point du Hoc.

Brinkley’s book also showcases what took place on the 40th anniversary of D-Day when President Reagan went to the Normandy coast and delivered speeches that should be recognized as some of the most inspirational in American history. One took place at the top of those cliffs in front of the memorial set up to honor those Rangers.

In the audience that day in 1984 were surviving Rangers who returned to remember and commemorate those who lost their lives in that daring mission. Reagan’s speech was important, as it made clear to a new generation what a previous generation sacrificed for liberty.

It was so fitting that twenty years later, on June 5, 2004, Ronald Reagan passed from this side of life into eternity. Just as all the media converged on Normandy again for the 60th anniversary, they also had to cover Reagan’s death. His tributes to his own generation were replayed that weekend over and over, so that another rising generation would learn a valuable lesson—if they would take heed.

Then there’s today, June 7. For that one, let’s go back 235 years to 1776. It was on this date that Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, with the full endorsement of his state, brought to the Continental Congress a series of resolutions, beginning with a bold statement that all allegiance to Great Britain should be dissolved and that a new United States of America should be established.

Another of his resolutions was that a committee should be formed to draw up a draft of a declaration of independence—just in case it might be needed. That committee was composed of five gentlemen, three of whom are most often mentioned: Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. This was the beginning of the end for colonial America and the start of something brand new, a nation declaring independence because the God of Nature had bestowed on all people the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, among others.

Let’s celebrate our heritage, whether it be from 1776, 1944, 1984, or 2004. Let’s remember our beginnings, as well as the times when we’ve demonstrated most openly the spiritual and moral underpinnings that formed the cornerstone of that heritage.