The New Tabula Rasa

lee's statue

It is almost impossible, today, to become lost when we leave the comfort of our homes. Whereas, in the past, traveling to a new location involved, at least, the very real possibility of losing one’s way, now, with the advent of the smartphone, every driver now has the means of triangulating his position. Save for the absence of a signal for the phone, the modern man can never become lost. After purchasing my first car while I lived in Virginia, I had many golden opportunities for burning metaphorical incense to the altar of Steve Jobs in thanksgiving for his marvelous invention. With it, I managed to navigate myself and others across Virginia, through the twists and tumbles of DC and even took a fourteen hundred mile roundtrip between Virginia and St. Louis, Missouri.

But, in another sense, it is much easier for a resident of the 21st century to become lost than it was in the past. While geography and roads may no longer pose a challenge to the modern traveler, time and thought have so twisted many modern peoples’ thinking that, in a very true sense, our culture and our generation may be said to be lost. One of the anchors to keep men from becoming lost in the seas of time is History. Rather than being just a list of names, places, dates, and events–a chronological dictionary of entries–History is much more integral to us and our lives, whether it is recognized as such or not. We like to ourselves as the beginning of a glorious future when, really, we are the end of a long lines of people, decisions, events, ideas, beliefs, and actions that extends to the very beginning of history itself. History, thus, is vital for that crucial, but often forgotten faculty–memory.

The changing or the eradication of History, rather than a benevolent or, at worst, inconsequential act, only noticed and complained of by dusty professors in their crumbling towers, is something far more serious as it is a declaration of war against the past itself. Edmund Burke gave more than a hint as to why this was so when he gave his description of society. “Society” is a word which is used less and less frequently, perhaps because of the new and correct sensibilities that have come into fashion. Society, as a concept, implies a union of different people in pursuit of a common goal, or end, or good. It implies that all who are part of the society all have a stake in the success of the society. But today, with the dichotomy between thinking of each individual as an atomistic individual, with the power to create his own reality and the equally fashionable idea that every individual must be catalogued as part of some group, “society”, as a word and concept, cannot hold as much force. After all, if we are all, unequivocally, either aimless atoms or merely cells in some particular group, how can there be a common goal? Whenever the word is used, however, what is usually meant is the living as they stand today. Society is composed only of those who walk upon the earth. Contrary to this line of thinking, Burke stated that society is not composed only of the living in the present but also includes the dead of the past and the unborn of the future. What connects all three parts of society together is a shared culture and this shared culture can only be in the present and handed to the future through memory. That is the glue which holds the three parts together because it is through memory that the collective experience of a family, a city, a country, a people–their history and story–is kept alive,

The key word, besides memory, is “story.” People require a narrative, a structure by which they can make sense of the world. Of course, there must be a true narrative among all the different possible ones for, if there were not, relativism and all its contributions would rule the day yet again. But that is not the main point which I would like to bring up at the moment; the important truth at present is that people require a story by which the history which their memory informs them, makes sense. This is true even if the narrative is wrong. Whitaker Chambers, in his autobiography, Confessions, confessed that he believed that the Communists would win the Cold War for the sole reason that they not only had something to die for but also had something to live for. This “something” was the world wide Communist revolution followed by the promised and inevitable (in the words of Marx) Communist utopia. In other words, it was adherence to their story that made the Communists such a formidable enemy. This is why history is vital for, if it is changed, the story will be changed, as will memory, and, if these elements are changed, will not the people be changed too?

That, through a very roundabout way, brings me to the decision of the New Orleans city council to remove four monuments erected in the past to honor the old Confederacy which, in the Twenty-first century, has become a much greater bug-bear than it was in the actual Civil War. During the war, the Confederate battle flag was feared because it marked the position of Lee, or Jackson, or Stuart and yet, Union men still went out to face it and them. Today, rather than herald the presence of superb generals who have it in their power to change the course of history, the old flag is now regarded as so potent that it, by itself, will warp anyone who comes too near to it, or cause people to fly into apoplectic spasms  which is quite a feat for a flag that was used for four years by a country that has been gone for the last hundred fifty years. The less real–in a sense–the Confederacy becomes, the more power people give to its battle flag. The four monuments in New Orleans in questions are of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard and the Liberty Monument. Mayor Mitch Landrieu attempted to have his cake and eat it too when the construction men, flanked by snipers for their protection, began to take down the monuments; he declared that there was nothing political about the removals while, at the same time, declaring that it was necessary so as to show the world that New Orleans had moved from its racist past. No one, apparently, thought to ask how, if the four monuments had allowed the Confederacy to keep a grasp of New Orleans, how it had ever become a “chocolate city,” in the words of former Mayor Ray Nagin.

The mayor would have been more correct if he had said that the statues remaining where they were was not political. The statue of Lee was erected in 1884, the work of fourteen years fundraising and negotiating on the part of the Robert E. Lee Monument Foundation, which formed a month after Lee’s death in 1870 to preserve his memory. The statues of Davis and Beauregard were erected to honor these men because both died in New Orleans; Davis in 1889 and Beauregard in 1893. The most political monument of the four is the Liberty Monument , erected in 1891, to commemorate the Battle of Liberty Place which occurred between the desegregated city police department and the state militia and the Crescent City White League. Although the fight had racial components (the desegregated police force being hated by the League) it was caused, primarily, by the contested gubernatorial race of 1872. It is true that in 1932 an inscription was added to the monument that possessed overt racism:

[Democrats] McEnery and Penn, having been elected governor and lieutenant-governor by the white people, were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored).

United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.

But what is not stated is that numerous changes have already been made to the Liberty Monument. In 1974, a marker was added to the Monument by the city government which acknowledged the events of the past while giving the contemporary city’s disapproval of those events; in 1993, some of the original inscriptions were removed so that the Monument now read,

In honor of those Americans on both sides who died in the Battle of Liberty Place…A conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.

Not only that but also in 1993, the Monument was moved from its prominence on Canal Street to the river end of Iberville Street where it was placed between a parking garage and a floodwall. This seems to tear a hole in Mayor Landrieu’s claim that the Monument was glorifying the Confederacy. Rather than be apolitical, the decision to remove the statues seems to have been decided by nothing other than politics.

By making this political decision, New Orleans has decided not merely to remove some pieces of stone; rather, it has opted to change the story of its past and, thus, to obliterate it. This dire-sounding but unescapable fact follows logically from what was proposed regarding history, memory, society and story. By removing the four statues, the city is attempting to change its history and story; by erasing the monuments from the city’s landscape, New Orleans has declared war on its own memory and, to an extant, the memory of the whole country. Some might protest by arguing that history is still preserved in museums; anyone can enter museums and immerse himself in the history and stories therein. But public landmarks are a very potent memorial to history as they declare some person or event public–one does not have to squirrel oneself away in a museum in order to remember the story since society keeps the story open. Imagine if Monticello or Mount Rushmore were enclosed in a building so that only those who entered would be able to see them. Ask yourself, which is more conscious in the public memory: Mount Rushmore or Charlie McCarthy in the Smithsonian? The memory is destroyed because, as the old adage says, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Without the memories and the history attached to them in the public mind, the public mind will, naturally, forget about them. This might seem ridiculous; who, after all, would ever forget the Civil War and its causes? But, it is true that without vigilance, memory fails. In the seven years that I took violin lessons, I memorized fifty pieces. Today, I only remember one or two completely, with a few scattered bars from various other pieces tossed in. I did not practice and so the music left my memory. This assurance invites another question: Who is supposed to remember? Historians and experts may always remember but, to be healthy, a society cannot just rely on these guardians, as indispensable as they are. A society must remember itself through all its members.

Another question is raised: Can a society really survive without its history? On the practical side of the question, there is the observation of George Santayana, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” If knowledge of the Civil War is lost, for example, this is not to say that we will find ourselves thrust into the same situation that we were in the 1850s and 1860s. But we definitely will forget the rhythms which brought us to the Civil War; as Mark Twain observed, “History does not repeat itself, but it certainly does rhyme.” What Twain meant was that human nature, being constant, causes history to fall into broad, repeatable patterns–the circumstances and accidentals may differ–and often will–but the substance is eerily similar. If we d not remember the accidentals, though, will we remember the substance? Will we recognize the familiar ebb and flow f history in order to have it as the lamp of experience?

There is a deeper issue as well. If history can be erased and changed, can a people, a society, have a solid identity? Much as how the past helps to form a man, the past does the same on societies and nations. This does not just include the good but the bad as well. And if history cannot help to form people, who will? A people needs an identity; nations require an identity; and nature abhors a vacuum. If history is thwarted from being a teacher, something else will take its place. More likely than not, what will take its place will be the leviathan of the state. George Orwell, in 1984, painted a picture of this very scenario. The protagonist, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth which is charged with altering history so that Big Brother and the Party will never be wrong. When the chocolate ration is reduced from thirty grams to twenty grams, the story is rewritten so that the party had always promised an increase of the chocolate ration to twenty grams. The people, the society, is nothing but wet clay in the hands of the Party. Some will scoff but when Thomas Jefferson–a pivotal member of the Founders–is denounced at his own university, a scenario such as Orwell painted does not seem so far fetched.

T.S. Eliot described history as a pattern of timeless moments. In trying to control those timeless moments, men, confined to time, are trying to become masters of the timeless and, thus, gods. The problem is that man is not a god. As unpleasant as it may be, as it will include all the warts, history must be allowed to do what it does so that men will be free to learn from it and to be men.