The 130 year old Confederate statue was recently removed in Alexandria, Virginia. Its opponents of course thought it celebrated the Confederacy.
It was about as celebratory of the Confederacy as the Vietnam War Memorial is of U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia. Called “Appomattox,” where Lee surrendered, it portrayed a disarmed, downcast soldier. No battles were cited. Only the names of Alexandria’s war dead were listed.
The mournful statue evoked defeat, tragedy, futility, death. It didn’t say, “Do as we did!” Its message was more: “Learn from our folly.”
There was no greater historical folly than the Confederacy. It was launched with bombast and braggadocio. And it was doomed from the start. Its six million whites were outnumbered by northerners by nearly four to one. The North had industrial might, the South did not.
Southern partisans imagined their Cavalier martial spirit would more than compensate. They didn’t factor that the North’s Puritan energy, when applied mechanically to war, may lack panache, but would be relentless. Through instruments like Grant and Sherman, it ground much of the South to dust, just as it would later flatten the cities of America’s enemies in the next century.
The South absurdly assumed it could permanently enslave one third of its population. It claimed the legacy of America’s Founding Fathers, while vainly rejecting their key insight: all men are created equal. It rejected the Founders’ hope and assumption that slavery would end, in America and globally. That hope was vindicated as the northern states abolished slavery after the Revolution, followed by the British Empire, then the French and Spanish. Muslim and Asian powers banned slavery in the 20th century.
But the South arrogantly assumed it could defy this global trend and was itself a new pinnacle of human development. It professed Christianity but ignored that religion’s slow but steady eradication of slavery and construct of human equality. The Hebrew idea that God created all persons equally in His image inherently subverted slavery and repression. Christianity universalized that message.
St. Paul helped ensure slavery’s demise, and the emergence of human equality, by writing there’s neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; all are one in Christ Jesus. Martin Luther King quoted this verse in his “I Have a Dream.”
Even had the Confederacy won the Civil War, slavery could not have survived these contradictions. Within days of its collapse, the Confederacy desperately agreed to offer freedom to slaves who joined its army, effectively rejecting its whole purpose as a slave republic.
The South’s best men knew the Confederacy was folly yet passively collaborated. They were often courageous on the battlefield but cowardly in public councils. They preferred the supposed honor of death versus the opprobrium of public disapproval.
It was all madness and arrogance, mindless groupthink and intimidation by blowhards and fantasists. It was its own form of massive political correctness, intolerant of dissent or even reasoned disagreement, often murderously so.
Supposedly the Confederacy was about liberty for southern whites. But there was brutal suppression of meaningful opposition. The North throughout the war had opposition newspapers, war critics, and contested elections. Lincoln for a time thought he would lose to anti-war Democrats. Jefferson Davis had no such fear.
The North, like all meaningful democracies, benefitted from public debate and diversity of opinion. The Confederacy, having foreclosed meaningful disagreement, sank under the albatross of its own uncontested self-delusions.
There’s a lot to learn from a grand project like the Confederacy built on hubris, self-righteousness, fanaticism, presumption, defiance, intolerance and megalomania, all of it culminating in calamity, destruction and rivers of blood.
The young men memorialized on Alexandria, Virginia’s now dismantled statue sacrificed their lives at the behest of hotheaded, ignorant old men and a society unwilling to face reality, compromise, self-reflect, or admit the possibility of truth from opponents.
Today’s America suffers from polarized subcultures beholden to zealotries, conspiracy theories, dogmatism, hatreds, self-certainty, demonization of all dissent, scapegoating, manias, witch-hunts, exaggeration, apocalypticism, rejection of debate, dehumanization, toxic preoccupations, and absolutism.
Supposedly we, in our factions, know best, more than all others, and more than any who have gone before. We can dismiss all perceived opponents as irrelevant, and claim to find all truth and comfort within our own band. We fantasize that if opponents are defeated, silenced and eliminated, that finally justice by our own definition can prevail.
However difficult to admit, all of us subject to the human predicament are prone to hubris and arrogance. Each of us, and all of us together, have the tragic capacity to generate new vast follies that are destructive, even lethal, if unchecked by debate and counter arguments.
Even righteous causes, absent calm consideration, can degenerate into their own Towers of Babel, built on pride instead of humility, and doomed to failure and unintended tragic consequences.
This journal is devoted to a Christian and specifically Augustinian sensibility that’s suspicious of human certainty. We fallen humans rarely know as much as we think we know. And even when we’re right, we learn from critics, who even at their worst are still fellow creatures of God.
Often we at this journal cite Reinhold Niebuhr as our sometime patron saint. He once said: “Absolutism, in both religious and political realism, is a splendid incentive to heroic action, but a dangerous guide in immediate and concrete situations.”
At times, we need fewer shows of heroic action, and more calm consideration about the limits of our human understanding. Monuments recalling human folly are no less important, maybe more so, than ones celebrating heroism, which has its own tragic consequence.