Note from Quin:  History is full of shades of gray. And while “slippery slope” arguments aren’t always valid and are often over-used, they can, if used carefully, be quite legitimate. I really do worry that if we as a society continue erasing historical recognition and honor of men our modern age finds morally wanting, we set the stage for evermore “progressive” erasures of history. Down that road lies, perhaps, the serious chance of success for the Left’s insistence that we no longer honor Jefferson, or Madison or Washington, because their ownership of slaves will be seen as overshadowing all the other good they did. With that diminution of our founders will come, surely, a diminution of our founding documents such as the Constitution, and of the principles embedded in it and the limits on government which it secures. This, of course, would be madness, both governmental and cultural. But it is definitely on the same slope on which stand the New Orleans monuments of Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard. In this light, please see the essay below, which I wrote in response to a thoughtful but ultimately wrongheaded essay last week in the online version of The Weekly Standard. — Quin


[My essay starts here.]

Berny Belvedere makes some cogent and well-considered points in his little essay here approving New Orleans’ removal of all four “Confederate monuments” from major public displays – but he unfortunately is so enamored of his view of “aspirational” public spaces that he ignores the specifics of the situation at hand.


New Orleans would be well advised to leave standing, in their current locations, the statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard.


I write this as a native New Orleanian, as somebody with a very long record of going the extra mile for racial harmony, and as someone who proposed a long-shot, last-minute compromise for the New Orleans situation involving letting only Lee stand in his famous place while removing the other three statues.


I specifically defended the Lee statue because of his tremendous post-war work of reconciliation of the North/South and white/black divides – and also, not lengthily enough, because of its “iconic prominence” in a circle, named for Lee, that is familiar to almost every visitor to the city.


With compromise unfortunately rejected, though, it is important to note that Beauregard, too, left a record not just of rebellion (a rebellion he joined only after being dismissed as the superintendent of West Point against his will, merely because of his Southern background), but of noble action. Also, unlike Lee and Jefferson Davis, Beauregard was a native Louisianan who grew up in and served New Orleans in great ways both before and after the war.


As a civic leader and an engineer, Beauregard for decades oversaw major improvements in civil defense, in port expansion, and in rail service (and was the creator of New Orleans’ famous streetcar system). More than that, he was a strong post-war advocate of civil rights and voting access for former slaves, including as chairman of a group that called for integrated schools, transportation, and public places.


“I am persuaded that the natural relation between the white and colored people is that of friendship,” Beauregard said in an address widely published in July 1873. “I am persuaded that their interests are identical; that their destinies in this state, where the two races are equally divided, are linked together; and that there is no prosperity for Louisiana which must not be the result of their cooperation. I am equally convinced that the evils anticipated by some men from the practical enforcement of equal rights are mostly imaginary, and that the relation of the races in the exercise of these rights will speedily adjust themselves to the satisfaction of all.”


Surely, from that record, something valuable could be gained from maintaining his statue while adding a plaque explaining his admirable post-war work for racial comity and civic unity – and his signal services specifically to his native city, not to the Confederacy.


Belvedere’s call for public spaces to promote our “core values” is admirable. Alas, though, his dismissal of “backward-looking monuments” is rather bizarre. He writes (the word stress in italics is mine) that “America should utilize only images and symbols that promote our core values,” and that monuments in public spaces should only be aspirational and forward-looking, rather than “backward-looking monuments [which] are those specifically intended to teach the lessons of history.”


In case Belvedere hasn’t noticed, the vast majority of all monuments in every civilization in the world are those that celebrate history. In fact, that’s usually the very point of the monuments – and a darn good one, too. In a time when historical knowledge already is embarrassingly low, it is not just a bad idea, but a horrid one, to relegate purely “backward-looking” displays to staid museums as oppose to vibrant public spaces.


Of course, the removal of statues every time one is found in violation of new, aspirational community standards is a dangerous, yes, slippery slope. Down that slope lie constant ideological battles about not just the officially accepted values of each new era, but about the very substance of a community’s history.


One need not pine for the Confederacy’s “Lost Cause” (I personally don’t give a fig about it), nor idolize its leaders (I don’t) to recognize that monuments long established should enjoy a strong presumption of maintenance in their places. Lee Circle, in particular, is so well known, and Lee’s sterling character so well understood, that its removal will serve as a particular affront not mostly to latter-day segregationists (few of whom still exist, especially in New Orleans), but to those who cherish cultural heritage – and who, yes, aspire to the core values represented by both Lee and Beauregard. Those values include the dedication to public service, reconciliation, educational excellence, integrity and honor.


For once, we all should try to look beyond race, and stop focusing endlessly on the scourge of slavery, and instead recognize that humans and their history are complicated, and that it is possible to honor certain leaders without requiring that they have approached perfection. Surely history and public spaces make room for ambiguity.


The removal of the statues of Lee and Beauregard will be not a triumph but a travesty. No conservative, nor any traditional liberal, should countenance it.

Quin Hillyer is a veteran, award-winning conservative columnist.


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