There is talk in New Orleans right now of tearing down a statue of Civil War general Robert E. Lee that adorns the (locally, almost equally famous) Lee Circle in New Orleans. Mayor Mitch Landrieu is seeking to replace the statue of Lee, as well as one of P.G.T. Beauregard, with “symbols that reflect the culture, unity, hope and future of New Orleans.” Contending that “symbols matter,” Landrieu said, “These symbols say who we were in a particular time, but times change. Yet these symbols—statues, monuments, street names and more—still influence who we are and how we are perceived by the world.”
The Civil War divided the country in 1861; it continues to divide us today. Removing the monument cannot remove the years 1861 to 1865 from our cultural memory. Nor can it correct, as if by fudging the numbers on a balance sheet, the terrible toll slavery took on race relations, with which the South must always cope, willingly or no—either with grace and forgiveness, or with ingratiating political agendas that do nothing to heal our real wounds. Though centuries of growth and change pass steadily over the graves of our fathers, we always will know we are walking on ground both violated by their sins and hallowed by their sacrifices. It would be easier to move the Mississippi than to change this cultural identity—to pretend that we are not descendants of a society that was marked by this conflict, ennobled by heroic struggles to defend homeland just as it was marred by deplorable degradation of the human person.
Yet those who wish to remove the statue seem to think they can, with the broad, magnanimous stroke of progressive politics, not simply whitewash out the uncomfortable pieces of our nation’s history, but change the city’s current identity. Landrieu suggests we find a monument that reflects “who we are,” protesting that a Civil War general conjures up a contentious subject to our city’s conscious memory. Perhaps he is right—but he is certainly wrong to think that fixing the statue will somehow fix the city’s problem. He is wrong to think that changing the statue will change our identity.
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Insisting that it is important to remove Civil War memorials because “symbols matter,” Landrieu is himself making a rather symbolic gesture. In this one sweeping suggestion, he has perfectly symbolized that he (and other politicians) have picked a pretend battle, because they cannot tackle the real contender.
There have been well over 100 murders in New Orleans in the past year alone. Murderers care little whether they kill beneath the stern visage of General Lee or beneath any other monument. New Orleans is among the top 20 cities for human trafficking; but few sex traffickers will stop in their tracks if the city expends its energy and funds to remove Lee from Lee Circle.
The point is this: despite Landrieu’s hints about symbolism, men can move the monument, but it is not the monument that moves the men.
But it is easy to make war on a statue; it is easy to make war on the dead. They do not fight back; Lee’s statue cannot lift a stony finger to protest. It is easy to repudiate tradition and history; because tradition is what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead”; and attempting to erase all evidence of the parts of our history which make us feel guilty or uncomfortable is to refuse to give our fathers who shaped the city monuments a vote. Pretending that Lee Circle is not Lee Circle can’t silence the complex echoes of our history, both good and bad. One might as well pretend that behind the French Quarter’s colorful balconies there was not once slavery; just as one might as well pretend there are not slaves of a different sort—prostitutes and drug addicts—alongside the happy partiers there now.
And so Landrieu makes this gesture, not because he believes symbols matter, but because he has somehow mistaken the symbol for the real matter at hand. It is politically convenient to pick a silent scapegoat like a statue of Lee, and load upon it our sins, and kick it out of the city. That is the symbol. But the matter—the meaning—is something quite different. Perhaps Landrieu cannot fix the real problem of racism now, or heal the deep wounds of the violence in New Orleans now, or stem the horrific sex trafficking rates or the endemic drug usage.
He can easily remove a statue, however. It is too difficult to cure our sins, so instead, New Orleans leaders can turn their attention with relief to erasing—”symbolically”—the sins of our forebears. The mayor cannot wipe out racism; so instead he will wipe out Robert E. Lee, and attempt to change how we see ourselves now by simply turning a blind eye to our past.
But a symbol must symbolize something real, and Landrieu, I’m afraid, will not realize the ineffectiveness of a symbol signifying nothing. Yet other leaders, the bishops of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, do understand symbols. For years now the Archdiocese has promulgated a beautiful prayer for New Orleans that seeks a real solution, through the patronage of the Blessed Virgin, in the “the battle of today against violence, murder, and racism,” a solution which, as the prayer states, must be to “build a community founded on the values of Jesus which gives respect to the life and dignity of all people.” What New Orleans needs, to really change its identity, is not the solemn scapegoat of Lee but the living Lamb of God who takes away our sins; a God who deals with the daily realities of violence and poverty in the city streets. And to follow his example, the leaders of New Orleans must turn their attention, not to the dead stone, but to the living citizens; not to the monuments, but to the men. For God is not a God of the dead like Lee, standing on the monument, but of the living, who walk about Lee Circle.