Saturday, May 20, 2017

End of the beginning

Maybe you will have seen a video like this by now. Mine was one of over a hundred cameras pointed at the general when he popped off the column like champagne cork.

The crowd reacted as though they had just seen Tracy Porter return the monument for a touchdown. Some of the assembled had been agitating against these symbols for decades. Here we were finally able to see the result of that work. It reminded us of the value of persistence. A righteous cause is no less a worthy cause no matter how long it may seem hopeless. Those who continue to make the argument may live to see their moment. This is from an Atlantic article by Kevin Levin on the long arc of post-Confederate historiography that finally got us here.
In recent decades, changes in the racial and ethnic profile of local governments throughout the former Confederate states for the first time has made possible a more inclusive discussion about what existing monuments mean to their communities and which individuals and events deserve to be remembered and commemorated in public spaces. The ongoing debate in cities and towns across the South over Confederate iconography is a testament to this dramatic shift.

Shortly after the dedication of the Lee monument in Richmond in 1890, John Mitchell, the editor of the Richmond Planet, noted that, “He [the African American] put up the Lee monument, and should the time come, will be there to take it down.” Mitchell’s protests and those of others throughout much of the 20th century went largely unheard owing to a Jim Crow system that Confederate monuments themselves helped to cement. Now a major city is taking the general down from atop his pedestal. For Lee it represents another chapter in the slow decline of a once-revered national icon, but for the city of New Orleans it offers an opportunity for the first time to think carefully as a community about how its past can inspire it to move forward.
While we were out at the circle watching the general come down, the mayor was not present. Instead he was broadcasting from in front of a row of flags inside Gallier Hall. His talk, the substance of it, the actual words he spoke, was good. Since the day a horrific mass murder in a church in South Carolina thrust attention onto the question of Confederate symbols in southern cities, Mitch has been on the right side of that question. He and his people wrote a good speech. You can see it here. As an argument for taking down the monuments, it is unimpeachable. But this wasn't the sole purpose of the mayor's appearance.  The self-serving aspect of his speech is evident in its timing, staging, and most importantly in its removal from the toppling it ostensibly commemorated.

While crowds gathered to watch the Lee statue come down, Mitch Landrieu hid in a little room in front of a carefully selected and exclusive audience and took credit for a thing he was tangentially responsible for simply by virtue of having been the mayor who didn't say no to it. His speech, as good as it was, wasn't intended for the the people who actually advanced and organized and marched for the cause. They weren't even invited. In fact they were in the street watching the fruit of their endeavor at that very moment.

Instead his speech was meant for a national TV audience; people who have little relationship to this city and its politics but are free to project whatever they wish to see onto it without context. Therefore they are easy to impress. Someday some of those people may be in position to give Mitch a job somewhere.* And that's pretty much the only reason he cares about any of this. It suits his purpose for him to. The rest, all of his words, are pure cynicism. In a sense, that's OK. Politicians react when political pressure is brought to bear on them. When people work hard to make the right thing also the opportunistic thing, that's grass roots democracy in action. But it's also important to see it for what it is so that we don't heap too much praise and credit on the politicians themselves who are, after all, merely tools. 

There is a tendency in our press to want to rally around him anyway. They are ready for a satisfyingly smarmy conclusion to the local monument story. Some statues came down. Now is the time for "healing." But, by rights, this should be a beginning. No, I don't mean a beginning to more statue toppling. I mean a beginning to a more serious challenge to the existing class and racial power relationships that perpetuate and exacerbate the problems of one of the most unequal, unfair, and fundamentally corrupt cities in America.

 I loved seeing the statues come down. But I especially loved this issue because of the way it clarified and called attention to the arrogance, the prejudice, and the latent white supremacist attitudes still active among our city's power elite. But while the statues were toppled, these elites were not. And now they are calling for "healing." Because that's what they always do when they sense that they could be next.

 *Some people think Mitch wants to run for President. While I wouldn't be surprised if at least some of his hangers on buy their own bullshit about his potential, I don't think that's the immediate goal. He's still looking to burnish his national reputation, clearly. Mitch definitely is a big time celebrity in his own mind. Most likely he's still angling for a gig with the Aspen Institute or some similar outfit that will get him on TV a lot. State politics is probably out of the question for a few years anyway. So the national spotlight is a good place to be even if direct involvement in national politics isn't.

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