In the two months since, governments and corporations have reacted with surprising speed to shun Confederate symbols. T-shirts featuring the flag are no longer allowed on eBay. Warner Brothers will not manufacture toy models of the General Lee. Most impressively, South Carolina’s Stars and Bars were removed (twice) from the State Capitol.
The Confederacy’s memorials will be the next to go.
In state houses across the South, the process of removing Confederate monuments from public landscapes has begun. General Forrest and the Confederate Every-man are unwelcome on campus and in the park. Their statues are stained with graffiti: #BLACKLIVESMATTER; THE CAUSE FOR WHICH THEY FOUGHT – THE CAUSE OF SLAVERY – WAS WRONG; THIS IS RACIST; KKK; MURDERER.
The graffiti is right, but the city councils are wrong. Terrorized by the loss of innocent black lives to vigilantes and trigger-happy cops, progressives are seeking relief in the wrong place: the censorship of public art.
In an eerie coincidence, plans to scrub pro-Confederate art from the public realm are beginning to echo instances on the opposite side of the world. In March 2001, the Taliban removed two 1,500 year-old Buddha sculptures from the cliffs of Bamiyan with artillery rounds. In the US, online petitions seek to eliminate a bas-relief sculpture of Confederate heroes from Stone Mountain in Georgia. If the petitions are successful the monument is destroyed, probably with dynamite. What are the implications of adopting the Taliban's tactics in an American dispute over art?
The destruction of Confederate memorials seems justifiable because the American South is still haunted by ghosts of the C.S.A. The threat of violence is still real, so its monuments are still unsettling. So unsettling, that blowing up a few memorials is starting to seem like a good idea to southern progressives.
Confederate memorials do pose some serious problems. They are in the middle of an ugly process - the transition from “hate speech on public land” to “government curated artifact.” Many of them were built during the peak of Jim Crow oppression. They were 50% memorial & 50% not-so-coded-message that this community does not welcome black people.
Still, it sets a troublesome precedent to take them down.
Can an inclusive society demolish sculptures that represent a conservative minority’s view of history? Must all publicly-owned art represent a government’s present point of view? What will be left of free speech if every generation destroys that which offends it? What contemporary memorials will our great-grandchildren raze in disgust?
Confederate memorials must be endured. The cost of censorship is too high.
Also, a better opportunity exists. Progressives now have the political capital to do what they do best: Speak. Create.
Now is the time to douse statues with graffiti; to write protest songs; to build new monuments that confront the old ones.
Now is the time to build a memorial for the nine that died at Emmanuel AME. It's time to update Nathan Bedford Forrest’s memorial in Memphis, pointing out his role in the early KKK. It's time to express, in bronze and in stone, society’s rejection of racial profiling.
Let folks nostalgic for the 1860’s have their sacred public spaces and their mythologies. Let them feel that their First Amendment rights are respected. The value of allowing Confederate memorials to stand is in letting them show us just how far away we are from celebrating the Confederacy.