Monuments to misunderstanding: The Confederacy, context and ‘winning’

The Robert E. Lee Monument in Marianna, the seat of Lee County, Arkansas.

The Robert E. Lee Monument in Marianna, the seat of Lee County, Arkansas.

The recent removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans – which has hit a raw nerve in the South – says as much about our misconceptions about memorials and winning and losing as it does about racism’s bitter stranglehold on America.

Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, who appeared on PBS with historian Walter Isaacson to discuss what many blacks perceive to be symbols of lingering racism and some whites see as emblems of political correctness – is right to say that memorials are meant to honor their subjects. They do so not only in the display of what is often great art but in pride of place.

Place is key here. Memorials are situated in city squares and other prominent locales. That prominence gives them a celebratory imprimatur but no context. Yet removing the Confederate monuments from their prominent perches robs us of history, critics say, and they are right – to a point. We live with the past though not in it. It is part of the continuum of the present and the future that is time itself. Without an understanding of the past we cannot project ourselves into the future.

But acknowledgement of the past should not necessarily be the same as a celebration of it. The removed monuments should be place in a museum where a curated exhibit could situate them in an appropriate historical context – perhaps even juxtaposing them with a permanent display on slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement and the South today. What was once a monument to the Confederacy and the preservation of its way of life would become instead an exhibit tribute to man’s attempt to understand inhumanity in the hope of one day eradicating it.

But there is another issue that transcends memorials, racism and art. It is the peculiar American concept of winning. We Americans are raised to believe we are winners. We are the sole superpower. We are still the wealthiest nation on earth. And we got that way by believing we not only can win but we will win, because, hey, we’ve already won the historical/geographic lottery.

There’s nothing wrong with this if it leads us to serve others in the manner Jesus describes – “The first shall be last.”

The problem with the American concept of winning is that it fails to take into account the respectability of failure and denies the inevitability of losing. Failure is subject to ridicule – see President Donald J. Trump’s treatment of his opponents – when its merely part of the ups and downs that life is heir to.

Hank Aaron hit 755 home runs. He struck out 1,383. Without the willingness to step up to the plate and risk a strikeout, he wouldn’t have hit all those home runs. Losing is part of winning.

Yet – and it’s important to understand this – it remains part of a process. It is not an end in itself. It deserves no metals, trophies or monuments.

Particularly in war – the ultimate game men play – the losers do not get to display the trophies of failed movements and monstrous regimes. Just ask the Germans.

The South lost the Civil War. Its time for Southerners to get over it.