A meme showed up in my newsfeed today with a picture of the twin towers burning and the words, “If we’re taking down statues because of the civil war, we should be taking down mosques because of 9/11”
I thought about it a moment and then replied, “To keep your analogy accurate, we should be taking down statues of the 9/11 terrorists. Oh, wait! There aren’t any! I guess we got it right this time.”
But then I thought a little more deeply. Comparing Civil War heroes to terrorists is really unfair – just as unfair as the original meme.
While on the one hand, estimates range around four to five million as the number of blacks who died due to slavery (including the slave raids in Africa) but “only” three thousand
victims died on 9/11 and up to 5,000 total including diseases of the first responders, on the other hand, the Southern heroes were not fighting against slaves, but against those who would have oppressed them in the North.
The North had the greater population, and therefore greater political control. So they kept ramming through legislation that put unbearable tariffs on the South to their own benefit, much as King George had so recently done to them, contributing to the Revolution.
There were so many unfairnesses and restrictions that the South legitimately felt they had no say in their own country, and began to thing of their part of the nation as the culture and country to which they belonged.
As most of us know, slavery might have petered out on its own except for the invention of the cotton gin, which made America’s short seedy cotton fibers more economical to harvest.
But, if slavery had been taken from the South by laws imposed in the North, then the entire Southern economy would have collapsed so that they not only had no political say, but because the rural “lower 40” for the North, producing agricultural products while remaining in perpetual poverty.
Clearly, if you lived in the South, that was worth fighting for as your family, your culture, and your homeland depended upon it. And, in fact, most of those Southern soldiers never owned slaves, and a bunch even saw it as a necessary evil that, hopefully, might be eliminated someday.
Still an all, those heroes of the South in the civil war – the ones in the statues – they fought to maintain their society and economy and self-determination, all of which included and even perhaps required the institution of slavery.
So you think about the North and ask if they were much better. Well, there were states that went with the North that allowed slavery. And even Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation only freed the slaves in the states that seceded, leaving that policy alone in the states they couldn’t afford to lose. Very practical – very hypocritical.
And the founding fathers owned slaves. And they didn’t even free them when they died.
So why aren’t we taking down statues of Jefferson?
There’s one big reason why not: symbolism. Symbolism is not “cast in stone.” It is the meaning that is assigned to the stone. And not all those who see a work of art, see it as symbolizing the same thing.
Further, symbolism is a living, changing interpretation of art. We can recognize what the artist originally intended it to symbolize, and also accept what it has come to symbolize.
For example, the swastika was originally a revered religious symbol in India and southeast Asia. But can you imagine putting up a swastika statue in a publicly owned park today with the expectation that people would appreciate its spiritual significance?
The symbolic significance of any object changes continually and some items fall in and out of favor for what they have come to symbolize.
In the case of the statues in New Orleans, they have historically represented four primary meanings:
1. To southern patriots, they symbolize the honor, courage, and belief in self-determination of their forefathers.
2. To human rights advocates, they symbolize the oppression of millions of human beings.
3. To white racists, they symbolize entitlement and elevation based on having a white skin.
4. To black racists, they symbolize the same thing.
Note that southern patriots from point one might be black or white, and the same is true for point two. But three and four is race-dependent.
Over the decades, the percentages of folks in each of those four categories has slowly shifted so that more and more people are joining the ranks of meaning number two.
Now like anything, if the center of gravity shifts, it will tip. And the symbolism of the statues has reached a tipping point.
And that is why they are being taken down.
And that is why we aren’t yet taking down mosques.