Political leaders whose jobs depend on galvanizing an ephemeral majority of those governed rarely speak to their constituents with genuine and profound moral clarity.
There have, however, been a few instances. Lyndon Johnson’s first speech to a joint session of Congress after the Kennedy assassination insisting on prioritizing Civil Rights legislation regardless of the cost showed courage that few outside of his inner circle would have expected. President Kennedy’s speech to American University earlier that year poetically crystallized the madness of allowing post-war protocol and apocalyptic standoff result in the dehumanization of a poorly defined “enemy.” Winston Churchill’s speeches following the fall of France in 1940 refused to resort to euphemism or sanitize the existential threat posed by the Nazis and reinforced the importance of holding fast and resisting any notion of compromise to ensure the survival of the civilized world. Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address framed the Civil War as a moral endeavor and urged reconciliation and magnanimity on the part of the victors when tempted with vengeance against their fellow Americans.
These speeches were as dangerous in their respective times and places as they are inspirational in retrospect. Recognizing and publicly defining what is right and true by definition means recognizing and publicly defining what is wrong and false. When Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke prior to the removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s statue in New Orleans, he told an enormous section of his constituency that they are wrong and that their ideas are false. Obviously this episode does not carry the same weight or consequence as The Civil Rights Act, the Cold War, The Battle of Britain, or The Civil War. But Mayor Landrieu stood up in front of his city, perhaps the most unique and uniquely complicated city in America, and told them it’s time to get on the right side of history.
Those of us who grew up white and privileged (to some degree) in Louisiana hear tales by and about several members of older generations and their views on the diminished role that the black community should play in society. These tales are often qualified immediately by phrases like, “that’s how people thought back then” or “it was just the way things were, it’s not like it is now.” This type of selective and corrective memory can serve as a costume for people with a venomous worldview that, from my experience, doesn’t take too much digging to reveal. More often than not, however, this kind of talk is born out of a genuine respect and reverence for one’s elders—whose views the baby boomers might oppose, but whom they are loathe to disparage. This excuse-ridden language is good manners, as it were. My parents’ generation, in general, possesses a more enlightened view on race relations than those of their parents. They also in large part understand our history and the legal apartheid that the “old time thinking” codified. The problem, in my opinion, is that as long as these good-mannered people keep antiquated ideas inside of an old black and white picture, they don’t ever have to reckon with the causes and consequences of those ideas. The cognitive dissonance required to value “respect for our elders” without the possibility of criticism has often equated with “respect for our history” without the possibility of criticism. It then should come as no surprise when removing statues on public land (erected not by the families of those memorialized but by active agents of white supremacy many years after their death) is framed by many as an affront to their heritage by hysterical disciples of political correctness.
I don’t intend to insult or condescend to anyone. This is not a screed against those who, in good faith and with a good heart, disagree with the statue removal. I simply believe that the history of New Orleans (and by extension Louisiana) is not contained in statues. The Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis statues were not erected by well-meaning New Orleans citizens with personal ties to these men. As Mayor Landrieu pointed out, the statues were erected by well-heeled white supremacists actively hoping to rewrite the history of the South.
Nostalgia is a beautiful and dangerous thing. Without it the world would be reduced to its cold and emotionless component parts. Nostalgia makes us all the authors of our lives and the world our lives encounter. It is also fundamentally an illusion. These statues were an attempt by a cynical few to write a collective nostalgia that would last beyond the world’s ability to question it. Mitch Landrieu, speaking on behalf of the flesh and blood that actually defines New Orleans, tore them down.