I’ve been thinking today about the question of whether skills in technical or artistic fields somehow cancel out moral crimes, or not so much whether they do as why anyone thinks they do.
It came up because on Friday a reporter asked Donald Trump a question about the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, and he answered it.
Oh I’ve answered that question, and if you look at what I said you will see that that question was answered perfectly – and I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee, a great general – whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals – I’ve spoken to many generals here, right at the White House, and many people thought – of the generals, they think that he was maybe their favorite general – people were there protesting the taking down of the monuments of Robert E. Lee. Everybody knows that.
Much of that is untrue, and the rest of it is probably untrue: Lee’s talents as a general are rated differently by different military historians, and it sounds wildly implausible either that Trump has spent a lot of his White House time chatting with generals about Lee, or that all such generals expressed gushing admiration of Lee, so basically, no, and probably no.
But in any case who cares? Why would it matter? Lee was putting his military skills, weak or strong, to use defending the institution of slavery. Even if Trump is right that he was red-hot at it, why is that a reason to have statues of him sprinkled over the landscape?
It isn’t, of course. Trump is just lying about what the “people were there protesting”, because it’s not about the war skillz, it’s about the slavery.
Historian Sarah E. Gardner explains what those statues of Lee and other Confederate “heroes” are really about.
Over the past five months, historians have endeavored to demonstrate that something other than respectful recognition of a fallen foe was at play when Confederate monuments began popping up all over the South in the early decades of the 20th century. Many historians, in fact, have spent their careers demonstrating that Confederate commemoration tells us precious little about the Civil War and the men who fought it.
Rather, the statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the rest tell us a great deal about how a cultural industry worked in tandem with a political movement to legitimate white supremacy. Installing Confederate monuments coincided with the rise of Jim Crow, a legal, political, and cultural system that denied African Americans their place in the American polity.
It’s a political system that made it illegal for African American men to be unemployed and to strike for better wages (or anything else); in short it was slavery all over again, but without the capital investment of outright buying slaves – which meant that their lives were worth nothing and they could be worked to death.
Confederate monument building was the culmination of a deliberate campaign to write the history of the Civil War from the Southern point of view. That memory industry began almost immediately after the Confederacy’s defeat.
Ever seen or read Gone With the Wind? Birth of a Nation? Part of the same campaign along with the statues. This wasn’t something that just happened, unguided, like weeds or blizzards.
More than 90 percent of Confederate monuments were erected after 1895, and much of this effort took place during the first two decades of the 20th century. By then, the ‘Lost Cause’ myth, which described the Confederate cause in a positive and heroic light, had been firmly established in the national consciousness. Not coincidentally, the Supreme Court upheld segregation laws in its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision and disfranchisement laws in its 1898 Williams v. Mississippi decision.
The statues aren’t there because of nostalgia for The Old South, or even out of hero-worship of the “gallant” rebel army. They’re there to intimidate the descendants of slaves. Trump’s drivel about the glories of General Lee is historically illiterate for a start, but it’s also nonsensical. What if it were true that Lee was a military genius? Why would that make him an ideal subject for memorialization all over the former slave states?
Skill is a useful thing, but it’s not automatically a moral good. It can be put to moral uses, of course, but by itself it’s generally morally neutral. Josef Mengele might have been a brilliant physician, but given what he did with his medical training he’s not a good subject for statues in front of hospitals. Erwin Rommel was a brilliant general, from what I know, but he was a general for the Nazi regime, so do we see a lot of statues to him in France or Poland? I don’t think so.
Suppose, though, that some people had placed such statues in France and Poland in the 1950s and 60s, and in the last few years public opinion had prompted their removal, on the grounds that the Nazi regime was not something to memorialize with statues, even statues of generals.
Imagine what it would sound like if Macron told a crowd of reporters: “I was talking about people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Erwin Rommel, a great general – whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals – I’ve spoken to many generals here, right at the Élysée Palace, and many people thought – of the generals, they think that he was maybe their favorite general – people were there protesting the taking down of the monuments of Erwin Rommel. Everybody knows that.”
They would think he was being controlled by aliens. It doesn’t matter whether or not Rommel was one of the great generals, the conquests his generalship supported were evil. Trump’s “whether you like it or not, he was one of the great generals” is telling: it’s an admission that he knows we don’t “like it” because we don’t think generals for slave states, however skilled, are heroes. It’s tragic and disgusting that he sees it differently.