Our September topic was “To Keep or to Cancel, how Best to use the Past as our Guide.”
This discussion was inspired by our current intense national debate about whether we should keep or “cancel” people, views and mementos that make us uncomfortable. This includes those who write or say things that we consider inflammatory or with which we disagree, and to monuments that represent episodes from the past that we believe should no longer be honored.
We discussed an article entitled “Industry and Economy during the Civil War,” that pointed out the considerable differences in size and wealth between the sides in that conflict. The North had a population of about 22 million to 9 million for the South, about a two to one differential. The North also has a thriving economy which expanded during the war, while the economy of the South dwindled because of shrinking markets and problems with sale and distribution of the mainstay of their economy, which was cotton. After the war many Southerners believed that the North had totally ruined their livelihoods and bucolic lifestyles, whether real or imagined. Then the “carpetbaggers” came in from the North after the war to aid in rebuilding efforts by educating former slaves and bolstering the economy, but also were believed by many to profit by exploiting the South during Reconstruction. This created a resentment toward the forced change for many Southerners that still resounds to this day.
We moved on to an article by a spokesperson for the Black community who now lives on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. She writes about her resentment of the long line of monuments to Confederate heroes, including Robert E Lee, on her street.
An article in the Atlantic entitled “A Taxonomy of Fear” addressed what many call the “cancel culture.” According to the author, “Institutions that are supposed to be guardians of free expression — academia and journalism in particular — are becoming enforcers of conformity. … It is our moral and strategic obligation to vigorously defend the principles of a free society.” The author is particularly critical of the forced resignation of James Bennet as editorial page editor of the New York Times after he ran an article by Tom Cotton, Republican Senator from Arkansas, suggesting that the military should respond to civil right demonstrations when they turn to riots. So, for the author, the issue becomes whether we should engage in “safetyism” to avoid offending some by censoring those with views we oppose. And of course we must consider to what extent, if any, extreme views should be censored. An example is that Nazi symbols and denial of the Holocaust in modern Germany are subject to punishment. If we are supportive of expression by those whose views are repugnant to many, are those who support such speech liable to “contamination by association?”
A number of Confederate symbols have been removed over the last few months in the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter movement, including the statue of a Confederate soldier near the monument to Robert E. Lee which was the subject of a “Unite the Right” rally in which a life was lost in Charlottesville, Virginia, two years ago. We reviewed an article by W. Fitzhugh Brundage, a history professor at the University of Virginia, in whose view the “heritage protection laws” in the South “protect and perpetuate the racist commemorative landscape.” His solution is that these monuments should be moved to museums with a commemoration of their racist intent that then should be used to teach us the lessons of racism.
Our last article was “The Massacre that Emboldened White Supremacists,” about a little-known incident in Colfax, Louisiana, where in 1873, 150 Blacks were shot and burned. The plaque that commemorates that slaying honors the “heroes” — three white men — who died in the riots, and is one of many that still stand in commemoration of the resistance of the South to Reconstruction after the Civil War, despite two Constitutional Amendments intended to instill equal treatment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866.
Our discussion included some history and views of our current racial predicament. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as free state to maintain the balance of power in the US Senate. When Lincoln ran for president as the nominee of the new Republican Party he at first only opposed the expansion of slavery into the new territories. Toward the end of the Civil War, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves, but the aftermath led to economic devastation for the South and resentment that lingers, for many, to this day.
The South is an enigma. There was, in the minds of many Southerners, an ideal world that was taken from them and for which they still long. Thus extreme resentment affects their thoughts and actions. But the flip side of this is that there really is such a thing as Southern Hospitality rooted in the slow Southern lifestyle which extends to people of all races as long as they don’t challenge entrenched ideas. I (Steve) have experienced this on a number of visits. Please don’t cancel me for saying so.
Our next meetings, September 30 and October 5, will focus on the upcoming elections, first on local than national issues, where we will review the recommendations of a number of organizations and come up with some of our own.
Your (constructive) thoughts always are welcome.
Also, don’t forget to look at our blog site: renewingdemocracy.org
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.