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Tough Call: The Rise Of Hate And The Debate On Removing Statues

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Larry Smith

By LARRY SMITH

THE deadly weekend violence in Virginia sparked by a white nationalist rally in support of a Confederate memorial is alarming for more reasons than one.

According to the New York Times, the racist Daily Stormer neo-Nazi website has been calling 2017 the “Summer of Hate” in the United States, and identifying Charlottesville as ground zero.

But overlooking this more tangible threat to America’s liberal democracy (which we love so much), many Bahamians have taken to social media to argue over the pros and cons of removing historical statues from public places.

That’s because the Charlottesville violence flowed from a decision by that city’s governing council to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee from a public park, where it had been installed in 1924.

This is not an isolated case. There are thousands of Confederate monuments around the US. Some memorialise the dead of civil war battles, but others simply glorify the top white supremacists who fought to entrench slavery.

Most were erected during the decades of Jim Crow laws and segregation in the American south, specifically to intimidate blacks. Some are still being installed, and there is support in many communities for the retention of these monuments.

This is not a matter of confusion. There is absolutely no doubt what the confederacy stood for. It was formed in 1861 with the specific aim of preserving black slavery to support the lifestyle of white slave owners. At the time, slaves accounted for about a third of the southern population and about a quarter of the white population were slave owners .

As noted by Mississippi’s secession document: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world...A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilisation.”

Texas was even more pointed: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various states, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity.”

At the end of the Civil War, former slaves received citizenship and (in theory) equal protection under the law. But within a decade or so, white supremacy had been restored in the south—enforced by armed terror groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

Official segregation maintained sharp inequalities between whites and blacks for over a century following emancipation. It was not until the civil rights movement of the 1960s that African-Americans achieved any significant political and social gains.

So those are the historical facts. But what about the argument over monuments? Is it really a matter of heritage over hate?

Well, the Confederate heritage that some like to celebrate or justify is exactly that - hate. Racism, slavery and segregation are inseparable from hate. And how can any modern American glorify the great 19th century treason in defence of slavery?

As journalist Roberto Ferdman has noted: “If you celebrate the hoisting of a battle flag in front of your state’s capitol, and you have roads all over your state that are named after Confederate generals, and you celebrate this 19th century past, it should surprise absolutely no one when people pick up on this and imagine that the South is still at war with the North over whether blacks deserve rights and representation, or even life.”

The most rational counter-argument to this was put by legal scholar Alfred Brophy. He contends that the removal of Confederate monuments would “erase an unsavoury — but important — part of (the) nation’s history.”

In their Facebook posts, most Bahamians applied Ferdman’s logic to the statues of Queen Victoria in Rawson Square and Christopher Columbus at Government House.

Similar views have been expressed about statues of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes in both South Africa and the United Kingdom. The erection of a statue of Oliver Cromwell at Westminster was opposed by Irish nationalists. And statues of Lenin and Stalin have been toppled in many formerly communist countries.

According to historian Madge Dresser, “statues are lightning rods, symbols of the prevailing values of the society. When those values are not shared a debate needs to be started…Many of the people celebrated in statues have been responsible for death and destruction. Do we start taking them all down?”

Ms Dresser suggests there is another way for more recent statues to be handled. For example, the positive plaques and interpretations on these statues could be replaced by those that make clear what their true legacy was.

“The argument is that it is better on the whole to keep the statues, but to re-contextualise them,” she said.

Others advocate a simple test to guide such decisions. If an historical figure is being honoured principally for an act of human oppression — for instance, leading a pro-slavery rebellion — that honour should be removed. But if a school, bridge or town is named to recognise a positive contribution to society, it should stay — even if that person has other negative associations.

Columbus, the Italian navigator who landed in the Bahamas in 1492, was responsible for opening up the New World to European colonisation, which had a terrible impact on the indigenous people. His statue was erected on the steps at Government House in 1830 in honour of the landfall.

Queen Victoria reigned over Britain (and the Bahamas) for over 60 years. Her statue was erected in the public square in 1905, four years after her death. It underscored Victoria’s status as a symbol of the empire, the Bahamas having been a British territory since the 17th century.

These statues were part of the normal context of the time. They were not erected after independence, or to glorify the Spanish conquest. The Bahamas was deserted when the British settled here, and there was no war to get rid of them.

Both Government House and Parliament Square are unfit for the modern role they play today. But they are among our most historic places. It has long been suggested that they should become living museums, with new facilities built elsewhere to replace them.

As part of a museum district, these two statues would be placed in their proper context in history - just as Vendue House downtown has been placed in its proper context as a former slave market by the creation of the Pompey Museum.

The big difference between these examples and the violent contention over the removal of Confederate symbols is that no-one is currently calling for the restoration of the British Empire or the oppression of Amerindians.

But in the US today, there is a large, so-called “Patriot Movement” composed of various white nationalist, neo-Nazi, radical religious and militia groups—including the KKK. Law enforcement agencies have identified over 400 armed militia groups in all 50 American states.

This movement offers something for everyone. And it feeds on weird conspiracy theories - such as the belief that the Sandy Hook primary school massacre was part of a government plot to control guns. Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in a terror attack in Oklahoma 22 years ago, is perhaps the best known ‘Patriot’ activist.

Neo-Nazis - like those who demonstrated in Charlottesville over the weekend - are part of this movement. While they also hate other minorities and homosexuals, Jews are their main target, and social problems are often traced to a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.

The alt-right, or alternative right, is a loosely defined group of people with far-right ideologies who reject mainstream conservatism in favour of white nationalism, principally in the United States. White supremacist Richard Spencer coined the term in 2010 as an attempt to re-brand white nationalism.

It has been listed as a key factor in Trump’s election win last year, and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is associated with the alt-right. These people look back to what they imagine to be a golden age for white people and believe that “identity” is everything.

The rally in Charlottesville starred several of the alt-right’s leading figures, and photos of the event show Confederate flags, Nazi insignia, and militia members with high-powered weapons.

According to a recent article by Yale University professor James Whitman, “In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, America led the world in race-based lawmaking, as a broad political consensus favoured safeguarding the historically white character of the country.

“European racists took note. Among them was Adolf Hitler. In Mein Kampf, Hitler called America the ‘one state’ making progress toward the creation of the kind of order he wanted for Germany.”

It is undeniable that the United States was founded on white supremacy. The civil war re-ordered the country’s values to a degree, and In the second half of the 20th century those values began to be enforced.

The Trump supporters who demand their country back, and the domestic terrorists who run private armies, must be seen in the light of that history - as must Trump’s equivocal response to the Charlottesville violence.

• What do you think? Send comments to lsmith@tribunemedia.net or visit www.bahamapundit.com.

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