Civilized disagreement — that’s one thing. Flagrant insult, direct or strongly powerfully implied, as a lever for moving public policy along — let me see; I don’t believe I’d call it persuasive, uplifting, or even very useful. I would call it another mark of the disruptive, disrupted times we live in, when every difference of opinion is a fist-fight, every debate a collision waiting to happen.
We could put the name of Donald Trump on the table for diagnosis, but my present concern is the vocabulary of disparagement brought to bear on long-dead Confederates and those opposed to displacing long-standing memorials to them.
We don’t want just to take down the statues, it seems; we want everyone to be aware we do so in the name of repudiating racism and treason. To that level of discourse, if you call it discourse, we have descended since the Charlottesville horror of more than a week ago.
Any rhetorical get-together involving President Trump and the alt-right is bound to confuse, and, oh, has this one ever confused and bumfuzzled. It seems now that because, uninvited and hungry for publicity, white nationalists aligned themselves in Charlottesville with Confederate images, “respect-the-Confederacy” types are a bunch of exotics: 1) Ku Klux Klan apologists, 2) sympathizers with the Third Reich, and 3) elderly nostalgics. Only Donald Trump could put up with such an aggregation. Alas, his praise of Confederate statues seems only to have made things untidier.
Oh, and Robert E. Lee was a traitor. He turned his back on his country. We’ve heard that a lot this week, from, among others, a self-styled conservative military officer who writes for the American Conservative magazine.
Put together all these deductions from — essentially — nothing of substance and policy alters overnight — by force. Justified by insult and calumny
Among the latest leaders of the tar-and-feather brigade is the president of the University of Texas, one Gregory Fenves, who on Aug. 21 disclosed his unilateral decision to remove three campus statues of Confederate leaders, Lee included, plus, for good measure, a statue of progressive Gov. Jim Hogg — the first governor since 1859 who hadn’t fought in the Big War.
Fenves writes: “Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans. That remains true for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry.” Not that white supremacists have been lurking around UT, campaigning for the restoration of hatred and bigotry. But you never know about people who find a grain of honor in Confederate generals.
An obvious corollary follows: If you object to my hauling off the statutory — on my personal authority, natch — you’re probably in favor of hatred and bigotry. You need not even confess. We know what goes on in your mind. And so division — political and moral — widens in consequence of political and moral dogmatism. We don’t look for compromises: middle ways of adjusting differences to allow continued, or resumed, relationships to flourish. We go to the mat. Victory, as the anti-Confederate statue crowd evidently sees things, would put in their place the “racists” and Klansmen and nativists who constitute the Republican base. That would cause said base to go off on its own and let the progressives return to winning elections and imposing more government solutions than in a very long time. The progressive base really dislikes the conservative base, and so it depicts that base as uncivilized. Just look.
Yes, let’s do look. All that Lee-defenders desire, most of them, is a fair shake, a chance to reason with opponents rather than accept the slanderous language — “Racist!” “Traitor!” “Bigot!” — that the other side deploys with such aplomb.
The age — our age — the age of the instant accusation, the flat, declarative dismissal of the other side’s case for anything — has a style that works fine for winning elections. And pulling down other people’s memorials. For uniting, moving to a better place, fixing things, affirming life at other than the knock-down, drag-out level — well, that’s another matter. Obviously.
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