Click here for Part one: Presidential visits to Yad Vashem: Misrepresentation and Misrecognition, yet again

In this second part of further reflections on misrepresentation and misrecognition building on posts from earlier this year, I explore this rhetorical practice with reference to the current debate concerning the removal of statues of and to “Confederate heroes.” These debates have centered on the removal of four statues in New Orleans commemorating Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, and (most controversially) the Battle of Liberty Place. This debate, I believe, must be read together with the reverberations of a similar decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA, the small city where I happen to be living this year. This latter Confederate statue removal controversy probably would have gone little noticed if not for the fact that a group of white nationalists, led or at least publicly represented by the already infamous Richard Spencer, held a torchlit rally around the base of the statue reminiscent of KKK rallies of the past. There Spencer and his supporters loudly proclaimed statements such as “What brings us together is that we are white, we are a people, we will not be replaced,” “you shall not replace us,” and “Russia is our friend.”

This last chant might seem strange at first, but it is very much on point once you take to heart how intimately connected Russophilia and White Supremacy are for many “alt-Right” activists. Indeed, when one looks into the self-justification of those advocates of the white race, it becomes painfully clear. In one telling version of the argument, from an author who himself publishes on the website among others, it is “only natural” that “White Nationalists would see Russia as a friend” because “Russia is one of the few countries left that supports and upholds Pro-European values such as strength, unity, racial awareness, etc. Putin even addressed the ongoing ethnic displacement of European peoples in one of his press conferences.” Beyond just teaching us that love of Russia and its current leader is integral to White Nationalism of the kind preached by Richard Spencer, this statement also demonstrates why the Nazi Genocide and chattel slavery are not merely instructive instances compared for historiographical purposes. Rather, they are historical crimes that emanate from the same racialized politics of European identity and supremacy and the same pseudo-science of “race theory.” This is a thesis for which Arendt argued so forcefully in Origins of Totalitarianism: tying the story of the rise of European antisemitism, beginning with the formalization of medieval prejudices into theoretically sophisticated justification of Jew-hatred, to the 19th century development of race theory and the justification of racism. The common conviction, that must be confronted, is that “the White race” and European civilization and “our values” are all the same thing that must be defended by resistance to multiculturalism and anti-White politics.

In a piece of soaring rhetoric surely inspired both in tone and in content by the rhetoric of President Obama (whom he quotes at a central moment in the speech), Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, gave a serious and passionate defense of the decision to remove Confederate statues from public space that seemed directly addressed to the need to confront the newly emboldened White Nationalism. In one of the more celebrated moments of the speech, Mayor Landrieu expressly links the continued presence of the statues to the politics of hope by sharing how a friend asked him to imagine himself as an African American mother or father whose fifth grade daughter asks “who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city?” Landrieu then asks himself and his listeners: “Can you do it? Can you look into that young girl’s eyes and convince her that Robert E. Lee is there to encourage her? Do you think she will feel inspired and hopeful by that story? Do these monuments help her see a future with limitless potential? Have you ever thought that if her potential is limited, yours and mine are too?” The argument is clear: it is impossible for us to argue that Lee is someone who “inspires” or ought to inspire all of us, and since he cannot be someone who makes all us “feel hopeful,” each of us knows that his presence must not stand over us any longer. In Landrieu’s words: “When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us. This is the moment when we know what is right and what we must do.” That is, we must take the statue down. We must do so because its continuing presence in the public sphere underwrites that space as one in which some Americans cannot feel hopeful about their opportunities or even welcomed to be there.

I cannot deny that a public space that tells some of my fellow citizens that they are not welcome is not a public space in which I can feel at home. But there are norms other than the “call to feel inspired and hopeful” that operate here. And Landrieu himself acknowledges the norm that I believe trumps the politics of home in another, less celebrated, part of his speech, when he says: “But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were bought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor, of misery of rape, of torture.” Indeed, we do need to confront those truths; this was my central point in “(Not) Coming to Terms with the Past” and “Misrepresentation and Misrecognition,” specifically with reference to the legacy of chattel slavery in the United States. And yes, merely leaving the monuments in place, as though we can memorialize as a source of pride and identity those who stood up for slavery and against the Union, would be an utter failure to confront that history. But, it seems to me, merely removing the statues from the public space will not remove the memorial that many citizens hold in their hearts for the figures and the actions those statues symbolize.

Yes, Landrieu says that the plan is to find an appropriate place, like a museum, in which to display these monuments with context. But while Landrieu argues for the monuments to be re-situated as museum pieces, for the moment at least they have simply been put in storage, where they won’t contribute to our much-needed confrontation with a difficult past. Landrieu’s speech, taken together with the marked absence of the statues — for the moment at least — seems to me to belie his stated and laudable intention to help his fellow citizens confront “the other side” of New Orleans’s history. By yoking his defense of removal with the politics of hope, Landrieu reiterates the perspective that President Obama adopted in speaking to newly naturalized citizens and including slaves among those who immigrated to America. Given that many, including Frank Bruni writing in the New York Times, cast Landrieu’s speech as “just what we need to hear” in light of the resurgence of White Nationalism, I am given pause. For, what I see in this kind of response, however laudable the intentions of the initiators of these movements, is another version of the mistake President Obama made both in December 2015 on immigration and the July 2008 response to Yad Vashem: the wish — the fantasy — that we undo past misrecognition through misrepresentation (or simply refusing to represent at all) today.

I would humbly submit, here echoing the proposal of Mayor Mike Signer of Charlottesville with respect to that city’s controversial memorials to Lee and Jackson, that simply removing these memorials will not do much to help us recognize today the nature of past misrecognition. Signer, whose personal views about these monuments and their legacy in their respective cities probably do not differ from Landrieu’s, argued and voted against removing the Lee and Jackson monuments in Charlottesville. In an ultimately losing attempt to convince the city council not to approve the removal of the Lee statue,[1] he suggested that it would be better to “transform in place.” This proposal, an adaption of a suggestion in the December 2016 report of the City of Charlottesville Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces, envisioned leaving the two statues where they are, but also building around them so as to create an an open-air museum. Such a newly repopulated public space would add to the statue of Lee in Lee Park a new “memorial to civil rights victories” and, to the statue of Jackson in Jackson Park, a new “memorial to the slave auction block.” With this larger cluster of memorials and explanatory plaques in the two public parks, he argued and I believe, we might really begin to seriously confront the issues that divide the citizens of Charlottesville and New Orleans.

This, as Signer argued, would do much more to show the full dimensions of slavery and Jim Crow in Charlottesville than merely disappearing Lee and Jackson from public view. In Signer’s words: “we must see and defy these monuments to overcome what they mean. That is a more uncomfortable reality, to be sure. But I believe that this dialectical exhibit, and underlying process, of visible thesis, antithesis, and synthesis will create more vibrancy and dynamism for the progressive project in Charlottesville than the alternative.”

The Hegelian motif here is perhaps surprising but no accident. Because the monuments, both in their original Jim Crow era construction and installation and in the debates about their removal now, have always been about the politics of recognition. Much, if not all, of our contestation in the public space is an expression of the struggle that the desire (or need) for recognition inspires, as Hegel recognized and formulated in his classic discussion of the Lord and Bondsman. I do not feel especially welcomed or honored when I walk past the monumental statue of Lee when on my way to the Downtown Mall or the Public Library here in Charlottesville, and I know that many — for good reasons — feel much less welcomed and honored than I. But the point of politics is to demand that my resistance to the way those monuments interpolate and misrecognize me and my fellow citizens be recognized by my fellow citizens, including those who identify with the larger-than-life model of a Confederate general guarding over their public spaces. We need to inscribe that struggle in our public commemoration, not to disappear that struggle from public view, just to see it reemerge in resentment and “private acts” of revenge.

Put another way, these monuments ought never to have been constructed, but that does not make removing them right. The detritus of history surrounds us in Charlottesville and New Orleans as elsewhere. If the monuments concretize this for us, then let us insist on the symbolic installment of contrasting elements of our difficult past, and let us struggle together with those monuments. Let us build other monuments that stake our claim that these existing monuments misrepresent our shared past, as we try to discover who we have been as a people, who we are today, and who we might be tomorrow.


[1] The council voted 3-2 to remove, but the removal has since been blocked by court order.