Four Statues of the Apocalypse: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson and Lee

I’m stuck on what happened in Charlottesville.  Can’t get it out of my mind.  I am so disappointed that we haven’t been able to make more progress in diminishing the presence of racism, hate and violence in our country.   I’m frustrated.  There isn’t much I can do.  Except share some thoughts, if you don’t mind.  I warn you though, I may repeat myself…

Yesterday, Trump complained about the removal of Robert E. Lee statues.  He said that he’d heard Stonewall Jackson was next.  What then, he asked.   Are we going to take down statues of Washington and Jefferson because they were slave-owners?

These remarks alone show that Trump has zero understanding of the problem of race in America.  Yes, all four men had owned slaves.  However, unlike Jackson and Lee, Washington and Jefferson were not traitors to their country.  Jackson and Lee were military men who attempted to destroy the Union, split our country in two.  And it is for that alone they are remembered.

Washington, on the other hand, led the colonial troops into battle for the purpose of establishing a new country free from tyranny.  Washington and Jefferson were founders of our nation. But their efforts were directed toward something greater than merely the formation of another country, they envisioned the creation of a new society based upon freedom and equality and the sovereignty of the people.

They were involved, as Tagore put it, in the “constant struggle for a great Further…” our “ceaseless adventure of the Endless Further.”   The difference between them and the two Confederate generals should be obvious.

While looking up some information on Stonewall Jackson, I ran across this quote from James Robertson, the preeminent scholar on Confederate Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson:  “[In] his mind the Creator had sanctioned slavery, and man had no moral right to challenge its existence. The good Christian slaveholder was one who treated his servants fairly and humanely at all times.”

I suspect that this was the predominate rationalization for slave owning among whites at that time.  I hope most Christians today reject the idea that God would sanction the bondage of any of his creatures no matter how well they were treated.  But Jackson and the others lived in a different time.

Jefferson denounced slavery, and yet he was unable to free himself from what he called its “deplorable entanglement.”  His relationship to slavery is still debated by scholars.  But the important thing is that some 48 years before Stonewall Jackson was born, Thomas Jefferson had this to say about the Creator, the most revolutionary words ever composed:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The American Declaration of Independence, the real shot heard round the world.

On July 9, 1776, several thousand Continental soldiers had come to New York from Boston to defend the city from the British.  General George Washington ordered them to gather at the parade grounds in Lower Manhattan at six o’clock to listen to a declaration endorsed by the Continental Congress declaring American independence from England.

When the troops heard Jefferson’s inspiring words about equality and the right to pursue happiness – the right of self-determination – and then heard the list of grievances Jefferson compiled of King George III’s tyrannical violations of those rights, the soldiers were motivated to march down Broadway where they toppled and decapitated a statue of George III.  They melted the statue down and made bullets to use against the British.

It appears that removing statues is another old American tradition.

A year before he died, Jefferson wrote in a letter that his stirring words were “intended to be an expression of the American mind.”

Some 80 years later, Abraham Lincoln’s mind was inspired by the same words.  In 1856, he said, “Let us revere the Declaration of Independence… Let us readopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it the practices and policy which harmonize with it.”  In his own declaration, The Gettysburg Address, Lincoln proclaimed that our nation was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Franklin Roosevelt, a great admirer of Jefferson, was obsessed with building a memorial to him.  He laid the cornerstone in 1939.  He ordered all the trees between the Memorial and the White House cut down so that he would have an unencumbered view of the memorial every day.  In 1943, during his address at the dedication of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. , Roosevelt called Jefferson the “Apostle of Freedom”:

“The Declaration of Independence and the very purposes of the American Revolution itself, while seeking freedoms, called for the abandonment of privileges… [Jefferson] believed, as we believe, in certain inalienable rights.  He, as we, saw those principles and freedoms challenged.  He fought for them, as we fight for them.”

The fight Roosevelt was referring to was the World War, the struggle against fascism.  We are still fighting that fight for fascism has not disappeared from the earth and we are still struggling to abandon privilege, the privilege of being born into wealth, of being white or male.  What did Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee fight for?  The right to own slaves?  There were a number of issues that caused the American Civil War, taxation and States Rights, but most scholars maintain the primary cause was the South’s desire to protect the institution of slavery.   Not a just cause.

George Washington, in his Farewell Address (1796) as president, warned that the establishment of political factions, “sharpened by the spirit of revenge,” and would lead to “formal and permanent despotism.”  We have not heeded this warning and we have fallen short of fulfilling the promise of Jefferson’s ideals.   We have to heal the wounds of division because as Lincoln said “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  And we must stand.  We must stand up for the ideals of equality and stand against this new wave of hate and racism.

Jackson, Lee and all the other Confederate leaders and supporters were traitors.  They betrayed our “American Mind.”

Jefferson and Washington, though imperfect men, sought to build a nation not tear it apart.  Jefferson’s words continue to inspire us 241 years later as we work to create a more perfect and just union.  And this is why their statues and memorials won’t be coming down.

Those who brandish Nazi flags and swastikas, offer Nazi salutes, glorify traitors, preach hate and bigotry and try to divide our country, betray the American Mind.  And those who aid and comfort them are complicit in this betrayal.  It is, in a sense, a form of treason.

We must meet this treason with reason.  Once again, dialogue not violence is the best weapon against prejudiced views.  It is the only way to change their minds.

“Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right.”

– Jane Goodall

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Not Hate, Fear

Mahatma Gandhi is supposed to have said, “The enemy is fear.  We think it is hate; but it is really fear.”  This is an unsourced quote and may not be legitimate; nonetheless, it speaks truth.  I think it helps explains what happened in Charlottesville, what has happened so many times in the past, and what will undoubtedly transpire in the future.

I think it is clear that we need a new approach to this problem.  First, though, it would be helpful to have a better understanding of the nature of the problem, an understanding rooted in compassion.

It is not hate, it’s fear.  The Dalai Lama says,

“If we examine how anger or hateful thoughts arise in us, we will find that, generally speaking, they arise when we feel hurt, when we feel that we have been unfairly treated by someone against our expectations.”

Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, a hater whose support Trump refused to reject during the campaign, was there in Charlottesville, tweeting that “our people were peacefully assembling” but were attacked by “radical leftists,” and “So, after decades of White Americans being targeted for discriminated & anti-White hatred, we come together as a people, and you attack us?”

After two hundred years of Black Americans being targeted for worse things than discrimination, all we’ve been saying is let’s give equality a chance.  When one group achieves equality and freedom, everyone benefits in the end.  The plight of white people in this country doesn’t quite stack up against the sufferings endured by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, either.  Duke’s argument is just not reasonable, and yet behind it is palpable fear, emotion as solid as a stone statue of Robert E. Lee.  Income inequality, job loss, old and familiar values giving way to new ones that seem threatening and foreign, a world moving ahead too swiftly – these are real concerns for many people.  Not just in the South but all across America.  When people are for whatever reason unable to adapt and change, it produces fear and, in some cases, leads them into hate.

Speaking of General Lee, I’ve always thought it interesting that very few in the South have ever thought about the fact that these statues, like the one I used to see at Lee Circle in my old hometown of New Orleans, are monuments to a traitor.  Furthermore, Lee was a slave-owner, responsible for hundreds of thousands of war deaths, and a white supremacist.

I imagine that when black men or women pass by these statues of Lee it produces the same kind of emotion that Jewish men or women must experience when they see a swastika spray-painted on a schoolhouse wall.  It’s taken a long time for us to recognize that.  And it’s why General Lee has to go.

People in the grip of extreme fear cannot see this.  Fear is blinding, making it impossible to see oneself as others.

Reacting to the events in Charlottesville, former President Obama tweeted, “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love…”

No one is born a racist.  It is an attitude that is acquired, learned around the dinner table, in school, in church, and nowadays, on social media.  Very little has changed since Bob Dylan penned these words 54 years ago:

He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in…

But it ain’t them to blame… they’re only a pawn in a game, a game of fear.

At the time, civil rights activist and folklorist, Bernice Johnson Reagon told a journalist Only a Pawn in their Game was the first song that showed the poor white was as victimized by discrimination as the poor black.  We must understand this.  Not to the extreme that people like Duke take it, but to the extent where we aren’t demonizing anyone and we can see white supremacists as human beings whose liberation is our concern.

Offering up Nazi salutes is offensive.  Yesterday, as I watched the news from Charlottesville, I was eager to jump on the labeling-them-Nazis bandwagon.  But today, I’m not so sure…  On one hand, a historical perspective is crucial; we should never forget the terror of Nazism.  On the other hand, labels do little to promote understanding, which is the beginning point of compassion.

So, while we are right to denounce white supremacy, nationalism, hate and violence, unless condemnation is coupled with understanding of the fear that motivates their behavior and empathy with them as victims of fear, we won’t be moving forward anytime soon.

We can do it.  A 2016 study by David Broockman at Stanford University and Joshua Kalla at the University of California Berkeley found “that a single 10-minute conversation with a stranger could reduce prejudice toward transgender people and increase support for nondiscrimination laws.”  It’s conversation that involves what Thich Nhat Hanh calls ‘deep listening,’ the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person.  Through all this festering hatred and deep division our country is in danger becoming irrevocably torn apart.  We have tools, let’s use them and make this nation less brutal, less fearful, and a great country at last.

“May those whose hell it is to hate and hurt be turned into lovers bringing flowers.”

– Shantideva.

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Bob Dylan, at the historic 1963 March on Washington, is introduced by the late Ozzie Davis.

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