Look Away: Mothers, Monuments, and Myths
The march of Providence is so slow and our desires so impatient; the work of progress so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.
– Robert E Lee
Much of the work of writer and philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960) explored the complexity of moral judgement and action in the face of human suffering. This reflected his wartime experience in the French Resistance, as well as his upbringing. Born in French Algeria, the global South, his parents descended from colonists. They were poor, but, as European stock, remained a caste separate and above native North Africans. Camus understood compound, competing loyalties from the inside.
Shortly after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, Camus was asked about the struggle against French rule in Algeria. He is frequently, if apocryphally, cited as answering that ‘[b]etween justice and my mother, I choose my mother.‘ His actual response was more subtle. He condemned the terror of anti-colonialism, not the equity of the Arab cause. He feared, not without reason, that independence would erase his people from North Africa.
Camus’ comments, and his writing, came to mind as the Confederate monuments in my native New Orleans came down. Like the racism they celebrated, intentionally and incidentally, the monuments should be things of the past. They should be in our museums, not our main streets. But the words attributed to Camus are wise. They suggest the deep, felt priority of familial affection, and indeed national or communal allegiances, over abstract principles. The failure to attend to such nuances of identity and morality is a central cause of our current political impasse.
Each of us must balance our pasts and presents in contexts not entirely of our choosing. Born in the Crescent City and raised in rural Louisiana, I confess that I had a small Confederate flag on my wall as a teenager. I placed it next to my picture of Martin Luther King. To my immature mind, this was an attempt to marry my peoples and principles. I knew even then that even a symbol like the Stars-and-Bars is ‘a complex tangle of ideas‘ that may have anodyne associations for specific individuals. The (aging) fans of The Dukes of Hazzard needn’t be devotees of David Duke.
But such private subjective views, however sincerely felt, are insufficient to alter the meaning of Confederate symbols for too many of our fellow citizens. The presence of the monuments in the public spaces of New Orleans is an obvious, standing insult to black Americans. To them, such images are more likely to represent the worst acts of injustice and degradation: kidnapping, forced transportation, and the ongoing violence – battery, murder, and rape – of race-based, perpetual chattel slavery. The fact that many of the memorials were explicitly erected to defend Jim Crow makes them still more odious. It was, to mangle Faulkner, a past ‘never dead. It [was] not even past.’
Slavery is our nation’s original sin, and is visited on us all. It was the root and trunk of our uncivil war. If other American groups and individuals have also suffered, the African-American experience was of an entirely different order of repression and pain. Only bigots or fools could deny this. Sadly, we have too many of both.
The greater number of these simply shut their ears to present prejudice. A smaller number who’ve actively protested the removal of the monuments haven’t hidden their hate. Or their weapons. And this week saw Mississippi State Representative Karl Oliver suggest that those removing the monuments should ‘be LYNCHED!’ Representative Oliver is, of course, an honorable and a Godly man. And a Republican.
But in addition to the deplorable and the deluded, there are many other plain folk entangled in their cultural attachments, affections nearly as natural as family. Democrats and Republicans, they might acknowledge the equity of the removal of Confederate monuments and flags if it didn’t mean, at the same time, ratifying a portrait of their predecessors as entirely depraved. And they may be right to rebel. Despite the simple stories we tell ourselves – in our popular films, political platitudes, and judicial decisions – composite causes and mixed motives are the historical norm.
Beyond the opinion pages, too many progressives too rarely engage with the cultural and moral middle. Anyone who hesitates to condemn the monuments, and the flag, is labelled an apostate, a slack-jawed yokel who confirms the Left’s moral superiority. Many of these liberal foot soldiers, not least across social media, engage in little more than name-calling. Southerners were ‘losers’ and ‘traitors’ (though rebellion is only treason when it fails). And Confederate monuments are so many ‘participation trophies’.
Such arrogance is inappropriate. American history is no simple morality play of good versus evil. It’s nonsense to suggest that, to a man, Northerners fought as abolitionists to ‘forge a more perfect union’ while every rebel rallied to slavery, rather than to his homeland and his neighbors. To project into only one side what Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’, is a sort of collective hagiography, not history. It substitutes one morally-abridged myth with another.
Condescension is also obviously unwise. It does progressivism little good to confirm the long-standing stereotype of liberal ideologues more concerned about the abstract than the actual. It was, in part, such cultural dismissal and tone-deafness that ensured a victory for the champion of white identity last year. And this either/or ethics even cheapens the sin of slavery, the horror of which is magnified, not minimalised, because ordinary men and women were its agents.
In The Plague (1947), Camus created a fictional epidemic in the real city of Oran in French Algeria. The work, written only two years after the Second World War, is widely understood to have been a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of France. But it also reflected Camus’ central theme: the Sisyphean human quest for meaning and belonging. In the midst of the plague, the two main characters had the following exchange:
‘I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is – being a man.’
‘Yes, we’re both after the same thing, but I’m less ambitious.’
Rieux supposed Tarrou was jesting and turned to him with a smile. But, faintly lit by the dim radiance falling from the sky, the face he saw was sad and earnest.
It is our lot, not least those in and of the South, to deal with men rather than saints. We needn’t coddle or capitulate to the Olivers of the world, but we can’t erect a wall between Left and Right. We can’t afford to treat those who aren’t already true believers as so many lost souls or lost causes. We must instead proselytize among them so that we might all be saved.
We must, to coin a phrase, ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner.’
A native of Louisiana and longtime resident of Ireland, Seán Patrick Donlan is a Law Professor and Deputy Head of the University of the South Pacific School of Law. No, really. He blogs occasionally at A View From Below and manages Tomorrow: Progressive Politics and Southern Life.