I was recently perplexed to see in the news that Harvard, the oldest institution of higher learning in the nation, had declared that, though master has no etymological relation to slavery (but rather to magister), the word would nevertheless be abandoned as a title for a resident supervisor of student housing, and be replaced by some weak substitute. Yet simultaneously, the educational giant announced that though a house could not any more have a master, Harvard’s master’s degrees would still be called by the slavery-tainted word.
My puzzlement was not my shortcoming, or so I flatter myself. The vertigo was caused by the cognitive failure of hypocritical Harvard to be consistent in its pandering to belligerent and deluded students who, to make a mystery more murky, were supposed to be learning something other than how to make a laughingstock of a great university. If they had been learning anything at all, such as elementary French, they might have known how to refer to the lady of a house: La maîtresse de maison; or another usage familiar to civilized English speakers, “Le Maître d’hôtel,” or the Italian honorific Maestro. If they had studied English, they might have learned something perhaps about the relation of Master, Mister, Mistress, and even Mr., Mrs., and Miss. But Harvard has accepted the role of self-approved students to instruct about general knowledge and about Harvard, and it may be that this inversion can be seen, even at Harvard, not only as something grotesque, but as destructive of education itself. The reversal of education is an inversion of what has heretofore always been hierarchical, as they know at Harvard and at other elite institutions, but are afraid to say.
That there might have been a learning moment here is as obvious as (at Harvard) it is unwelcome. Slave does present a challenge to us, since the first four letters of that word do not correspond with any assumptions of the contemporary “student.” The four letters denote a widespread people, including Russians, Croats, Serbs, Poles, and others, whose very name is our word for bondage. These people—of variously distinctive ethnicity, alphabet, and religion—are noted today for their scientific, industrial, musical, literary, and distillational achievements. But let us not dwell ponderously on such tangled and obscure matters, but hurry on before the studious protestors gather in front of their smartphones to authorize whatever this evening’s priorities, images, and thoughts might or must be.
But surely another subject might release some form of rewarding insight, if even Harvard, with one of the greatest libraries in the world, is proofed against information, knowledge, and judgment? No, this hope is vain and without foundation. The stabbings that were recently delivered at a Ku Klux Klan gathering in California—nationally celebrated, of course—were another example of absurdity, but in America today, even absurdity cannot be properly appreciated. I hold that no matter what you think of it, the Klan was disbanded in 1869, and therefore there cannot have been any legitimacy or succession in any moribund revival. So the pathetic and delusional is a pretext for violence and revenge.
Now on the matter of the so-called Confederate flag, let me say only that the recent demented and deadly attack on a church in South Carolina—a murderous attack on church members who had charitably welcomed the attacker—was no proper basis for Gov. Nikki Haley’s subsequent intervention, though a pretext it undoubtedly was. Nevertheless, the association of the flag with the dementia was fixed, with the predictable result. A strange interpretation of the meaning of an emblem has become a national fixation with perhaps a demented aspect of its own.
How refreshing it would be for someone to acknowledge the historic reality of the Secession of 1861! The South did secede, even if the arbitrament of war reversed the action. Since there was no Union to be saved, therefore this preservation never occurred. What did eventuate was rather a conquest and an imposed rule, which we have lived under ever since. Only some few Northerners have ever realized that the triumphalist view has, though not without some justification, occluded an understanding of the damage done to the interests of all citizens, even themselves.
Does anyone imagine that Italians in the Mezzogiorno have waved Confederate flags to signal an insult to African-Americans? No, they signaled an internal unity of their own, and an intent to leave an unsatisfactory status quo. Who supposes that the Georgians of the eastern republic are “white supremacists”? They, too, unlike most Americans, can construe the meaning of an image. The confusion about the meaning of a flag is an internal problem, exclusively.
And a rather convenient problem it is, especially for politicians. My own view about the Confederate flag is that it is no issue at all, which is not to say that it has not been made into one. But the flag is necessary for the hatemongers—the progressives who love to hate. Few of the hate mongers know anything about the various flags of the Confederacy and the state regiments and the corps within armies. There are many such flags, and some of them are imagistically unrelated to the familiar saltire, or Saint Andrew’s Cross. In other words, these recondite Confederate flags are being displayed openly today, but are, amusingly enough, unrecognized. But now there has developed a movement to reconstruct the various Southern state flags that have any Confederate aspects at all. Such iconoclastic passions are reminiscent of various movements in contemporary and historic Islam, as well as in the histories of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches.
The focus on state flags is related to an obsession with historic erasure that is deceptive and even dangerous. Since the Stars and Stripes denoted a slaveholding nation for decades before the Confederate flag existed, it would seem that the flag of the United States is the one that should be reformulated or replaced, or at least referred to as being “like the swastika.” Educated people know what that means—and what it doesn’t. Though flaunting the swastika is intolerable, the study of imagery, art, symbols, religion, and anthropology is not. In an academic sense, even the swastika can be looked on without sinister implications.
Marble and granite are sterner stuff than the cloth of flags, and so we come to the weighty business—or rather stillness—of monuments and statues. Destructive resolutions in Memphis, Tennessee, concerning the equestrian statue of Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest; the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in New Orleans; a statue of Jefferson Davis and another statue of Lee, both in Texas; other statues of Davis and Lee; and reliefs of Davis, Lee, and Stonewall Jackson carved into Stone Mountain near Atlanta have also been represented in the national as well as regional vehicles of the news. The images of Davis and Lee are the big ones, of imposing stature and of national importance, at least in the sense that the men carved on Stone Mountain were heroes of the Mexican War and of considerable reputation before the War Between the States. Lee had been commandant at West Point, and Davis was the best secretary of war that the United States had known. And there are more statues of Davis and Lee than those I have cited, and we will hear about them.
And there are many more of lesser and more abstract human images as well, in the form of generic Confederate soldiers in the courthouse squares of many towns across the South. And these are in parallel to many such Union monuments in the states as they were before and during the War. I think that the Union monuments are safe for the time being, but they are not necessarily going to be safe forever. In the near term, I can see that we already have tolerated the case that will be made against the Confederate monuments, though not yet the Federal ones. That bulldozer has not come home to roost.
The anachronistic indignation about slavery and states’ rights and the “Civil War” of more than a century and a half ago is rather quaintly comfortable—and oddly like the reenactment of battles. Both clash with the memorials. The further away some get from the bloody circumstances of combat, the more truculent they become. What courage they have, to stare down so many ghosts! But with fierce recklessness, some can deface graves, destroy monuments, and forbid the sight of offensive and dreadful images. But memory depends on something to remember, which was the point of the memorials in the first place. And I know how difficult this is.
So, anticipating the destructive demands that will be made concerning Confederate monuments in the future, I have an immodest proposal to put forth. Inspired by the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, I have conceived of a large private undertaking that will be of much service, not only saving the monuments that are so threatened and despised, but removing those statues from the sight of those who despise them because they are there. In my ecstatic vision, they will not be there. They will be somewhere else.
They will have been removed by trucks from Texas to the Tidewater and installed appropriately on challenging golf courses, where they will line the fairways. And one of the rules of those golf courses will be that a ball that ricochets off a statue must be played where it lies.
The privileges of these private acres and the extensive but tasteful gray hotel will be of interest to descendants of the people of the Confederacy, who today number some 70 million—an adequate number of potential donors of funds to finance the Ingathering of the Monuments, the four 18-hole courses, and all the other amenities.
Needless to say, in a tolerant and open society that fits the tone of a society worth living in, membership in the Memorial Gathering Association will not be restricted to descendants of the Confederacy only, but open to any people who wish occasionally to gaze upon Confederate memorials and more often to enjoy the benefits of pleasant company, especially while imbibing a limited number of mint juleps and nibbling only some few ham biscuits and pimento-cheese sandwiches.
People who do not wish to engage in polite conversation and exchanges of ideas and platters and trays of prized comestibles would not be appropriate members of the Association; and individuals who protest against the pre-existing and declared purposes of the Association must logically withdraw from the Association much faster than phony nonstudents do from today’s internally betrayed institutions of higher learning.