Friday, August 25, 2017

Done and Done

The bust of Robert E. Lee has been removed from the Hall of Fame.

And so has the bust of Stonewall Jackson.

Photos from today, August 25, 2017.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Other Civil War Memorial

Below is what I consider to be the greatest war memorial of the 19th century, located on Beacon Street in Boston on the edge of Boston Common just across from the State House.  It is the Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African American military unit.  The 54th was created by President Abraham Lincoln after much effort by Frederick Douglass to persuade the President to enlist African Americans for military service.  It was a segregated unit commanded by a white officer, a compromise with prejudices and low expectations of African soldiers.  When the soldiers found out that they were to be paid less than their white counterparts, they boycotted their pay.  Colonel Shaw joined their boycott returning his own pay.  Eventually Congress relented and agreed to pay them the standard wage plus back pay owed.
The Massachusetts 54th fought with distinction and tenacity at Fort Wagner in South Carolina, losing 285 men, including Shaw.  As a result of their courage, President Lincoln and the Congress formed more all African units.  By the end of the war, the Union Army was 10% Black.

The creation of the Memorial began with the initiative of an African American businessman and Massachusetts legislator Joshua Benton Smith who grew up in the Shaw household as a family servant.  Smith joined a committee of 21 prominent Bostonians tasked with erecting a monument to Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th.  After much discussion, the committee decided to hire the famous sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens to make the Memorial.

The Memorial is the masterpiece of Augustus Saint Gaudens who spent fourteen years making it from the time he received the commission in 1883 to the monument's unveiling in 1897.

Saint Gaudens originally intended to make a free standing equestrian statue of Colonel Shaw alone; however Shaw's family insisted that his men be commemorated with him.  After the Battle of Fort Wagner, Confederate soldiers threw Shaw's body unceremoniously into a ditch with the bodies of his men.  The rebel soldiers' intended insult became a great honor in the eyes of Shaw's family.

Saint Gaudens decided to make a large relief sculpture inspired precedents in ancient Roman art and in 19th century official French history painting, in particular Charles Meissonier's Campagne de France 1814 which he had seen in Paris.  As only Saint Gaudens could, he combined a very Classical allegorical format with scrupulous realism.

A grieving spiritual figure in low relief, perhaps a personification of patriotism, hovers over the men shown as they might have actually appeared on the very spot in Beacon Street in May, 1863 when they officially departed for South Carolina.  Among those on the reviewing stand that day were Governor John A. Andrew who ordered the formation of the unit, and Frederick Douglass whose two sons Lewis and Charles marched past in the regiment.
Saint Gaudens added above the marching soldiers and next to the allegorical figure this Latin inscription: OMNIA RELINQVIT/ SERVARE REPVBLICAM ("He gave up all to serve the Republic").

Saint Gaudens made great efforts to portray the soldiers realistically, and to avoid the common stereotypes prevalent in so much 19th century art.  Each soldier is carefully individualized.  All wear a grave and resolute expression.

Saint Gaudens hired numerous African American men to sit for about 40 portrait studies for the soliders.  He also borrowed Civil War uniforms and insignia to make the soldiers as authentic as possible.

On the back of the Memorial is an inscription written by the President of Harvard University, Charles W. Eliot.

Soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th, all former slaves.

William Harvey Carney in 1864 with the flag of the Massachusetts 54th that he saved in the course of the battle for Fort Wagner.  Carney became the first African American soldier to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery.  He was present at the unveiling of Saint Gauden's sculpture in 1897.

Henry Augustus Monroe at 13 years old was the regiment's drummer.  His drum beats communicated the commanding orders to the soldiers in the heat of battle.  He wrote a vivid account of the battle at Fort Wagner and later pursued a career as a teacher and a Methodist minister.

Robert Gould Shaw

Fort Wagner, a battery formation on a beach in South Carolina as it appeared in 1863.

The dedication ceremony for the Memorial in 1897.

One of Saint Gauden's compositional studies for the Memorial.

Augustus Saint Gaudens

The Shaw Memorial has been vandalized a number of times.  In 2012, someone threw yellow paint on the monument.  On other occasions, vandals tried to steal Colonel Shaw's sword damaging the sculpture.

I expect this monument to be even more of an object of controversy in coming days.

A Moment of Clear Decision

I'm not interested in living in any country where Nazi flags are flown, or people make the Hitlergruss, and the head of state just shrugs; or worse, climbs up on some plastic cross when people call him out on his own morally blind vanity. I can't think of any symbol that screams crime and death more than a swastika flag. That flag stands for the extermination and enslavement of all of humankind, 'except for our kind who are gods.'
I'm more interested in living in that country we used to have that fought the Nazis and won. I have no desire to live in some ethno-fascist fortress state of frightened white people.
I want to live in that cosmopolitan secular democracy that we are throwing away because we pee in our pants at the thought of having to share a country with people who are not exactly like us; because we've allowed demagogues to convince us that when someone else gets something, we lose something.

Life and Death, blessings and curses, are set before us today. Let us choose wisely that our children may live.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Noble Lie

I am a son of the South, more by birth than by choice.  I grew up in a state of the Confederacy, Texas.  The Confederacy and all of its bitter memories and mythology were in the air everyone breathed; The Noble Cause is what its partisans, eulogists, and memorializers called it.
My dad was no liberal, but he hated the Confederacy and its whole legacy.  The right to own people and force them to work for nothing while someone else profited from their labor was not a hill he thought worth dying over.  He shared Sam Houston's opinion of the Confederacy as a disastrous mistake.  My dad thought that the whole rebellion was stupid, and its legacy kept the South backwards and poor.

We kept a photo of Lincoln hanging in our house; very unusual for 1960s Texas.

When I lived in Saint Louis in the 1980s, I used to see this monument in Forest Park, the Memorial to the Confederate War Dead.  It was a monument whose design I always admired very much; a small masterpiece of the American Renaissance movement that very beautifully integrated sculpted imagery on many different levels with an elegant architectural design -- in true classical fashion, the allegorical content is sculpted in stone low relief, and the realistic content is in bronze.

Until very recently, this monument stood in decaying neglected splendor in a corner of the park noticed by very few.  Few people were even aware that Saint Louis had a Confederate memorial, and for good reason.  Missouri was officially never part of the Confederacy.  In fact, it was one of the "border states," Union states along the border with the Confederacy that still kept slaves.  Missouri was bitterly divided with both the Union and the Confederacy making claims on the state.  For awhile the state had two competing state governments; the official Union government in Jefferson City and a rival Confederate government in Neosho.  The population of the state was bitterly divided with the state's large German population solidly behind the Union and the Anglo population mostly supporting the Confederacy.  Even before the official start of the Civil War there was fierce fighting between pro-Union and pro-Confederate forces throughout the state.  Union and Confederate forces fought to control the state government and a valuable arsenal in Saint Louis.  Unofficial guerrilla forces fought each other and terrorized the countryside even after the Civil War concluded.

A group of prominent society women in Saint Louis founded the St. Louis Confederate Memorial Association in 1906 and proposed building a monument.  The proposed monument immediately created controversy, especially among Union veterans and the German population who took great offense at the very idea of a monument to what they saw as an act of treason.  The Memorial Association agreed to some significant compromises in order to get permission to build the monument.  No weapons and no uniforms would appear on the monument.  There would be no Confederate emblems like the Battle Flag or the Stars and Bars.  In the end, the fine sculpted bronze group showed a young man in civilian clothes apparently called to war embraced by his grieving mother and sister.  A child holds a flag of indeterminate identity.  The monument was completed and dedicated in 1914.  The canon near the monument is a later memorial to the Spanish American War.

As beautiful as the Confederate Memorial is, it was part of an effort to manipulate the narrative of the events of the Civil War if not quite the official record of it.  This was The Lost Cause Movement that sought to remake the story of the American Civil War from a slave owners' rebellion to a noble struggle by local whites against all odds and at great cost to defend their rights and their "way of life" against outside aggression.  The role of slavery in the Civil War -- and even slavery's existence and harshness -- were minimized and sometimes ignored.  Reconstruction was remade from a narrative of liberation and opportunity for newly freed blacks to the military oppression of defeated whites.
Art played a big role in this movement especially in the many monuments in stone and bronze intended to transform this new narrative of white courage and suffering into durable facts on the ground.   The Lost Cause even produced great art, for example DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation released in 1915, the year after the Saint Louis Memorial was completed.

A Currier and Ives lithograph print of a cotton plantation in the South, 1884

Richard Norris Brooke, Furling the Flag, 1872

As fine as some of this art could be, its purpose was to falsify historical memory.  All these splendid memorials and great novels and movies exalted white courage and suffering at the expense of African Americans and their experiences.  The point of all of this was to absolve white consciences of any responsibility for buying and selling human beings, forcing them to work for nothing, and for building their prosperous dominion on the uncompensated labor of generations of slaves.  Whites eased their nagging consciences with spurious invocations of science arguing that the dark races were somehow "inferior" and incapable of self-determination.  They resorted to equally spurious uses of religion arguing that the dark races were the cursed descendants of Noah's son Ham, ignoring a central tenet of the Christian religion that says that all people on earth belong to a single family descended from a common ancestor in Adam.
African slaves and their descendants were to be kept in a state of perpetual dependence upon a paternalistic despotism that was supposed to be "for their own good."  Whites even convinced themselves that slaves were happy in their servitude; never mind that slavery by definition is an institution founded in violence and perpetuated by violence.  Hovering over those rosy memories of the plantation as one big happy family is always the dark hidden threat of violence ready to assert itself at the least sign of disobedience.

Art, architecture, and literature played their role in this deception that succeeded in shaping historical memories among whites, and not just in the South.  So much for "art still has truth..."  As an old professor of mine always insisted, "art ain't cornflakes."  It's not always good for us, and can be as flawed and self-deceiving as we are.  Art is human before it is divine.
All that splendid artistic deception went hand in hand with campaigns of violence used to terrify and suppress African American populations at the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, and in periods of rising African American expectations such as the decade following the First World War that saw probably the worst racist violence.

And now, we are waking up from this dream with a rude start.

Saint Louis' Confederate Memorial, so long ignored and forgotten, became a focus of attention in the wake of the 2015 massacre of nine Bible class students in Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina by a white supremacist, Dylann Roof.
The Monument was vandalized, and now it is gone, removed by the Parks Department after long and heated arguments over the Monument's meaning and over who really owned it.

The Memorial is now gone and its removal in the end was relatively orderly.

In the wake of the shocking events in Charlottesville, Virginia -- a white supremacist rally full of violent rhetoric and Nazi symbolism culminating in bloodshed when a car deliberately crashed into a crowd of counter-demonstrators killing Heather Heyer -- crowds turned upon these monuments with fury.  A mob pulled down and destroyed a Confederate monument in Durham, North Carolina just a day after the events in Charlottesville.

I'm all for taking these monuments down, but I don't like mobs and I don't like wanton destruction.  Whatever the motivation behind these monuments, they are historical evidence, and works of art.  I would much prefer to see them removed in an orderly fashion and either stored or displayed in a more neutral historical or aesthetic setting.
I fear that now blood has been shed, there will be more such mob actions.

And who is responsible for waking us so rudely from our Gone-With-The-Wind dream of Southern white chivalry?  revisionist academics?  the liberal media?
No, the Confederacy's most devoted partisans -- true believing white supremacists -- loudly and aggressively revealed the racism at the heart of it all for all the world to see.  They eagerly conflate symbols of the old Confederacy with Nazi symbolism; two racist states defeated and destroyed by mostly white armies in very bloody warfare.

White supremacists shed blood in a series of shocking public murders starting with Dylann Roof's massacre of Bible study students at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC and continuing with the murder of six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, then three people murdered in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, and now the death of Heather Heyer and the injury of nine others at Charlottesville.  The narcissistic and paranoid Nero who occupies the White House aids and abets these extremists partly out of his own racism, but mostly to gratify his insatiably vanity.  White supremacism now as always is a movement of psychopaths and sociopaths determined to dominate everyone around them through violence and intimidation.  All of their supremacist ideology and pseudo-scientific racist theories are only pretexts in the end.  Goons and thugs will be goons and thugs.

And now, more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, Senator Thaddeus Stevens' demand that "treason must be made odious" finally comes to pass.  The extreme partisans of the Lost Cause, the white supremacists, the antisemites, the homophobes, and Christian Dominionists in their words and  deeds exposed the violence at the heart of the Confederate legacy.


The controversy over the Confederate legacy comes to Bronx Community College.

I've noted in prior posts about the Hall of Fame the incongruous presence of Generals Lee and Jackson in the Hall, and how their inductions were originally very controversial.

The bust of Robert E. Lee in the Hall of Fame

The induction ceremony for Robert E. Lee in 1923, a decision that was very controversial.  Many then still living Union veterans protested Lee's presence in the Hall accusing New York University and the Hall of Fame committee of caving to pressure from the Daughters of the Confederacy and wealthy Southern interests.
Lee's bust stayed in the Hall, but the Hall of Fame jury resisted successfully considerable pressure to induct Jefferson Davis.

The Daughters of the Confederacy prevailed again in 1957 when Stonewall Jackson was inducted.

On August 16, 2017, the president of Bronx Community College Thomas Isekenegbe sent this letter to the students and faculty:

The busts of Lee and Jackson will be removed and put in storage.   I fully support this decision.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

We Did It Before And We Can Do It Again!

Two of many reworked WWII posters making the rounds on the internet over the past few days:

Monday, August 14, 2017

My Country, Your Country

Andreas Feininger, The Statue of Liberty darkened during a war time "dim out" of New York City's lights, 1943

Borders, flags, armies, insignia, nations, tribes, and sects all testify to the frightened selfishness of human nature. The world is roughly 200 nations -- and who knows how many tribes -- who all hate each other’s guts, whose governments and leaderships are all more or less corrupt, and who use their people’s fear and loathing of outsiders to justify their hold on power. We are too selfish and frightened to ever be perfectly good. We are also too selfish and frightened to be perfectly evil. We live in a world of ten thousand equivocations and must make our way and do our best in it. We love our friends and families despite their flaws, and we expect them to love us despite ours.
If we love our countries, we do so for the same reason we love our families (by birth and by choice); not because they are so wonderful, but because they are ours. We live in those countries and so are invested in them. We have a real stake in their success, and so we work hard and go through a lot to make them succeed. We struggle always to bring into concrete physical reality those golden phantom abstractions Freedom and Justice for ourselves and especially for our children. We know that mutual respect and fellowship between us and our neighbors is our best and most secure fortress against predation and misfortune. The best guarantee of Liberty and Justice for me and mine is Liberty and Justice for All. My freedom and dignity is bound up with the freedom and dignity of all of those I live with. And so, we work and struggle to bring into being a just world that each and all of us would want to live in on any level.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


After a weekend of squalor and bloodshed in Charlottesville, Thomas Jefferson's home...

Heather Heyer who gave the last full measure of her devotion at her first political protest.

Grateful remembrance.

Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Pilot Berke M.M. Bates
Both were killed when their helicopter monitoring events in Charlottesville crashed

Grateful remembrance

The Rotunda at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, founded by Thomas Jefferson as the world's first secular university.  Jefferson designed its campus including this building which is its centerpiece.  In earlier universities, the centerpiece of the campus was the chapel.  This building, modeled on the Roman Pantheon, was a library.

"I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that His justice cannot sleep forever."
-- Thomas Jefferson, a man as deeply conflicted as the country he dreamed up; a champion of Liberty and a slave owner.