Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Stop Talking Respectfully About Traitors

Racists want the monuments to stay up, of course, but for others, the "tearing down history" argument seems to settle the question, and opponents can't seem to refute it effectively. We can say that we don't put up monuments to the 9/11 hijackers, or to Hitler and Hirohito's soldiers, or even to British troops in the Revolutionary War, and no one says that we're "denying history." But that argument doesn't resonate.


The backlash is strong. It's not going away. And Americans in the middle simply don't understand the reasons for opposition. 
Those artifacts are not the only way we legitimize and honor the deadly and racist 19th-century rebellion against the United States. Much of the language used in reference to the Civil War glorifies the rebel cause.

The language we turn to in describing the war, from speaking of compromise and plantations, to characterizing the struggle as the North versus the South, or referring to Robert E. Lee as a General, can lend legitimacy to the violent, hateful and treasonous southern rebellion that tore the nation apart from 1861 to 1865; and from which we still have not recovered. Why do we often describe the struggle as between two equal entities? Why have we shown acceptance of the military rank given by an illegitimate rebellion and unrecognized political entity? In recent years, historians in academia and in the public sphere have been considering these issues.


Landis goes on to suggest that we call plantations what they really were—slave labor camps; and drop the use of the term, “the Union.” A common usage in the 19th century to be sure, but now one we only use “the Union” in reference to the Civil War and on the day of the State of the Union address. A better way to speak of the nation during the war, he argues, is to use its name, the United States.

In the same way, we could change the way we refer to secessionist states. When we talk of the Union versus the Confederacy, or especially when we present the strife as the North versus the South, we set up a parallel dichotomy in which the United States is cast as equal to the Confederate States of America. But was the Confederacy really a nation and should we refer to it as such?

When historian Steven Hahn participated in the 2015 History Film Forum at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, he noted that using these customary terms to tell the story of the Civil War —Hahn suggests we use “War of the Rebellion”—lends legitimacy to the Confederacy.
“If you think about it,” Hahn said, “nobody in the world recognized the Confederacy. The question is can you be a state if no one says you are a state?”


In his writings, Lincoln referred to the group he was fighting as the “so-called Confederacy” and Jefferson Davis never as president, only as the “insurgent leader.”
And if the so-called Confederacy wasn’t a country, but rather what political scientists would call a proto-state, because not a single foreign government in the entire world recognized it as a nation-state, then could Jefferson Davis legitimately be a president? Could Robert E. Lee be a General?

The highest rank Lee achieved in the United States Army was colonel, so given his role as general in service to a failed revolution by a group of rebels, how should we now refer to him?

It would be just as accurate to refer to Lee, who led an armed group against national sovereignty, as an insurgent or a warlord, if not a terrorist. Imagine how different it would be for a school-age child to learn about the War of the Rebellion if we altered the language we use.

When news reports about the debate over monuments say “Today the City Council met to consider whether to remove a statue commemorating General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army,” what if they instead were written in this way: “Today the City Council debated removing a statue of slaveholder and former American army colonel Robert E. Lee, who took up arms in the rebellion against the United States by the so-called Confederacy?”

Douglass knew, day-by-day, after the shooting stopped, a history war was playing out. It is clearly not over yet. Words, though they do not stand as marble and bronze memorials in parks and in front of buildings or fly on flagpoles, are perhaps even more powerful and pernicious. The monuments we've built with language may, in fact, be even more difficult to tear down.
They are Traitors in Defense of Slavery (thank you, Erik Loomis), and so are their apologists and defenders today. 

Call them out and name them accurately: Traitors in Defense of Slavery.

1 comment:

Gerald Parks said...

THIS is awesome! The language we use is so very important in telling the truth of a matter. I for one will be more conscious of how I talk about the enslavers of human beings and their violent armed insurrection against the USA.