NEW ORLEANS – During a week when we try to put aside our divisions to celebrate a shared love for our country, we should ponder that we are as badly fractured in approaching history as we are in confronting the present.
There is, of course, a case for using the holiday to shelve our differences altogether. This would be a useful reminder that politics is not everything. People who can’t stand the views of friends, relatives and neighbors can and should love them anyway.
All across our country, people sharply at odds over the man in the White House nonetheless cooperate with each other to strengthen their communities, make their schools better, serve their religious congregations, coach teams and build businesses.
Especially now, we need to nourish this capacity for empathy, mutual assistance and shared endeavor. Politicizing all of life’s relationships can lead down totalitarian paths. This is a strong, Cold War-ish thing to say. But free societies really do need to nurture spaces far removed from power where people can build trust across all lines of division.
And shouldn’t we all be able to rally around the core idea of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal” with rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?
But this is precisely where our disagreements about history start. We fought a Civil War over the question of who was included in the phrase “all men are created equal.” And we still have not come to terms with that fact.
I’m happy I’ll find myself celebrating the Fourth of July in a city whose mayor, Mitch Landrieu, received widespread and deserved national attention in May for a speech explaining why he took down New Orleans’ monuments to Confederate leaders. Landrieu’s exposition is worth revisiting because he underscored how important it is to see history accurately and not how we might wish it to be. “Alternative facts” and “fake news” can infect our understanding of the past no less than our view of the present.
“The historic record is clear,” Landrieu said. “The Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal – through monuments and through other means – to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.”
“It is self-evident that these men did not fight for the United States of America, they fought against it,” he continued. “These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.”
And Landrieu performed a service that, alas, needs to be performed over and over by recalling that the main cause the Southern rebellion defended was slavery, not “states’ rights.” He cited Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens’ straightforward declaration that the Confederacy’s “cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Landrieu showed us how often we distort the past to serve the political interests of the moment. The Confederacy, brought back to life as a “noble cause” to rationalize the post-Reconstruction regime of white supremacy, can only be seen as noble if its essential character is ignored. We cannot fabricate new facts just because we like them better than the real ones.
As we celebrate our founding, we might notice that the Declaration is almost entirely a recitation of facts – offered in a contentious way, to be sure, but also with painstaking precision. Those who opposed independence could fairly respond that the “long train of abuses and usurpations” the Declaration put forward did not justify breaking our bonds with Britain. But the critics could not claim the Founders had ignored the obligation they took on by expressing “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” They persuaded by citing verifiable truths.
This is the right standard for judging the past, as Landrieu insisted, and it’s the proper approach to the future. And if we must argue with friends on this holiday – thank God it’s a free country so we can – let’s try to do so lovingly, and on the basis of a shared commitment to truth.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.