Culture

Living with History, Part III

Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery (Wikimedia)
The Maryland state song, Arlington Cemetery, Wilberforce University, and more

Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, we have a piece called “‘Rhodes Must Fall’: The rights and wrongs of a movement,” by Jay Nordlinger. This week, under the rubric of his Impromptus column, Mr. Nordlinger has expanded this piece in a series. For Parts I and II, go here and here. The series concludes today.

On to another controversy: the Maryland state song. It urges Marylanders to abandon the Union — and to rise up against the “despot,” President Lincoln. Paul Mirengoff wrote about this issue at Power Line. He grew up in Maryland and characterizes the song as follows: “basically a call to treason.”

Some people want to change it. Others say no way. One of the No crowd is Governor Larry Hogan, whom I admire highly. He says that opposition to the song is an example of “political correctness run amok.” He adds, “Where do we stop? Do we get rid of the George Washington statues out here and take down all the pictures from all the people from the colonial era that were slaveowners?”

My natural sympathies are with Hogan. I’m a conservative, and I’m loath to tamper with commemorations and traditions — or at least slow to. I can’t stand the posturing of living people about the dead. And, obviously, I can’t stand political correctness.

But I would change the song. I consider it a wrong to be righted. Nothing wrong with righting wrongs.

‐So, what is my rule or principle on these matters? I’m afraid I can’t lay one out. I think you have to go case by case — and follow nose, instinct, conscience, gut.

‐Last year, I had a visit to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va. Lovely visit, and such a beautiful place. Wonderful people. I enjoyed hearing about the traditions, concerning General and Mrs. Lee and such.

They are easy to take, however — easy for me to take — because the Confederacy lost. The Union was saved. Slavery was abolished. The American promise was redeemed. It’s relatively easy to be gracious to the losing side.

And, of course, there were so many dead, on both sides. Nothing uglier than a civil war: brother against brother, etc.

‐Many years ago, I visited Arlington Cemetery, and found myself particularly moved by the Confederate Memorial: that woman, representing the South, facing the south.

To say it again: The Confederacy lost the war — which makes being moved by Confederate memorials easier, for me.

I have been Googling around — and wish to quote Wikipedia: “Beginning with Woodrow Wilson in 1919, almost every President of the United States sent a wreath to the Confederate Memorial Day exercises.” Certain presidents have broken the tradition, for various reasons.

When Barack Obama became president in 2009, “he faced a dilemma about continuing the tradition.” There were arguments back and forth. “President Obama himself never addressed the issue. Instead, Obama sent a wreath not only to the Confederate Memorial but also instituted a new tradition of sending a presidential wreath to the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.”

That strikes me as wise, almost Solomonic. (Have I praised President Obama? Has Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane?)

‐As I think I have mentioned, I would be relaxed about attending a college named after Cecil Rhodes, or boasting a statue of him. I would not be so relaxed about attending a college named after John C. Calhoun (although what a thrill, to go to Yale).

That’s just me.

At the same time, I acknowledge we can’t all attend an institution named after William Wilberforce — the great abolitionist from Britain, who lived from 1759 to 1833. In his day, slavery was a norm of human affairs. It always has been, since cave days.

We have a Wilberforce University in Ohio. I know it mainly as an alma mater of Leontyne Price, the great soprano from Laurel, Miss. William Grant Still attended too (the composer).

‐I have a friend who bought an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan not long ago. (I’m not changing the subject.) He and his family liked the apartment a lot. But my friend didn’t like the name of the building, at all: the Oliver Cromwell. Gritting his teeth, he bought anyway.

‐ About ten blocks to the south is Lincoln Center, which has the David H. Koch Theater, named after a man who donated $100 million. Mr. Koch is a libertarian, and the people who work in the theater are generally … not. They tend to hate the name of the place, and some refuse to say it. But none has quit over the issue, I gather.

‐We all have to suck it up a little in life. In the future, no doubt, lots of things will be named after Obama, who is, after all, our first black president, and a progressive hero. I won’t like it, thinking Obama a disaster. But there you go.

There was a time when Iraq was going well. People were braving terrorists to line up at the polls. They dipped their finger purple, in the process of voting. Then they held those fingers aloft, jubilantly. On television, the comedian-pundit Jon Stewart worried that his kids would have to attend George W. Bush High School. Unfortunately, he can rest easy.

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‐You recall that the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement is now active at Oriel College, Oxford. A distinguished graduate of the college is Daniel Hannan, the writer and politician (British member of the European Parliament). In December, he devoted a column to the Rhodes madness.

Kids claim that they suffer violence every time they walk past the Rhodes statue. Hannan rejoins,

Outside Oriel’s dining hall are two rather grander statues: one of Edward II and one (we think) of Charles I. Here are two kings so abominable that they are in that rare category of English monarchs killed by their subjects. Both held opinions that were, if we must use the buzzword, far more “unacceptable” to modern sensibilities than those of Cecil Rhodes. The statues were raised during Charles I’s reign when, even by the standards of that era, Oriel was distinguished by the fervour of its support for royal absolutism.

Is Oriel thereby endorsing an anti-democratic and authoritarian agenda? Did I, a Whig whose sympathies are with the parliamentary cause, suffer violence every time I had to pass under those stone likenesses on my way to breakfast? The question is too silly for words.

Hannan is mature — which is not a hallmark of this age, especially not on campus.

‐The good people in Seattle have put up a statue of Lenin in their city. Occasionally, objectors paint the hands red, to symbolize Lenin’s monstrous murderousness. I don’t ordinarily approve of vandalism, but I approve of that.

And I would take that statue down with my bare hands, if I could.

‐Earlier in this series, I addressed the issue of relativism versus absolutism (labels that are too neat but that must suffice nonetheless). I often think of Jimmy Carter — who often quoted his teacher in Plains, Ga., Miss Julia Coleman: “We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.”

I love that, and always have, since I heard Carter say it in the mid-1970s. Have I praised both Obama and Carter in the same column? Birnam Wood has not only come to Dunsinane, it is dancing all over Dunsinane.

‐Bill Buckley used to talk of something, and, in fact, I’ll quote from a column of his:

I do not tire of recalling the distinguished and scholarly Bostonian who told me one day at lunch that he would leave the table if he heard uttered any of the casual anti-Semitic remarks he routinely had heard uttered as a boy in the dining room of his equally distinguished father. Americans sixty years old or older have lived through a period during which lackadaisical anti-Semitism all but disappeared. It happened almost as suddenly as the anachronization of the word “Negro.”

‐One of the last times I was ever with Bill, he spoke of a painful memory from South Carolina. His mother was talking with a friend of hers. The friend said she had interviewed a woman to work in her home — a black woman. The woman had introduced herself as “Mrs. Smith” (or whatever).

“Imagine!” said Mrs. Buckley’s friend — a white woman — to Mrs. Buckley. “She actually expected to be called ‘Mrs.’ somebody. The effrontery!”

Bill’s face and voice were full of pain as he recounted this. It was an interesting, sort of startling moment.

‐Back to Rhodes? Some people want to dig him up. Want to exhume him from his grave in the Matopos Hills of Zimbabwe and ship him back to Britain, where he came from.

Zimbabwe was once called “Rhodesia.” Think of it: Whole countries and territories were named after Rhodes. Now he struggles to keep his mug on buildings that he paid for.

‐Next up for a name change? Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. He paid for that one, too. His name will soon be gone.

‐I don’t say that people should have to live under names that they abhor (though surely donors have some right to be honored). I do ask for a little maturity. A little perspective, and even some grace.

And if students smear excrement and chant vile slogans and make absurd demands — administrators should tell them to grow up or leave.

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