The sadly now-defunct website The Toast used to have a really funny running feature called “Every Comment Section on …” The idea was that internet comments on certain topics are completely predictable – recipes will always have someone who substituted something gross for butter or eggs or oil and is then disappointed with how the final product turned out; any post about breastfeeding will immediately devolve in the comments section into a debate about breastfeeding in public and then someone will say, “Breastfeeding is natural!” and then someone else will say, “So is pooping, but I don’t do that in public!” and then someone else will say, “Breastfeeding should be compared to eating, not pooping! I am not feeding my child in a bathroom stall!”
That notion, the predictable unfolding of the same talking points in the comments section, is why I really have not had anything to say about the biggest, most unavoidable topic in New Orleans right now, which is, of course, the monuments.
To me – and probably to most – the monuments are fraught with nuance.
As a child growing up here, they were meaningful to me only as landmarks: My dad’s office was by the Jeff Davis statue; when I took the streetcar to my mom’s office, I got off at Lee Circle. They were places, not people.
It wasn’t until middle school, when we actually learned who these men were, that I thought about it at all, and although I am sure someone in the comments will say that this wasn’t an issue until Mitch Landrieu made it an issue, I definitely recall feeling kind of disturbed by these monuments when I knew who they were honoring.
And when I brought friends home from college, friends from Chicago and St. Louis and Vegas and New Jersey, they all looked askance at Jeff Davis and Robert E. Lee, and I got defensive because I love my city and I love being from the South – and yet it was hard for me to reconcile the fact that these statues existed to venerate men who – however complex they might have been, however rich their private thoughts and beliefs – fought on the wrong side of the Civil War.
(This is the part in the comments where someone comes in to tell me that the Civil War was not fought over slavery and to educate myself.)
Beyond that, though, I didn’t have too much of an opinion on the statues. As someone in the comments will say any minute now, it’s a slippery slope – if we take down Lee, what about Jackson? If we take down Jackson, what about Washington? What about Jefferson? And as we’ll absolutely see by about comment three, New Orleans has bigger fish to fry. So I mostly just didn't think about it all that much.
When the City Council voted to take them down, I thought it was the right decision … but when I saw all the people to come out to support keeping them up, waving the Confederate battle flag and sending death threats to contractors and bar proprietors, I really thought it was the right decision. If those people are on one side, I want to be on the other side.
But again, all nuance is lost at that point. I know that there are plenty of people who aren’t racist, who aren’t bad people, who support keeping the monuments up. And even I, who agree with taking them down, had a twinge of sorrow driving past Beauregard’s empty base.
“Oh,” Ruby said sadly as we turned on to Esplanade. “I kind of liked that one. Couldn’t we have at least kept the horse? Take down the bad man and leave the horse?”
“He wasn’t a bad man,” I said. “It’s not as simple as that.”
And I told her about all sides of P.G.T. Beauregard: the good, the bad, how his viewpoints evolved.
Because although I know someone in the comments is presently telling me that removing the statues is rewriting history and removing the past, we don’t need monuments to learn history. We need good questions and good answers. We need discussion that goes deeper than the comments sections where sooner or later someone is yelling about Hitler. We need to be able to re-examine our beliefs and our ideals. We need nuance.
(I do still sort of wish we could have kept the horse, though.)
Comments are open below. Go to it.