The End of Memory

Note: I’m happy to be back in America for today’s holiday, Memorial Day. Not to detract from what must be the main focus of this day, but I notice a lag in our fundraising. So please let me just remind you that we need you to remember The Catholic Thing in order that this vital work remain very much alive among us. – Robert Royal

Robert E. Lee fell last week.

Of course, the great Confederate general died – full of years and honors – in 1870, but this week he was ignominiously toppled in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Lee Statue there was removed by crane from its pedestal. The crowd gathered for the spectacle chanted the taunting 1970’s hit “Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye.” Democrat mayor of the Big Easy, Mitch Landrieu, said that the statue celebrated “a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for. And after the Civil War, these monuments were part of that terrorism as much as burning a cross on someone’s lawn.”

There’s a movement afoot to replace the effigy of Lee with some sort of tribute to Allen Toussaint (1938-2015), the Louisiana-born composer of pop songs, including the memorable “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” and such less memorable tunes as “Mother-in-Law” and “I Could Eat Crawfish Everyday.”

With all due respect to Mr. Toussaint, this is the sort of nonsense we’ve come to expect from the Left. And make no mistake: it will not stop with the destruction of public monuments. I fully expect to read soon that schools will be demanding that figures such as Lee be expunged from history textbooks, lest the tender sensibilities of school children (formerly known as graduate students) be scandalized by such “triggering” figures.

It remains to be seen if such efforts will be more or less effective than were the Politburo’s in de-Stalinizing the USSR. But those who would sanitize history grow bold. As the Wikipedia article about Lee Circle states: “The statue was finally removed on the evening of May 19, 2017 at 6pm, a departure from previous removals that occurred in early morning hours under the cover of darkness.” The previous removals were of monuments to: the 1874 Battle of Liberty Place (taken down on April 24th); the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis (May 11); and General P.T.G. Beauregard (May 17). No public monument to the Confederacy remains in the city.

Today is Memorial Day and a good day to think about memory.

I am an unabashed admirer of General Lee. He was a man of exceptional character and courage. Although it goes without saying, he also wasn’t perfect. It’s mostly in Catholic churches – in NOLA and elsewhere – that one finds statues raised to the only perfect man. No other statue ever erected anywhere was to anybody not a sinner, even if he or she became a saint.

But more than that terse point is the reality of the recounting of things that actually happened. History is not the writing down of what we think ought to have happened. G.K. Chesterton wrote of the historian’s responsibility (in Lunacy & Letters): “You cannot be just in history. Have enthusiasm, have pity, have quietude and observation, but do not imagine that you will have what you call truth. Applaud, admire, reverence, denounce, execrate. But judge not, that ye be not judged.” I believe he was quoting Jesus.

Were G.K.C. there at Lee Circle on Friday, he would surely have suggested to NOLA’s Taliban that the statue of the “marble man” (as some contemporaries called Lee) might serve as what the southpaws like to call a “teachable moment.” Well, in this case, a teachable monument: Explain, please, why this man was so honored in the past; then explain why you think his thought and conduct deserve dishonor now.

Gone with the wind . . .

When some people experience trauma, they block out what happened. It’s a defense mechanism called repression. Some of the traumatized take their pain into therapy, during which a good doctor will seek to help the patient recover the painful memory, so that it can be analyzed and understood and, in a way, exorcized, because repression is understood to be unhealthy.

To this we might add the full quote of George Santayana (from The Life of Reason), the more familiar, truncated version of which leaves out much that is essential:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

I have no doubt that our American Taliban, our Jacobins, our Bolsheviks all believe they’re taking a Great Leap Forward. I have no doubt that some of them will look upon today’s Memorial Day parades with disdain, believing the memorials to the ultimate sacrifice made by soldiers, Marines, sailors, and aviators are jingoistic and warmongering. I have no doubt of this because their project self-evidently entails repressing such militancy as the parades represent.

They are like the Three Monkeys. Or, rather, they would have us be like them, covering eyes, ears, and mouths. We are far from the days when the Civil War was regarded as a tragic clash of brother with brother. And we see the same extremes in our current public disagreements.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats spoke of the problem as “Whiggery.” It was, he wrote in “The Seven Sages”:

A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of a drunkard’s eye.
. . . All’s whiggery now.
But we old men are massed against the world.

And we old men remember. For some, the memories are seared by fire; for others, they may be frozen in stone. But we all remember those who fought and died in defense of freedom, however it was understood – and this includes those fallen Rebels NOLA has dishonored.

Between 1939 and 1945, the Allied Nations fought the Axis in a cataclysmic war. Yet, today, the enemies are friends, and this is not because we have forgotten or repressed but because memory has healed us, just as it did North and South after Appomattox. Here’s proof:

Gettysburg reunion, 1913: Blue and Gray

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.