Silent Sam came crashing down last night. It was toppled by protesters rightly enraged by its celebration of unrepentant racism. That racism was bad enough when it was installed more than a century ago; it is inexplicable now, given 2018 generally and Chapel Hill specifically.
There will be those who decry the statue’s toppling. They will insist that Silent Sam was installed to celebrate the South’s heritage, that its existence is not a celebration of racism, that our world needs to make room for the memory of troubled forefathers who cannot be judged by more modern moral standards. These claims, as always, are absolute whitewash created only to muddy perfectly clear waters.
The statue was erected in 1913. It was designed to celebrate treasonous confederates who turned their back on the United States to defend the institution of slavery. It was installed less than 50 years after the end of the Civil War, intended plainly to send a simple message: that the South was right, that racism was right, that white supremacy was right. If there is any debate about that, that is only because the Confederacy’s advocates are willfully pretending that they do not know what is plainly true. At its dedication, Julian Carr said this:
The present generation, I am persuaded, scarcely takes note of what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are, that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South – When “the bottom rail was on top” all over the Southern states, and to-day, as a consequence the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States – Praise God.
And also this:
I trust I may be pardoned for one allusion, howbeit it is rather personal. One hundred yards from where we stand, less than ninety days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady, and then rushed for protection to these University buildings where was stationed a garrison of 100 Federal soldiers. I performed the pleasing duty in the immediate presence of the entire garrison, and for thirty nights afterwards slept with a double-barrel shot gun under my head.
If it seems odd that a man – who, we are begged to believe, was only motivated was commemorate Southern sacrifice – decided to briefly sojourn into a bizarre celebration of both Anglo-Saxon purity and his own willingness to beat a woman who had been insufficiently deferential to a “Southern lady” then some additional information about Carr might help. For example, Carr advocated frequently for the Ku Klux Klan, celebrated the Wilmington Massacre, and suggested that genocide was a fix for non-whites who wanted to vote. Carr then was nothing more than a dyed-in-the-wool racist, a man whose hostility trumped any notion of decency, a man motivated entirely by his embittered hostility toward a world that was only barely more complicated than he preferred it to be.
The University of North Carolina, which has long struggled to figure out how to effectively manage the fact that its campus celebrates monsters who would be horrified by the existence of many of the students now attending classes there, is, unfortunately, trying to play both sides this morning. UNC tweeted that, although it understands how frustrating the presence of a statue celebrating outright hostility toward much of the institution’s student body must be, the statue’s toppling was “unlawful and dangerous” and that police are investigating.
— UNC-Chapel Hill (@UNC) August 21, 2018
Presumably, the students who toppled Silent Sam were expected instead to simply tolerate his existence on campus, and to await the day, at some indeterminate point in the future, when society had gotten beyond the celebration of the sorts of things that the statue was intended to commemorate. And then, only that uniform understanding of the statue’s existence was completely achieved, could the statue be gently lowered back toward North Carolina’s cool dark soil.
Maybe those protestors knew what the school’s administrators, and what the state’s governor, apparently do not: that such a day is never coming. North Carolina’s racism – the kind that Julian Carr advocated, the kind that Silent Sam was intended to celebrate – is as alive and well as it has ever been. Carr’s rebuke of black voters has not only not been abandoned; it is celebrated by the state’s Republican representatives, a collection of individuals fully invested in outright white supremacy, albeit in its more insidious modern existence. Here, for example, is North Carolina Senator Phil Berger, comparing Silent Sam’s downfall to lynching, two things which are obviously analogous only in the minds of the monstrous. Berger, it should be noted, has repeatedly championed laws which make it much, much, much harder for black North Carolinians to vote, laws that no doubt would have appealed directly to Julian Carr. Carr, after all, did say the following:
“The whole world admits that it was a mistake to have given universal suffrage to the negroes.”
No wonder Berger is so concerned with keeping Carr’s contributions to society standing.
“But, But, But, That Was Long Ago!”
One of the most tiresome arguments constantly made in defense of statues celebrating racism, or racists like Carr, is the following: “You cannot judge historical decisions and historical figures by modern standards.” As if, somehow, we are obliged to tolerate intolerable things, simply because they were done then, whenever that was. As if, somehow, bigotry is more tolerable if it just has the decency to have occurred at the right time in history.
The idea that there is some inherent injustice in judging our predecessors – as if they are owed our willful ignorance of their voluntary monstrousness – is evidence of a profound misunderstanding of justice itself. That those making the argument against judging our forefathers for their moral failings are so often engaged in politically adjacent thinking of their own should not be lost on anybody listening to such unalloyed drivel.
But for those who advocate such thinking – out of an allegedly genuine belief in having respect for the departed, as a defense against enduring similar judgment in a later life, or simply because they hope bad faith will be misinterpreted as good intention – one wonders what, if anything, they are capable of judging. Beyond, of course, the monstrousness of everyone who sees them for what they are.