Saturday, January 5, 2019

Open Letter to the Editor Re: Confederate Statue on Georgetown Courthouse Lawn

It's 2019, and a fresh new year full of promise for the future and what is my town doing?  Holding a forum to argue, once again, over whether we should remove that stupid monument honoring Confederate soldiers from our historic downtown square.

Back on August 30, 2017, I wrote a letter to the local newspaper, The Williamson County Sun, responding to their rather...meritless...editorial dismissing the entire perspective of those who would like to move that atrocity where it is less of an eyesore.  And since it's too big for the trashbins around town, they could at least take it to one of those out-of-the-way Confederate graveyards we have throughout the county.  It makes sense.  Graveyards are where you bury the dead and this statue is akin to propping up a rotting corpse of our long deceased past on the front porch for everyone to admire—if they don't throw up first.

Well, the local paper chose not to run my letter. (No surprise.)  So I published it online as an "Open Letter" on the topic.

What follows below is the letter as I wrote it in 2017.  Just mentally substitute 2019, or whatever future year you want.  The points do not waiver.  If anything, with each passing year they only grow more substantive.

Enjoy

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 August 30, 2017

The Williamson County Sun
Georgetown, TX

An Open Letter to the Editor in Reply to the editorial “Fight symbols—or problems?” 

Dear Editor:

The August 30, 2017 editorial “Fight symbols—or problems?” indicated a cloudy editorial attitude regarding the growing issue facing Williamson County and the city of Georgetown over the United Daughters of the Confederacy statue that defaces the lawn of our historic courthouse and downtown.  I will address each major point made in the editorial, and I apologize in advance for the length.  Hopefully, the length will not be a deterrent to reading with a mind open to hearing a more nuanced point of view on the topic.

THE WILLIAMSON COUNTY SUN (TWCS) EDITORIAL POINT 1:  
If the fight continues, it will give white supremacists a local cause and publicity they did not have before and will result in growing their numbers.

You are using a non sequitur here (something that does not follow) to attempt to play on people’s fears.  The issue here revolves around a desire by some to move a statue that venerates soldiers who were insurrectionists against our own country, seceded from our own country, and fought (and killed) men from our country.  These men were fighting for one singular issue:  To assert their own supremacy as white men and continue the debased practice of enslaving people with brown skin.  As evidence, simply look at the Declaration of Causes of Texas secession from February 2, 1861:

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.
That in this free government all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations; while the destruction of the existing relations between the two races, as advocated by our sectional enemies, would bring inevitable calamities upon both and desolation upon the fifteen slave-holding States.
[Emphasis Mine]

No matter how much the post-Reconstruction propagandists have worked to reframe the conflict as some sort of divinely patriotic fight against an over-reaching government, the bottom-line is that the moral underpinning of their argument always goes back to the indisputably immoral practice of slavery—a problem our country had been struggling with since before the Constitution was even written.  The tide of history had finally turned and the southern states formed their own government and then waged war on the United States of America.  Those who participated were anything but patriots to our country. 

If we’re being charitable, perhaps they could be called patriots of the Confederate States of America, but it stretches all concepts of patriotism and love of our country to exalt enemies of the United States of America even in light of Lincoln and his successors magnanimously pursuing a sort-of surgical reattachment of the severed limb known as the CSA .  Whether Reconstruction was the best way to accomplish this is a separate debate.  We really can only speak to where we are now in terms of the issue at hand – whether it continues to be appropriate in 2017 to maintain memorials in the public arena that glorify the Confederacy.

TWCS EDITORIAL POINT 2:  Fighting for removal of the statue will bring in outsiders who just want to cause trouble.

This is a commonly used argument that holds no merit.  In fact, when local residents showed up to address the issue with the city council, the knee-jerk response by those on social media and in formal media was to make assertions, without evidence, that these concerned citizens were “plants” or “transplants” or even “bussed here from Austin.”  This is another useless argument that does nothing other than prop up some imaginary outsider “boogeyman” as a villain to feed emotionality rather than rationality.  Pushing the implication that anyone local would be intrinsically opposed to positive change is not only false but absurd.  And yet, it seems entrenched in the commentary culture of Georgetown.

TWCS EDITORIAL POINT 3:  Posing the removal as a two-value question—for or against racism—turns the issue into a litmus-test of goodness and creates a fake fight to polarize people.

Yes.  Posing the removal as a “for or against racism” certainly is a polarizing way to approach it.  However, the people I speak with about this topic do not frame it in those ways.  I mostly only hear that argument from the side that wants to keep the statue as they attempt to dubiously reframe the issue as a way of buttressing their own shaky position.  It is similar to the pattern of reframing the issue as one about weak sensitive types being indefinably “offended” as a way of devaluing and dismissing the other side without actually hearing their concerns.

Those of us arguing to move the statue to a more appropriate location—such as a local museum or cemetery—are not framing the issue as a two-value question for or against racism.  We are framing it as an issue about societal growth and cultural appropriateness.  The racism that undergirded the war between the USA and the CSA is not actually the issue, although it is not irrelevant to the issue either.  There is a profound inappropriateness to the idea of maintaining a monument venerating those who fought against our country with imagery of (1) an armed Confederate soldier, (2) a branding image of “CSA” which was a country formed in rebellion against the USA, (3) the battle flag of the Confederacy which has evolved to become a symbol of hate flown as a mark of intimidation towards other Americans and to elevate the insurrectionist Confederacy as some sort of divinely right cause, and (4) “No Braver Patriots Ever Fought. No Braver Deeds Were Ever Wrought.” engraved prominently.  This is not only offensive to everyone who fought for the Union and were killed by the insurrectionists but also with the hindsight of a hundred years it has become increasingly offensive as the only downtown marker we have honoring our soldiers.  It leaves the Georgetown historic downtown looking as if the only soldiers this community values are those who fought against our country rather than those who fought for it. 



And as a sidebar, it occurs to me after doing some research, that it is extremely odd that  we in Georgetown and Williamson Country have chosen to allow and maintain this blight on our historic courthouse lawn in light of the fact that Williamson County was one of the few counties who actually voted against secession.  That is historic and well worth erecting a monument in recognition of our forebearers for being on the right side of history at that important moment.  Rather than glorifying those who fought against our country for the right to keep owning slaves, perhaps we might want to consider lifting up those in our county who did not agree with that decision.

Just a thought.

TWCS EDITORIAL POINT 4:  Fighting over the courthouse statue is just attacking symbols and hardening opinions and will lead to less calm and less respectful discussion.

I disagree.  A hundred years of having that statue standing there and people like me walking by and just rolling our eyes or tsk-tsk-ing about it have done nothing to encourage respectful debate or bring any change.  Avoiding the topic does not make it go away—it just keeps the cover on a silently simmering pot until one day the pot starts boiling over and then it is too late.

The key point here is that I have noticed and muttered about that statue.  And so have many others.  The events in Charlottesville brought our attention back to that simmering pot and we are not content to just ignore it anymore and wait for the boil.  It’s an embarrassment to have the “most beautiful downtown in America” where the single most prominent marker is one that lifts up and glorifies the Confederacy. That should prompt action at this point in our country’s history to stop the southern whitewashing of our history and be clear and honest about our shared past.

I know how difficult it is to change.  Change is not easy.  We have a built-in safety valve as human beings to resist change.  For example, the Supreme Court uses stare decisis to hold onto past decisions even when they seem out of step with the times.  But even the Supreme Court has made profound reversals in their thinking when the issue is substantively important.  One of the important factors considered by the Court is whether the current state of the country and our perceptions of facts have changed (ending segregated schools, for example). To believe that we, in 2017, have the same prejudicial mindset as the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1916 is absurd to the point of being joke-worthy.  But the fact that so many stubbornly choose to keep two fingers in their ears and their eyes closed so as to avoid having to admit that perhaps they’ve been thinking about this issue wrongly for most of their life should bother anyone who is open to self-growth and community growth.

TWCS EDITORIAL POINT 5:  Those who push for removal of the statue are elevating the moral authority of the supremacist by placing them into defensive mode.

Were this argument valid, then any attempt to aggressively right a wrong or fight a war for a right cause would be defeated by this same sort of illogical proposition.  Pushing white supremacists so that they are figuratively “on the ropes” in no way elevates them morally.  In truth, the fact that there even is a fight over this issue is the result of obstinate people unwilling to even consider the reality that cultural standards have changed and what was, at best, arguably appropriate in 1916 is not necessarily appropriate in 2017.  This “fight” you speak of is only a “fight” because those who want to keep the statue find it easier to force a fight than have the difficult conversation.  And the only reason someone forces a fight to avoid a conversation is because deep-down they know their position is rooted in questionable nostalgia rather than a foundation of rational reason.

TWCS EDITORIAL POINT 6:  Fighting over symbols is a distraction from the more important work of healing.

This is not ultimately a fight over symbols.  And this issue is also not a distraction from the important work of healing.  In fact, the courageous conversation being pushed right now is of the height of importance to the substantive work of healing. 

When secession happened, it was as if someone severed a limb from our collective body.  The Reconstruction Era was an attempt to graft that limb back on and begin healing.  But a few decades later, with the rise of the new Ku Klux Klan and other segregationist organizations that glorified the cause of the Confederacy, that healing process was stunted as the Jim Crow era began and these generic pro-Confederacy monuments were erected en masse across the South.  Every time a citizen of our country saw a “Whites” and “Colored” sign distinction; every time a citizen of our country watched fellow citizens forced to the back of the bus; and every time a citizen of our country has had to walk around town squares seeing Confederate soldiers and flags raised up in pseudo-worship it has picked at the scabs and kept that surgical wound raw and infected.  This is where we are now.  To keep these types of monuments in place is to accept cultural gangrene rather than remove the infection and allow the wound to finally heal.

TWCS EDITORIAL POINT 7:  Speaking up about this is political and is an example of the Democrats falling into a Republican trap.

This is overly simplistic and wrong because this is not actually a political issue—this is a cultural and moral issue.  It does not matter if the president frames it as “taking away our history.”  He is objectively wrong on this topic.  Aside from the anarchists (who are not actually on either side of the issue) who are just feeding the flames of chaos that they need to exist, this is not about Democrats or Republicans.  Those who push that dichotomy are using it as a way to avoid thinking about the issue.   As soon as someone starts hurling the Democrat or Republican label around with this issue it becomes an epithet and is a way of halting the conversation and I am unwilling to allow that.  Politicizing this issue is simply a way of avoiding it.  Media claims of political bandwagoning actually distract from the substance of the issue and impede the healing.

TWCS EDITORIAL POINT 8:  Fighting over symbols prevents us from tackling substance and will set back race relations.

Symbols are substantive.  If you do not believe me then take an American flag to a Veterans Memorial celebration on Memorial Day and stand up in front of everyone and start burning it.  The reaction would be swift and strong. Why?  Because symbols mean things and they are substantive.  And more importantly, symbols can change.  As I mentioned earlier, a symbol that might arguably be appropriate at one time in history does not guarantee it is appropriate forever. 

The courageous conversation is not about symbols in the abstract.  It is about the substance behind the symbols.  And the only way that symbols override that substance is if we allow the conversation to stop and devolve into chants and riots.  When I listen to the voices raised in support of moving the statue, I do not hear support for illegal actions or vandalism.  That sort of behavior is the purview of anarchists who have no moral high ground to stand on.  I see and hear people in our community who are desperately seeking a real conversation and opportunities to be heard on this issue without being shut down by closed-off thinking and propagandist slogans.  And it is particularly disturbing when the journalistic voice for the area becomes tone-deaf to the situation and misses the point entirely.

What will “set back race relations” is to continue pretending  there is a moral equivalency between the Union and the Confederacy.  We all know that the issues that led to the War Between the States were more complicated than just slavery.  However, by the time  secession occurred, as evidenced above by Texas’ language in their Declaration of Causes of Secession, the explicit reason for the War was to assert the supremacy of the “White Race” and the inferiority of the “Black Race.”  And that should be universally abhorrent to any thinking American as should flying  the Confederate battle flag and especially to erecting monuments lionizing that despicable cause.

Sincerely,


Keith Howell

Georgetown Resident

9 comments:

  1. I absolutely love this and will share this with everyone I know.

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  2. From Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens' "Cornerstone Address", about the cornerstone of the founding of the Confederacy:

    "The new Constitution has put at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions—African slavery as it exists among us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson, in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old Constitution were, that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away ... Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the "storm came and the wind blew, it fell."

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    1. That we, in 2017, are even debating this fact seems beyond absurdity to me.

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  3. Very well written Mr. Howell.

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  4. This is a fine and rather complete exposition of an opinion. I can tell much work went into it. I, personally, try to resist attachments to other's symbols, and the presence of the statue does not offend me, nor would its removal.

    Since no one living has gone through the expense of erecting the statue, who shall bear the cost of removal and storage? Are you offering? In my opinion the removal will do nothing to further race relations in Georgetown, which, despite the demographic, has rarely revealed itself to be toxic. I have only seen convivial relations between people of all races here. To attack this symbol of the quaint Confederate statue may make some feel virtuous, but it undoubtedly makes others resentful - as the comments on the Georgetown FB page have revealed, resulting in the moderator turning off the comments. Any current ideological obsession with the issue perhaps suggests an alignment with a higher good, but it also could suggest an a cynical, post-modern approach to political rhetoric and activism. I want to hear from someone of a minority race complain about it in such a way that is not neurotic or hyperbolic. Thus far I haven't.

    This obsession with historical virtue of the honored is a rather new political phenomenon. In the recent past, as late as the 1960's, historians focused on the impact of historical figures, rather than their peccadilloes. Robert E. Lee was an extremely honorable man. He could have fought for the union. But chose the Rebels. Thousands, died because of that. However, even after war he was honored by the Union. No more. O'Henry was a convicted felon but is honored for his literary contributions, not his character. He was probably as racist as any white man in 1910, so should O'Henry middle school change its name and his stories be banned from pubic reading? Andrew Jackson was a ruthless general - comparable in deceit to Stalin, but his achievements have been honored and his methods and devious character overlooked. There were 25,000 Black Texans - slave and freeman - that fought for the Confederacy. Would you support a statue honoring them? Or prevent one being erected because they were rebels?

    It is good that people have conversations with each other - even courageous ones. But they can't be forced. Isn't it better that people examine their own motives for action, treat people with kindness and respect, let the past be the past and not make the Taliban-like mistake of pretending that the destruction of its symbols will improve the present?

    Kevin Taylor

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    1. I think you are missing an important distinction between, say, the honoring of Robert E. Lee for his many virtues and a generic mass-produced monument blindly honoring all who fought as the bravest patriots who ever lived and for the bravest deeds ever done. This is not a post-modern rewriting of history but an attempt to right a wrong in the first place. Research the history of how these specific monuments were spread around the south and why. There is nothing virtuous about them. Now, as to whether people of color are bothered by the statue should actually be irrelevant to this discussion because this is about what is proper and what is not. But that being said, you are either new to the discussion or have not been actively following these discussions over the last few years through various forum avenues including the "Courageous Conversations" group on Facebook where you will see and hear from quite a few people of color who have actively spoken out about this subject and spoken up at the various hearings. Again, this is not about us going and taking down every monument to any man who, in a different time and culture, owned slaves. The qualities of a man can transcend even a cultural mistake like that. HOWEVER, this is not about honoring an individual that we can look to his whole life and evaluate him and his accomplishments. This is a blind memorial elevating those who fought singularly for the right to own slaves. Nobody is named. No deed is highlighted. It ASSUMES and PRESUMES that the cause was "right" and that all who fought were "brave" and "honorable." This is a rewrite of the history and an attempt to recast a bloody insurrection as something good and right. It was not. And we need to stop trying to make it so. This would be one easy way to do it. And you ask if I would be willing to pay for the removal? Logical fallacy as the circumstances under which the statue can legally be removed actually denies me even that option. But as a tax-paying citizen of Williamson County, I wholeheartedly support taking a portion of those taxes and moving that eyesore out to the Confederate graveyard where it should be.

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    2. Kevin, you wrote: "There were 25,000 Black Texans - slave and freeman - that fought for the Confederacy. Would you support a statue honoring them? Or prevent one being erected because they were rebels?"

      My question in response would be "Why SHOULD we erect a statue honoring them?" As well, based on the language put forth in the Texas Declaration of the Reasons for Secession, I question whether any of them could honestly be claimed to have had a choice. So, why would we honor them in a blanket fashion like that. Why don't we look instead for individuals, like Georgetown resident Thomas Proctor Hughes, a staunch unionist, who represented Williamson County during the convention and cast the first vote AGAINST seceding on Feb. 1, 1861. Williamson County should be proudly representing the fact that we were 1 of only 8 counties who voted against secession. Or maybe we should honor Governor Houston who resigned in protest of the secession vote. These are individuals who could rightly be honored for specific accomplishments that were supportive of the United States.

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