Since 2014, USA has had fierce discussions over the removal of the Confederacy heroes memorials. With Donald Trump assuming office, the conflict has turned to protesting, in some places even with assault and bloody clashes. RuBaltic.Ru sat down with americanist European University at Saint Petersburg professor Ivan Kurilla to discuss why the War On Monuments in USA has entered its heated phase specifically now and how this contradiction can be solved.
– Professor Kurilla, the Confederate monuments stood there for 150 years. There were discussions from time to time, but never protests. Why is this conflict only know heating up?
– The deal is that the Monuments clash is not really about the past, but about the present. The fact that discussion peaked now, means that American society has entered a conflict stage. Right now, the monuments are a battlefield. The conflict could have taken another form, but today it manifests in the war on monuments. War over what meaning is given to the symbolism of these monuments. This all shows that a serious conflict exists within American society.
– What is the nature of this conflict? Is it that aftermath of the melting pot concept (American ethnic policy model) failing or political disagreements?
– Many years ago, scientists renamed it from a “melting pot” into a “salad bowl.” A melting pot would meld everyone together, and a salad bowl has small groups existing with their identities and forming the salad all together
The problem is with racism, despite the fact that 150 years ago the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished and it being 60 years after Martin Luther King, the fight for civil rights against segregation. May I remind you, that political correctness in USA forbids speaking out on racial topics, but racism continues.
The triggers this time were, on one hand, multiple incidents of policemen killing black teenagers: unarmed Trayvon Martin was killed, and then the Ferguson events unfolded. When the Black Lives Matter movement appeared it also started speaking about the existing racism in USA. With it, at least, present in the police’s attitude towards black people, being more suspicious of them. African-Americans are a lot more frequently arrested and killed during arrest.
This is highly visible and caused concern with the liberal part of American society, which was ready to fight racism.
On the other hand, there is the right wing of society, which includes racists and non-racists, who consider the talk of racism exaggerated. These people are sure that it is not the police’s racism to blame, but the fact that crime is higher amongst the black population. Therefore, to them it is not racism, but a fact.
And this right wing is that part of society that elected Trump. Of course, Trump’s election was the last straw. The existing conflict spilled out into the streets.
This is clearly seen in attempts to take down monuments and protests against that, the right wing activist driving into the crowd, etc.
So the discussion on monuments is the discussion on racism. Society hasn’t managed to overcome racism, so there is a desire to label these monuments as symbols of racism and to dismantle them.
It is a voodoo thing in a way.
– If the confederate monuments are symbols, then that means that the symbols are changing. So, technically, they have to put someone where general Lee once stood. The question is who?
– That is a very good question. Right now, we don’t know who might end up on those empty podiums, but there are three possible options. First option: president Lincoln will take general Lee’s place, I have heard this idea already. They say that in the state of Virginia, there is a general Lee highway next to Washington highway, a Washington and Lee School, and they need to be renamed into Lincoln. The logic is that they both start with an “L” so it was Lee and will become Lincoln. Then that would mean that the removal of the monuments today is the final shot of the Civil War. Taking down the Lee monuments and putting monuments to Lincoln there instead, the North will have its final victory in the Civil War that ended 150 years ago.
Another option: using racial identity, Lee’s podium will be replaced with a statue of someone from the African-American movement, like Harriet Tubman – a woman who helped slaves flee North. Or Frederick Douglas – an African-American abolitionist.
The third option will have Lee’s monuments replaced with people from the 20th century, like Martin Luther King for example.
What does this all mean?
The first option will be mean that the Civil War will be “wrapped up” 150 years later, in terms of symbolical lines being drawn.
The third option means that the Civil War will no longer be viewed as one of the key events in American history. Up until now, the Civil War is the biggest national history event for USA. If this happens, then the 1950-1960s civil right movements against the segregation will be seen as more important.
This shift is important for many, because the Civil War is seen as a war of the whites of the North against the whites of the South. And the civil rights movement had active participation of the black population. The black people were not an object to be fought over, but a subject, as they went to the streets to fight for their rights by themselves. For a significant part of society, this is a bigger event.
Those who speak in favor of demolishing the monuments today, say that the Civil War and the Reconstruction of the South ended with a compromise of the sides. This was a compromise between the white people of the North and the white people of the South at the expense of the black people. The compromise led to the legalization of segregation. The Jim Crow law comes to mind, when black people were not allowed on buses, restaurants and train cars – a system that existed until the 1950-60s. A compromise at the black people’s expense, that was what the Lee monuments represented. So now it is considered that need to go, because history is seen differently now
– So it seems that if the third option comes to pass, then it will be a new age for American society?
– In a certain way, yes. Of course, I don’t want exaggerate anything, but mass destruction of monuments or the creation of new ones is always a revolution. I don’t recall a single case, where the destruction of monuments did not mean a change of society from one state into another. For example, when did they take down monuments in Russia? In 1917-1918, after the Revolution.
Monuments to Stalin were taken down under Khrushev, which in itself showed great changes in the Soviet Union.
After 1991, they removed Dzerzhinsky from the Lubyanka square, along with another set of monuments. After 1991, they started taking down monuments all of post-Soviet space. The Baltics had a lot of discussion over this, with some of it still continuing. It is always a revolution.
So it seems a sign of society trying to change its symbolic foundations is the demolishing of monuments. Mass dismantling of monuments in the United States also means that society is rethinking its foundations.
If this process will reach its logical conclusion, then in ten years, USA will be a completely different country. A country that looks at its past differently, seeking support in different past conquests and not the ones that hold up USA today.
Why is the past so important to us? We stand on it, like a foundation. If there will be new monuments, then it will seem that American society stands on decidedly new foundation, and thus it is a new society. It is a revolution.
– What constitutes a smart memorial policy in a country with its Yankees and Confederates, Reds and Whites?
– If only I knew… I can say that Russia is an unexpected exception. Maybe right now it is even a positive exception. Russia has monuments to everyone: tsars, Bolsheviks, Lenin, Nicholas II, there is a monument to Kolchak (White army leader in the Russian Civil War) somewhere in Irkutsk, and some red generals. There is a sort of pluralism here.
Alexander park in Saint-Petersburg has a lot of tsars – a clear imperial tilt, and some monuments stand only in Irkutsk. Even so, there is a Lenin monument and a Prince Vladimir monument.
There was even joke in the net, that the monument to Prince Vladimir wanted to escape to Kiev at night, but the multiple Lenins of Moscow’s suburbs brought him back. As I see, this is a unique situation. After the Leninfall in Ukraine, all of the neighboring countries have a unified memorial policy.
A while back, they spoke of Spain, which had monuments to general Franco and those who fought him. But now they say that there are no monuments to Franco left. The United States were another exception, with the North and South having different memories. Now they are moving to a domination of one memory. Then Russia will be the last one left. Is this a good thing or a bad thing – it is hard to say… Maybe this is good or maybe it means that Russian society has yet to decide its future. In order to decide a future, you must realize what foundation you stand on.
Or maybe it is the opposite and Russian society is learning to live with multiple memories, standing on different foundations at once and not fighting inside. There is no state of civil war in Russia currently – internal conflicts don’t spread out to the streets. Today this teaches us to understand that there can be different views on history, different views on the past and this must not lead to bloodshed.