Confederate at Gettysburg

Former general David Petraeus has embraced the tactic of damnatio memorae for Confederate “traitors” in an op-ed in The Atlantic.

While he doesn’t use the latin phrase, his recommendation to “remove the names of traitors like Benning and Bragg from our country’s most important military installations” is exactly what damnatio memorae consisted of in ancient Rome:

…to cancel every trace of the person from the life of Rome, as if they had never existed, in order to preserve the honour of the city. In a city that stressed social appearance, respectability, and the pride of being a true Roman as a fundamental requirement of the citizen, it was perhaps the severest punishment.

Petraeus complains that most of the rebel honorees aren’t even worth remembering individually anyway; it was only the “Lost Cause” movement that memorialized them:

It also happens that—Lee excepted—most of the Confederate generals for whom our bases are named were undistinguished, if not incompetent, battlefield commanders. Braxton Bragg, for example, left a great deal to be desired as a military leader… Had Bragg, like most of the rebel honorees, not been elevated by the effort to memorialize the “Lost Cause”—promoted by organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy as well as by some sympathetic historians—he would probably have been consigned to historical obscurity.

This misses the point. (Actually, it only pretends to miss it. Petraeus knows better, and is being disingenuous.) It was never the individual that was celebrated, but the cause, or the ideas. Lincoln’s memorial celebrates the consolidation of federal power (called “union”) and the subjugation of the evil slaveholders. MLK statues and street names and holidays celebrate the subjugation of property rights to “civil rights.” Since you cannot make a sculpture of an idea, naturally you sculpt a man to represent it instead. But ideology, which is what this is all about, is about ideas, not people.

Isn’t that obviously the very reason these memorials are offensive to progressives?

Petraeus reassures us that, while we’re tearing down memorials, we aren’t like the totalitarian dictatorships, who “obliterate history.” We just don’t want to “venerate” the losers who, because they disagreed with us, were traitors:

I do not propose that we erase [Lee’s] role in this history. We can learn from his battlefield skill and, beyond that, from his human frailty, his conflicting loyalties, and the social pressures that led him to choose Virginia over the United States. If we attempt to repress the fact of his existence from our institutional memory, we risk falling into the trap of authoritarian regimes, which routinely and comprehensively obliterate whole swaths of national history as if they never happened at all. What distinguishes democracies is their capacity to debate even the most contentious issues vigorously and in informed, respectful, deliberate ways…

(I have seen no evidence that the protestors are either “respectful” or “informed.” ACAP… FU12… vandalizing… looting. 10 points tho, for “vigorous” and “deliberate.")

It doesn’t matter if they keep some mention of Lee in military strategy books. The only “obliteration” that matters will have already taken place. Americans are taught that the “Civil War” was about the moral aspects of slavery, rather than a northern power grab. Most of them believe it, the same way they believe that there was no land-grabbing, genocide, or racism among the indigenous peoples in North America before the Europeans arrived. The public-school indoctrination of the last three generations has paved the way for the pulling down of memorials and renaming of streets and towns. It is the power that these memorials represent, and the power of the ideas that these now-damned men championed, that the protesters resent – to the extent that they resent anything specific at all, rather than just the entire unjust society or capitalism or maybe the whole world.

So while Petraeus pretents that he merely wants to avoid celebrating “traitors,” it’s clear that its their ideas – not their persons – that he wishes to disparage. It is the ideas that must go down the memory hole.

The lesson here seems to be that, if your opponents sincerely believe that your society is immoral, they have the right – and perhaps even obligation – to invade it, destroy it, and after you are vanquished, to demean even the memory of the men that fought on the losing side, because they were wrong. In order that the ideas be exterminated, it is imperative to destroy any cultural representation of those ideas, including monuments to people that espoused them. Otherwise, someone might ask, “Why is this statue here?” and go read up on confederalism, and get some dangerous ideas.

And yes, it is just like the totalitarian dictatorships. China “canceled” the history of Tienanmen Square in 1989 not because a bunch of people died, but because they died protesting for democracy. Does anyone think that this history would be erased, if they were demonstrating for something that were not ideologically dangerous? Such as, higher wages, or cleaner air. Somehow, I doubt it. The idea of clean air does not offend the Communists, even if it challenges them. “Democracy,” however, is a dire ideological and existential threat.

So much for pluralism, not to mention “limited government.”

The ecstatic protestors in America don’t seem to think that they will ever be on the losing side of a struggle, or that the sword they’re blindly whacking everything with could possibly be used against them. Yes, the progressive left controls the present. Therefore, they can tear down memorials, and attempt to control the past, as Orwell noted:

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Note however that there is no promise here about who will control the “present” tomorrow. (“Controls the future” is akin to “controls the past”; it is not “controls the present at a future time.") Control of the present is subject to historical whim. What happens to Progressives when the sword they currently wield is wrenched from their hands?

Some day, there will be a strong and determined group of Americans that will reject the lies and false promises of progressivism, and realize that multiculturalism, forced desegregation, balkanization, obsession with “equality” and mass migration do not create a strong society. If these future activists and leaders also engage in damnatio memorae… what monuments will they cast down? What cities and streets will they rename? What past heroes will they deem traitors?

I can think of a few.

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