Yes, I'm talking about the Oak Bluffs that has been for many decades a summer destination for the black middle class. A statue of a Union soldier has stood in the town for well over a century. A plaque on the base honors Confederate soldiers with the notation "The chasm has closed."
That is, it used to. This summer, for the first time in my life, the plaque is gone. Let me be clear: I have no particular quarrel with the arguments presented for removal of this peculiar salute to Confederate soldiers. Still, the controversy raises a question too rarely asked these days: Is it possible to fight honorably in a dishonorable cause?
A bit of background.
The plaque was installed in the 1920s, a gift from a group of Union soldiers who wanted to honor those who fought nobly on the Southern side. At first, nobody seemed to care - nobody in the North, anyway. In the South, things were different. The Atlanta Constitution, in those days the voice of respectable Southern opinion, pointed to the monument as evidence of "cordial friendship between the surviving soldiers on both sides."
After that, the memorial was pretty much forgotten until the late 1940s, when newspapers nationwide published a laudatory column about the plaque. The author was Henry Beetle Hough, a famous conservationist who also happened to be publisher of a Vineyard newspaper. The statue, wrote Hough, stood "in common tribute to brave men - of the North and of the South." Subsequently, the monument and its strange inscription faded once more from memory.
Over the past decade, the commemoration of those who fought the Civil War on the rebel side has become increasingly controversial. Across the country, monuments are coming down. Small surprise that a sharp debate has also arisen on Martha's Vineyard. This past May, the Oak Bluffs selectmen voted to remove the plaque from the statue. Instead, it will be displayed in an island museum, where the surrounding context can be properly explained.
Even if one suspects that what the town really wanted was simply to end the controversy, the decision is easy to understand. Say what you want about the causes of the war: when the brush is cleared away, the soldiers of the Confederacy were fighting to defend chattel slavery. Thus the question lingers: Is it possible to fight honorably in a dishonorable cause?
The theory of just and unjust wars has long held that the answer is yes. Fighting on the wrong side is not in itself a crime, which is why, when a war ends, prisoners must be repatriated unless they've committed punishable acts, like intentionally targeting civilians.
And although this doctrine of "moral equivalence" has been subjected to withering criticism - notably by the philosopher Jeff McMahan - it remains the crucial pillar on which not only moral but also legal arguments about armed conflict rest.
Nevertheless, some moral evils are so outrageous that no one who knows of their existence can fight honorably for them. The Nazi regime has become a clichÃ©d example precisely because it is the most prominent and indisputable one.
On the other hand, we're not going to ban Plato due to the existence of slavery in "The Republic," or, more generally, his odious views on how society should be governed. (OK, maybe we are going to stop teaching him, but that's not why.) Similarly, we don't judge the Manchu dynasty by its slaughter of the remaining supporters of the Mings. The reason surely must be that we instinctively judge those who defended horrific views by the extent of the moral knowledge available at the time.
Where does slavery rank? However cramped and bigoted the moral understanding of the Founders, it's fair to say that by the time of the Civil War no one could claim ignorance of the moral case against the enslavement of fellow human beings. Robert E. Lee, who would eventually command the rebel armies, professed to abhor the practice. Some Southern apologists took to arguing that no war was necessary because slavery would wither away. Pro-slavery preachers, who in the past had insisted that the ownership of human beings was G od's will, were gravitating toward the view that "social arrangements" were not the government's business.
So I'll shed no tears for the plaque. Besides, with or without the controversial inscription, the statue itself is no work of art - back in 1930, the Boston Globe opined that "there is little of distinction about the monument." Should the thing ever be blown down in a hurricane, one doubts that we'd see an outcry to rebuild it.
Still, although I understand why others found the inscription offensive, I never quite did. To me, the memorial was simply a curiosity. It was the sort of thing worth noticing, and worth having conversations about. Over the years, some of those conversations have been uncommonly rich.
I believe in teaching in place. What I mean is that if we leave the monuments standing, we can marvel at their existence. We can talk about them. We can admit our horrific history and dedicate ourselves to building a new and better one.
I worry, moreover, about solving difficult problems by dumping them on museums. I happen to love museums, but attendance, alas, is in sharp decline. It's unlikely that those who go to museums are seeking artifacts of the discredited efforts during the 20th century to honor those who were wrong about slavery during the 19th.
Yet if we never see the hidden monuments, we'll never wonder why they were built. And we'll wind up knowing not more history, but less.
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