Friday, August 18, 2017

What About That One Time In 1972 When That One Guy Did Something I Didn't Like

The recent violence in Charlottesville and the responses and counter-responses have produced the worst public discussion I have witnessed since I was in middle school nearly fifty years ago.

My Twitter feed has been filled with suggestions, both serious and sardonic, that statues honoring any politician who had an affair be taken down because affairs offended that particular denizen of the Twitterverse. One tweet suggested demanded that Michelangelo's David be removed from public view because David was an an adulterer and murderer. In other words, "what about this one guy ....?"

The basic question in response to Charlottesville and the resulting demand to remove statues honoring Confederate leaders is simple: should those who rebelled against the United States of America in order to preserve the institution of racial slavery be honored?

Each state's articles of secession leave little room for doubt that slavery was the root cause for their voting to secede, so the idea that Southern states formed the Confederate States of America in order to protect states' rights is specious unless one wishes to affirm the existence of a state's right to keep slavery legal.

Some have argued that history will be erased as statues and monuments are removed. It's doubtful that the Civil War will disappear from an U.S. History books or that amateur and academic historians will stop writing about it. Those worried about students being unable to read in the future can still buy Ken Burns's excellent documentary.

The main arguments against removing the statues-- here the term "argument" is stretched to the point of being nearly unrecognizable--have been "what about this person's sin or transgression or moral failing or slave ownership or . . . "

When debate class starts in a few days, my young'uns will be taught that "what about" is a red herring. (I will stay away from the hot button issue of the day, but there are examples aplenty.) They will also be taught three responses. First, the "what about . . ." response doesn't answer the question under consideration. Second, the fact that two people committed the same act doesn't mean that both should be celebrated. Freshmen might simplify that to "two wrongs don't make a right." Third, "what about . . . " doesn't refute anything. In the current controversy, pointing out that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves doesn't assert that slavery is moral or that rebellion against the United States was justified. It's saying that both Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jefferson committed the same moral crime, slavery. The assertion, however, doesn't show that Jefferson led soldiers into Pennsylvania to wage war on the United States of America.

In public debates, there is perhaps a more important response: how does the "what about ...." argument help solve the problem? I'm old enough to remember riots being common occurrences during the late 60s and early 70s. "What about . . ." arguments are tools that seem destined to return us to that era not solve the issues that divide the nation into angry racial, economic, and political factions.


caheidelberger said...

(Check last paragraph, first line: "...there is perhaps a more ___ response"?)

Kal Lis said...

Thanks Cory

Eve Fisher said...

Extremely well said. Every moment of logical, lucid thought is more than ever necessary.

o said...


Our founding fathers were not flawless (as Jon Stewart reminds us: they owned slaves and pooped in buckets), and I do think it is important to remember that they were men with flaws so we do not slip from admiration to worship of them. What the founding fathers strove to create is what deserves admiration; what the confederacy strove to destroy deserves condemnation.

Kal Lis said...

Eve and o,

Thanks for stopping by. Appreciate the comments

larry kurtz said...

It's always good to have a rooting section. Thanks for reading my stuff, Leo.

Kal Lis said...

Thanks Larry. Appreciate your "performance art," stinging gadfly style.