Tuesday, 19 April 2016 16:17

Louisiana should decide fate of confederate monuments in New Orleans, Shreveport, other local areas

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Debate over state Rep. Thomas Carmody’s HB 944 raises complex questions about who decides what historical monuments remain on public property. Ultimately, drawing upon first principles of American government resolves these.

The bill goes into greater detail than state Sen. Beth Mizell’s SB 276, but like it makes a state commission the arbiter of whether local governments may move or remove monuments dealing with historical events and people. Carmody’s bill presumes that any such structure in place for at least three decades a local government cannot move without the body’s approval.

Controversy over these items arose last year when New Orleans announced opposition to, then ratified the movement of, four monuments related to the Civil War. This has faced legal and administrative hurdles since, but by no means represents an isolated arena of conflict. In Shreveport, for example, the monument in front of the Caddo Parish Courthouse that commemorates the Confederate States of America’s last capital has garnered calls for its removal.

In fact, regarding just Civil War monuments, they populate north Louisiana in considerable numbers. Counting only those not part of a cemetery or state or national park/battlefield (those others numbering in the dozens), besides the aforementioned example also on city- or parish-owned property falling under the bill Benton has one on city and another on parish property, Homer has one on city property, Tallulah has one on parish property, Minden has one on city property, and Winnfield has one on parish property.

For all, the erectors of each intended these to laud some aspect or figure of the CSA. Because of the inescapable historical fact that the founding of the CSA came primarily from a desire to separate from the United States to ensure the rebellious states’ ability to continue the evil of slavery in order to perpetuate the existing economic order, some argue of the inappropriateness of such monuments, seeing these as celebrating subjugation, and thereby wish eviction of these.

But this attitude violates the admonishment of George Santayana that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Outrage over some reminder of history on public property, which has meaning not just in the content of the object but also having its own history infused into itself as a historical item, does not constitute sufficient grounds to erase its presence. Anybody can see anything as objectionable, so such decisions must come through the processes of representative democracy.

Carmody’s bill seeks to decide how that process works. More precisely, it gives preference in the decision of what to memorialize in public to state government. Constitutionally, states have the prerogative in these matters: local governments are considered creatures of the state and have only those powers granted to them by the state. In other words, in the matter of historical monuments that have acquired historical meaning independently of the event or people they commemorate the bill ultimately places decision-making power over these objects in the hands of the state.

So the real question concerning the bill’s merit involves whether the people of the state should have jurisdiction over local public monuments, as opposed to the people in the local areas wherein reside the monuments. Applying the argumentation of James Madison for ratification of the Constitution provides the proper guidance to answer this question.

In his arguments to place in a representative democracy the majority of power in a central government as opposed to within first order divisions such as states, Madison noted that the greater diversity part of a national government prompted more moderation, tolerance, and coalition-building in production of policy. As majority interests at lower levels had a greater capacity to implement policy suiting only themselves and disregarding minorities because of the lack of diversity leaving no need to include minorities in governing coalitions, he observed that in these smaller republics tyranny more likely would emerge.

The same logic applies on this issue. Once something in the public space has acquired its own separate historic meaning apart from what it commemorates (unless it only glorifies specific actions violating human rights without placing the acts in context) as it does over enough time, policy-makers in smaller republics may act too passionately without sufficient reason involved, pressured by viewpoints of constituents monopolizing one view, in determining the suitability of the item. Likely policy-makers from the larger republic would take a more balanced and reasoned approach, which may or may not agree with the smaller republic’s governors.

Thus, a bill like this appropriately places power to decide on the fate of monuments in the hands of state government. If local governments do not like that, they freely may design accompanying structures to the object under question designed to educate about the issue by providing crucial context. Allowing them free reign to remove what they like merely on the allegation that these objects may upset some increases tearing at the fabric of living space that has defined that environment, injuring the community as a whole. Erasing history because of fixation on parts and not the whole never benefits the community, and that becomes less likely to occur by passing such a statute into law.

Last modified on Friday, 08 September 2017 17:04
Jeffrey Sadow

Jeffrey Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University in Shreveport.   He writes a daily conservative blog called Between The Lines


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