Friday, August 18, 2017
I confess that Public Discourse is not the first place I would have expected to see a stirring call to take down Confederate monuments, but Matt Franck offers just that today, and it is worth a read. Key excerpt:
For these [monuments] are in their turn a gratuitous slap in the face of people who have felt the sting too much already. For a white Yankee like me, they’re bad enough. For black Americans, they must be intolerable. Large and forgiving natures might look on the statues now as relics of an ugly past that the country has in many ways overcome, fading into the background of noisy traffic in the modern, bustling South. But recent events in Charlottesville suggest that this overcoming is by no means a finished business. The statues should go, in order to deprive today’s feckless white supremacists of rallying points at the feet of monuments erected by yesterday’s more successful white supremacists.
Understanding the principled difference between the founding generals and statesmen of the United States—including the slave owners—and the founders and generals of the Confederate States can give us a bulwark against the slippage that President Trump evidently fears. No one ever erected a statue of George Washington in order to communicate his race’s superiority and to lord it over others.
As Franck acknowledges, reasonable (and non-racist) citizens can disagree about this. But what's so troubling -- and this is my own editorializing -- is the utter failure among many opponents of removal to acknowledge the non-frivolous reasons for removal, much less empathize with our neighbors for whom removal would represent a burden lifted. (I don't think the failure runs both ways -- African Americans growing up in the South are not ignorant of the arguments for Southern heritage and history.)
Setting the tone for this failure, of course, is our President. He doesn't have a monopoly on a lack of empathy (see, e.g., "basket of deplorables"), but combined with his lack of intellectual curiosity, utter self-absorption, and willingness to leverage fear of "the other" for strategic political advantage, President Trump's glaring lack of empathy threatens to foment social divisions in our country to an extent unseen for generations. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that he is the source of our divisions - he is exacerbating them.
When I first became a dean, I was talking with another dean who was nearing the end of a very long and successful tenure. I had identified a range of important leadership qualities such as vision, integrity, transparency, and confidence. He responded, "No, the most important quality in a leader is empathy." The longer I serve in a leadership role, the more obviously and undeniably true I find his observation to be.