Which side are you on, anyway?

There were times when spats between my parents-in-law escalated to the point where they hauled out the big laundry bag of family pictures and grudgingly began to divide up the contents.  Now, in a national argument over decades-old Confederate memorials and statues,

 it’s not a family that might be divided, it’s a country.

Most of the men depicted on Confederate hardware are by now unknown and irrelevant.  They represent obscure historical figures, like Chief Justice Roger B. Taney -- a Democrat by the way -- who authored the infamous Dred Scott decision.  Having presided over the Maryland statehouse at Annapolis for 145 years, Taney’s statue was recently removed from its pedestal in the dead of night to the cheers of a small crowd. I don’t know if the  workers  were paid overtime for their nocturnal efforts, but the  hour was deliberately chosen to avoid confrontation.

It’s not clear anymore, however, whether the avoidance of conflict is even possible.  American political opinion has become so polarized that few issues elude the pull of magnetic partisanship.  Unfortunately, any supposed “national discussion” takes place across a widening philosophical chasm separating two sets of shrill voices and deaf ears. 

Pulling down every last one of the Confederate statues and memorials would not to solve the growing racial and ideological divides that weaken America.

We now live in a country in which grievance has become a form of power, and capitulation to its demands is considered the safest bet.  Once an indignity is righted, another looms soon enough to perpetuate the threat of violence. There are plenty of causes well worth the confrontation., of course.  But in an adversarial environment, almost everything that is done or said gets hyped into a big deal.  We seem totally ignorant of our priorities.

In the legendary movie “Marty,” Ernest Borgnine and his bored pal share  a familiar Saturday night dialogue

“What do you wanna do tonight, Angie?”

“I dunno, Marty!  What do you wanna do? 

These days the answer might very well be to go to a rally.  Protests, the latest form of free socializing among like-minded people, require constant grist for the milling, along with an unhealthy dose of frisson.  These are easy to come by since protestors conveniently share the same contemporary object of scorn or admiration. For the obstructionists, for example, tearing down a Confederate statue is the next best thing to toppling the presidency of Donald J. Trump.

This is not the first time in history that angry citizens have obliterated statues and other objects seen as symbols of repression.  For every domineering dictator, dynasty and despot who fell from grace, hundreds of ubiquitous iron or marble likenesses followed suit.  There are risks, but it’s generally easier to do battle with an inert opponent.   

Still, it is rare, indeed, to vent against those so far back in historical records and so unrelated to current conditions. The impetus to remove longstanding Rebel statuary is a recent phenomenon, suggesting a ploy to connect The Donald with yet another bad hair day in history. This week during the eclipse, I glimpsed through a dark filter the fiery red sickle-shape of the sun behind the moon, and wondered whether POTUS haters would blame the event on  collusion between Trump  and Putin

Sarcasm aside, a real danger in obsessing over an issue like Confederate statues is the pressure it exerts on average Americans to take sides. Suddenly we are  expected to not only voice an opinion, but  to voice the right  one.  In this age of holier-than-thou moral imperatives, nobody feels safe standing on middle ground.

A banner hoisted in the recent Boston rally read, “Which side are you on?”  

Caught in a flood of news stories, we risk being judged, then herded into separate tents of angels or demons.  Presuming that right makes might, both sides condone their own and condemn those who disagree. Donald Trump dared to see fault on both sides of the Charlottesville controversy.    He should have known better.

 As far as the statues go (or stay), those who view them as hurtful have every right to petition to have them removed.  But why are there suddenly so many put-upon “snowflakes” fluttering in the warm Deep South? If they are looking for yet another “safe space” it won’t happen by simply removing an obsolete piece of statuary.

Given time, everything returns to the dust of the earth.  In his sonnet “Ozymandius,” Shelley describes a massive desert monument built to glorify a ruler who never doubted the endurance of his  power.  The poem concludes:

“Nothing beside remains.  Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.”