We have already sung the praises of Mitch Landrieu’s speech on Confederate monuments in New Orleans. It is a classic.
Nathan Pippenger, a contributing editor at Democracy, agrees with me.
But Pippenger has a small criticism of Landrieu’s speech. His short piece “Opposition to the Lost Cause Is Still Political,” is worth considering.
“This is not about politics” is a phrase that should always set off alarm bells, especially when it comes from a politician. Interestingly, the word “politics” does not make another appearance in the speech. But what else could a political figure making a speech about racist public memorials be talking about? Landrieu’s suggestion might be that the issue is somehow beyond politics—that a democratic argument over the statues would be inappropriate because they are so obviously unfit for public display. But if he truly thinks that, then the persuasive effort offered by his own speech is very strange indeed. Perhaps what he really intended was to say that the issue should be beyond politics, by which he means beyond disagreement: No American citizen should approve of a pro-Confederate public memorial. That is a world worth striving for, but as Landrieu knows, it is not an accurate description of the world we live in. The world we live in is home to many intellectual and political descendants of the Confederacy, and pretending that they somehow exist outside politics, or that they are not enabled by so-called “respectable” mainstream figures, is confusing and misleading.
Instead of marring an otherwise excellent speech with this trite declaration, Landrieu should have said something that the current crisis demands, something we must repeat loudly and often: The question of how we Americans remember our past and, symbolically, draw the boundaries of our civic community is a deeply political one. Indeed it is one of the oldest and most difficult, and something that would certainly be very dangerous to get wrong. The sickening blend of ahistorical nostalgia and white nationalism that currently dominates the White House is proof enough of that. In response to its ascendance, we should not only hope for moral transformations in the hearts of individuals; we should actively work for more just and democratic ways of understanding ourselves, and our history. The significance of that project, and the very activities of public engagement and argument through which it is carried out, is absolutely and necessarily political. Finding and elevating more politicians capable of giving speeches like this one, save that one pesky rhetorical feint, would be a good place to start.
Read the entire piece here.