I recently finished reading The Need To Be Whole by Wendell Berry, and it has inspired me to write to you in protest of the imminent—if not actually underway as you read these very words—removal of the Arlington National Cemetery Confederate Monument.
I am certain that you have already encountered many arguments in favour of the monument. You have heard that this monument is a symbol of reconciliation and that the removal of such a symbol is ungracious and gratuitously divisive. You have heard that this monument is not just another ‘Silent Sentinel’ in a small-town courthouse square, but a truly singular work of art which it would be appalling to destroy. You have been told that the removal of this monument would not just brutalise the landscape of the cemetery but, as it is in a cemetery, would be a form of desecration as well. Instead of repeating arguments that you have already heard, however, I would like for you to consider an alternative, uncommon argument drawn from The Need To Be Whole. In the present tone of American politicks, Mr. Berry’s appeal may appear altogether too meek, if not weak, but I believe that amongst those of good will it is the most powerful appeal of them all, so powerful in fact that it could move even an avowed enemy of Confederate monuments.
Mr. Berry is a writer and farmer from Kentucky, something of an American agrarian bard. In this most recent book of his, he once more encourages—no, entreats—us to learn to live with the land as well as with one another and, moreover, exhorts us to understand that our failure to live with one another is related to our failure to live with the land. Throughout the book, Mr. Berry ponders the costs of the Civil War in his Bluegrass State and in these United States of America, not just to understand how it damaged us then, but how it has damaged us thence. Naturally, nowadays, this leads to the controversy about Confederate monuments.
Mr. Berry begins his consideration of this controversy by citing a past essay of his, ‘In Distrust of Movements,’ disclaiming both the ‘anti-monument movement’ and the ‘anti-anti-monument countermovement,’ however he may agree or disagree with one or the other. ‘That is because I respect the likelihood that, like many troubling public issues, this one has more than two sides,’ he explains wisely, ‘and so I wish the discussion of it could be quieter and more careful than the movements and the news have made it.’
The controversy over Confederate monuments, according to Mr. Berry, begins with sin. Sin was once understood as all too human—something that we understand by seeing it in ourselves—hence the need for forgiveness. It is good to be forgiven, for it frees us of the shame that we suffer for our sins, but it is no less good to forgive, for it frees us from anger and hatred that would drive us to sin and thus cause further suffering. Today, however, sin having been narrowed down from our actions to our opinions, it is now possible for us to become ‘sinless.’ As sinless, we have forgotten the good of forgiveness, replacing it with the public punishment of the sinful. Today, in spite of all our supposed secular enlightenment, we nevertheless pin ‘scarlet A’s’ on other sinners as puritanically as was done in ‘righteous old New England,’ the only difference being that these public sins are now strictly political. Indeed, in dissenting from the anti-monument movement, Mr. Berry is risking a ‘scarlet A’ of his own, and is to be commended for his moral courage.
‘A great many white liberals have surpassed their own sinlessness to take upon themselves the race prejudice, racism, and racial violence of their ancestors, or of other people’s ancestors,’ Mr. Berry writes with some skepticism. ‘Because there is thus no limit to the number of ancestors, and no limit to the number of supposable ancestral sins, the burden of guilt to be borne by these otherwise guiltless white people is exceedingly great and painful to bear.’ As the sins which white liberals have taken upon their cross go back to 1619 or 1492, ‘any attempt at score-settling’ can be ‘nothing so ordinary human as friendship or neighborliness or help in solving a local problem,’ but instead must be ‘public, large, symbolic, and monumental’—enter Confederate monuments.
Mr. Berry gives eight reasons why, when he was asked to write an essay against Confederate monuments, he declined.
One, it is a matter ‘that is by nature divisive’—one of many such matters wracking these United States of late—and ‘those who speak of compromise as a civilized way to heal political division have nothing to recommend here.’
Two, ‘opposing the dead is the most expedient route to virtue for public officials, as well as a perfect distraction form the problems that are present, urgent, and difficult.’
Three, these monuments ‘speak or they spoke freely, as intended, for certain people of our past,’ whereto we are free to listen and to answer, but ‘when the monuments are hidden, they are no longer telling us anything, and we are no longer answering.’
Four, by providing fodder for racist propaganda, as the anti-monument movement has indeed done, ‘those in favor of humane values thus give occasions and causes to their enemies and so perpetuate the organized racism that they oppose.’
Five, ‘as treated, this issue is superficial, simple, and sensational, calling for responses so ready-made as to be automatic, unencumbered by study or thought.’
Six, the controversy over Confederate monuments, ‘such as it is, is not careful enough of history,’ from ‘its rendering of history’s complexities and enigmas into a simple formula’ to its claim ‘that people should not be reminded of any part of history that offends them.’
Seven, ‘the most disturbing result so far’ of the movement against ‘reminders of slavery,’ such as Confederate monuments, ‘has been to subject works of art, and so the arts, to a political art criticism that is both proscriptive and prescriptive, amounting to censorship.’
Eight, the movement against Confederate monuments and any other ‘reminders of slavery and the Civil War’—Mr. Berry calls this a ‘phobia’—is driven by ‘the exceedingly perilous delusion of human perfectibility,’ which in its self-anointed sinlessness and mission to expurgate the sinfulness of others, drives ‘the moral ferocity that sends out hunters after witches, or heretics, or deviants of any sort.’
These eight reasons, sound as they are, are penultimate to Mr. Berry’s moving plea for forgiveness.
The erection of many Confederate monuments was coincident with the consolidation of power of ‘Jim Crow’ regimes in the ex-Confederate states. Thus, it has been inferred that white supremacism must have been the motive for the monuments. On this question of motives, Mr. Berry acknowledges that they can be good, bad, or some mixture of more good than bad or more bad than good. Sometimes, he continues, motives can indeed be so bad that they merit the term ‘inhuman,’ which is how the anti-monument movement sees the Confederates, but to Mr. Berry, it is more often true that bad motives belong to our common human nature. ‘Fair-mindedness and good sense ought to advise us that the worst thing we can find out or conjecture is not necessarily the truest,’ he adds a word of caution, ‘also, that all particulars are not necessarily explainable by generalizations.’
Mr. Berry suggests that the motives behind Confederate monuments were mixed, not without some bad, though not without some good, which is to say human. At the same time as Jim Crow was consolidating its power in the early 1900s, notes Mr. Berry, there were living survivors of the war who wished to commemorate the great sacrifice of that generation. ‘I think it is a mistake to discount out of hand the involvement with these monuments of friendship, love, personal loyalty, and lasting grief,’ Mr. Berry writes with feeling. ‘It is simply wrong to withhold all sympathy from those feelings, no matter one’s disagreement with those who felt them.’ Mr. Berry imagines walking amongst a battlefield after nightfall strewn with the bodies of the dead and the dying, the former lying still, the latter crying out in the darkness, whereupon he asks, ‘Must we take care to pity only those with whom we agree?’
To better relate to the Civil War, Mr. Berry compares it to the Vietnam War, which in his opinion was ‘as wasteful of life and health and the human commonwealth as the Civil War.’ Many will not agree with Mr. Berry that the Vietnam War was ‘shameful,’ but virtually all will agree that the anti-war movement’s personal attacks upon American servicemen were shameful. ‘I cannot think of any reason why right-thinking and peace-loving people cannot oppose the bad policies of one side of a bad war and yet regard with compassion and respect the young soldiers of both sides whose only lives were expended in suffering and death,’ wonders Mr. Berry. ‘There is nothing admirable or necessary in a photograph of comparatively well-fed college boys kicking the pulled-down statue of a Confederate soldier,’ he continues, evoking the memory of anti-war protestors attacking Vietnam veterans. ‘Why should we not remember the compassion and generosity of General Grant towards just such soldiers at Appomattox?’
Mr. Berry asks us to imagine—though perhaps you need not imagine—someone today at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., where the names of every American killed in that war are etched into stone, tracing his or her finger over the name of a lost loved one, one amongst thousands of such names, and shedding tears for their memory. ‘Having imagined those tears, would it not be possible for any of us now to imagine such tears shed at a Confederate memorial a hundred years ago?’ he asks. ‘I know that their grief can be imagined,’ he answers, ‘but I know that many of us now would refuse outright to imagine, and so far to grant, the humanity and suffering of an “enemy.”’ For Mr. Berry, this refusal—this ‘principled numbness,’ as he puts it—is ‘the most troubling revelation of the movement against monuments.’
‘If,’ writes Mr. Berry, ‘we concern ourselves with our history, good and bad, in order to understand its goodness and its badness, and so to know as much as we can of the truth, good and bad, about ourselves, then our judgment of these monuments is not morally trivial or easy.’ Yet reducing Confederate monuments into symbols of the worst, most inhuman motives possible, as the anti-monument movement does, ‘obscures completely a passage of our history that in actuality is hard to understand and, for those with some understanding of it, hard to bear.’
What Mr. Berry means by ‘hard to bear’ is how the Civil War defies simple moral categorisation, mixing up good and bad motives on both sides with good and bad outcomes. For example, in a passage that ought to make anti- or pro-monument partisans alike cringe, he writes, ‘It is an incongruity hard to bear that the South’s patriotic defense of its land and people, unique as it was in the history of white Americans, had to be also a war in opposition to the freeing and freedom of four million black people.’ Likewise, equally discomfiting: ‘If we are rightly troubled to find the salutary patriotism of the Southern side of the war corrupted by slavery, then we must be equally troubled to find that the Northern side, which freed the slaves from legal bondage, also established the industrial system, which attached the expendability of soldiers to all working people, of whichever race, regarding them all as eventually replaceable by machines.’
To illustrate what ‘principled numbness’ looks like, Mr. Berry tells the story of two monuments with which he is personally familiar, John Hunt Morgan’s in Lexington and John Breckenridge Castleman’s in Louisville.
John H. Morgan was a cavalier famous for his daring raids and dashing image, and in 1911 his hometown honored him with an equestrian monument. Because of an artistic liberty which was taken in its design—his horse, a mare, was sculpted with genitalia which was, shall we say, more befitting of Morgan’s own masculinity—the monument has long since been the subject of good-natured practical jokes from local college students, which Mr. Berry remembers as early as the 1950s. ‘Now, according to the sudden convention of the urban-academic liberal code, this monument has been stuck away to where it will no longer perpetuate the evil of the Confederacy,’ Mr. Berry writes skeptically, thereupon asking, ‘How much actually was left of this particular monument’s power to serve the Confederacy?’ Through ‘a historical accumulation of lore and laughter,’ a monument intended to commemorate a Confederate war hero ‘came to commemorate instead the common life merely of Lexington,’ and in a sense the absurdity of war itself. ‘So time and human nature itself would have wrought a kind of forgiveness,’ reflects Mr. Berry. ‘This would be so if, as we seem to think, forgiveness leads to forgetting.’
John B. Castleman joined Morgan’s cavalry at the age of twenty, was captured as a spy and condemned to death, and was reprieved by President Lincoln himself. In the fall of 1863, William T. Sherman warned Henry Halleck of ‘the Young Bloods of the South,’ whom he described as ‘brave, fine riders, bold to rashness, and dangerous subjects in every sense,’ and amongst whom he named Castleman’s commander, Morgan. ‘They must all be killed or employed by us before we hope for Peace,’ declared Sherman. Morgan was killed during the war, but afterwards Castleman was so employed, and the loyal service which he provided to his city, state, and country did indeed bring peace. Most notably, as the founder and first commissioner of the Louisville Park Department, Castleman stayed its racial segregation, and as the commander of the Louisville Legion of the Kentucky Militia, Castleman fought racist terrorism against black people. (In further research of mine I learned that Castleman was, with his wife, a supporter of women’s suffrage.) Castleman’s monument in Louisville itself was an equestrian, though not in the traditional martial style, but of a horse and rider apparently performing in a show ring, such as the one at the Chicago Columbian Exposition World’s Fair in 1893, where Castleman won the grand championship. The monument was 107 years old and had become a landmark in Louisville.
In spite of all this, ‘modern-day critics said Castleman shouldn’t be forgiven for fighting for the Confederacy just because he may have done good things later,’ Mr. Berry quotes from a local newspaper. ‘What, then, may be the point of opposing race prejudice—what are the protestors asking for—if there is to be no forgiveness, no grant of kindness, to people like Castleman who change their minds?’ he asks, exasperated. ‘Without such forgiveness, the movement against monuments is reduced to an enactment merely of hatred and revenge.’ Another local news story quoted by Mr. Berry reported that the Louisville mayor ‘who has wanted the statue gone for several years pointed to the protests over the police shootings of Breonna Taylor and David McAtee as more evidence that Castleman’s effigy had to go.’ Mr. Berry retorts that this is ‘plainly an abuse of the word “evidence,”’ adding moreover, ‘I do not believe, because there is no reason to believe, that this statue, which bears no Confederate insignia or any symbol or sign of racism, could have prompted a policeman to shoot an innocent black person.’ Mr. Berry scoffs at the presumptive ‘moral perfection’ of these ‘modern-day critics,’ sitting in judgment of a twenty year-old from over a century and a half ago. The removal of Castleman’s monument ‘disturbs and frightens him,’ he writes, describing this incident of ‘forgiveness overruled’ as ‘truly ominous,’ whereto he refers throughout The Need To Be Whole.
The anti-monument movement can see only hate in Confederate monuments, notes Mr. Berry, and cannot see whatever love was also in them. One problem with this ‘moral simplicity,’ however, is Robert E. Lee. The anti-monument movement looks at a statue of someone like Lee and sees only hate, yet according to Mr. Berry, the story of Lee ‘not the statue but the actual man, is a story inextricably involving love, love of several kinds, all inextricably involving grief.’ Lee, he continues, was ‘one of the great tragic figures of our history, who embodied and suffered in his personal life our national tragedy, and he maintains that ‘we cannot understand the history of our Civil War without understanding Lee.’
Hence, I might add, why the anti-monument movement, which does not understand the Civil War as a ‘national tragedy’ (unless you count it as ‘tragic’ that it did not start sooner, end later, and hang more people afterwards), and which is utterly unsympathetic to the ‘suffering’ of its enemies, has attacked every representation of Lee which it can find. Indeed, the greatest battles in the monument wars to date have been within Virginia and against Lee, just as in the Civil War itself. Even the current battle over the Arlington National Cemetery Confederate Monument takes places upon the ancestral estate of Lee’s wife, their family’s home until it was occupied, expropriated, and converted into a military cemetery.
Lee was a Virginian, born into one of Virginia’s oldest families and the son of a Virginian who was an officer to George Washington (another old Virginian) in the Revolutionary War. He married into a branch of the Washington family, wherefore he inherited ‘Arlington.’ He graduated from West Point, distinguished himself in the Mexican War, and returned to his alma mater as superintendent. It is no exaggeration to state that, at the time of the Civil War, he was the preeminent officer in the U.S. Army, hence why his decision to decline command of the Union invasion of the Confederacy was so dramatic. Lee ‘had a career, and a distinguished one,’ notes Mr. Berry, but he was not a ‘careerist.’ His command of the Union army ‘would have been the summit of his career and probably its triumph,’ but he ‘knew well what it would mean to Virginia to be invaded by the army of the United States,’ having fought in a ‘nationalist war of territorial expansion’ in Mexico. Lee, a capital-F Federalist like Washington, condemned disunion, and also like Washington, Lee was critical of slavery, or at least as critical of it as a someone of his social class could be. In spite of his political opinions, Lee could no more have taken sides against Virginia out of loyalty to the Union than Washington could have taken sides against Virginia out of loyalty to the Crown. ‘To decide between his two loyalties, to the United States and to Virginia,’ writes Mr. Berry, ‘was an agony for him.’
‘Lee refused on the grounds of familial and local loyalty,’ writes Mr. Berry, an act that he acknowledges ‘will be difficult for modern Americans to understand, let alone to regard with sympathy.’ When Lee said, ‘I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children,’ Mr. Berry helpfully notes that for him, ‘the words “birthplace” and “home” and even “children” had a complexity and a vibrance of meaning that at present most of us have lost,’ save for the remnant of rural Americans. As such, he ‘was guided by loyalties that he selflessly respected and intimately felt rather than by general principles telling him what he ought to feel.’ He was ‘a man of a distinct, now nearly vanished kind: far less a nationalist than a patriot, which is to say he was above all a Virginian,’ writes Mr. Berry. ‘Here he escapes the modern mind, or the modern mind escapes him.’
‘Save in defense of my native state, I never desire again to draw my sword,’ Lee answered President Abraham Lincoln’s offer. ‘You have made the greatest mistake of your life,’ replied General Winfield Scott, who had presented the offer, ‘but I feared it would be so.’ As a matter of military professionalism, Scott was correct—as one of Lee’s relatives, a naval officer who remained with the Union, put it, ‘When I find the word Virginia in my commission I will join the Confederacy’—but Lee ‘held his profession to be subordinate to his life, which he could not conceive as divisible from the life of his people and his place.’ In other words, Scott, a Virginian himself, knew that for Lee this was not only a matter of military professionalism, and thus that ‘Lee would defend Virginia because he belonged to Virginia.’
Modern Americans think of ‘belonging’ in terms of ‘that which belongs to them,’ rather than in terms of ‘that to which they belong,’ as Mr. Berry puts it, whereas Lee ‘thought, and no doubt felt more than thought, that he belonged to his family, home, and state, and that this belonging was absolute: Whatever the defense of these required of him, he was required in honor to give.’ For Lee, therefore, his refusal was not a mistake, for it was not even his to decide; it was his duty, despite the costs. ‘Now it seems as if,’ writes Mr. Berry, ‘having rejected the possibility that one human might belong as a legal property to another, we have proceeded, over the years intervening, to reject the possibility that humans might rightfully belong in any sense to anybody or anything.’ Yet according to Mr. Berry, such ‘belonging’ is ‘necessary to any order definable as human.’
Mr. Berry illustrates this ‘belonging’ with a story from Robert Penn Warren, a fellow Agrarian writer and Bluegrass Stater. Warren’s grandfather on his mother’s side had been a Confederate cavalry captain whose war stories he had enjoyed as a young boy. Warren was taken aback, then, when one day he heard his grandfather call the Civil War ‘a politician’s war, just worked up by fools,’ amongst whom he named the ‘Southern fire-eaters’ (the pro-slavery disunionists) with the ‘Yankee abolitionists’ (many of whom were also disunionists but anti-slavery). Such cynical sentiments conflicted with the youthful Warren’s idealisation of his grandfather and the war. Warren came to learn that before the war his grandfather had been pro-Union and anti-slavery, as were many Southerners, but that when the war came he nevertheless fought for the Confederacy, ‘because at such a time “you went with your people.”’
To go with your people, however, first you must have a people to whom you belong, and to have a people you must have a place to which you belong. These are forms of belonging which were vital to Lee, Grandpa Penn, and hundreds of thousands of other Confederate soldiers, but which are alien to us today. Mr. Berry also cites his own experience as an example. His family has lived in the same place amongst the same people for over two-hundred years, and thus for him the words ‘home,’ ‘home-place,’ and ‘home-folks’ evoke deep feelings. Although a professed ‘pacifist,’ Mr. Berry nonetheless confesses, ‘I know that if my home country were under threat of an invading army, no matter if it were the army of the United States, no matter how righteous its cause, I would be powerfully drawn to go with my people in defense.’ (Who amongst us would not?) ‘The need to go with your people is a part of history because it is a part of human nature,’ writes Mr. Berry, and thus it is something that ‘we would do well at least to try to understand.’ We certainly cannot understand our Civil War without understanding ‘the need to go with your people.’
Slavery was the primary cause of disunion, acknowledges Mr. Berry, but he crucially adds that ‘from the point of view of the Confederate soldiers, the great fact of the war, once it had begun, was that their country had been, and was going to be, invaded.’ With Lee, these men shared ‘a settled determination to defend their homelands and their people.’ These men did not fight ‘for the right of richer men to own slaves,’ argues Mr. Berry, but ‘because of the patriotism (not nationalism) that grew from love for their families and their little farms, because of personal pride, because of their tested and proved comradeship, and certainly because of devotion to their general.’ Mr. Berry wisely distinguishes ‘patriotism’ from ‘nationalism,’ and in his opinion the Civil War was, amongst other things, ‘a conflict of patriotism, which is to say love for one’s actual country, the land under one’s feet, against nationalism, which is to say allegiance just short of worship to a political idea or ideal and to a government.’ To Mr. Berry, the respective war anthems of the Confederacy and the Union exemplify patriotism and nationalism: ‘The jaunty “Dixie,” which celebrates the “land where I was born,” versus “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a hymn sure enough of a sanctified nationalism, in which the ever misfortunate Jesus once again shows up in uniform.’
‘True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another,’ Lee wrote to P.G.T. Beauregard in the fall after the surrender, and indeed, Lee exhibited the same patriotism in times of peace as he did in times of war. ‘His choice at the beginning of the war to resign from the Union army in loyalty to Virginia was in a sense balanced by a choice, perhaps equally significant and painful, on the day of his surrender at Appomattox,’ writes Mr. Berry, who praises the ‘quietness and dignity with which he accepted the defeat of his people and his own failure, all the while continuing to do what he saw as his duty.’ Lee, for example, refused to initiate a prolonged partisan war—imagine Mosby, Jesse James, Quantrill, or Bloody Bill Anderson writ large—as some of his officers had advised, foreseeing ‘the further suffering of the land and the people that would result’ from continuing the war in that manner. ‘We would bring on a state of affairs it would take the country years to recover from.’ Because of Grant’s honourable conduct towards him and his men in defeat, Lee never tolerated any unkind words about his former enemy in his presence, and indeed discouraged any such sentiment amongst his fellow Southerners towards their former enemies. ‘We shall have to be patient, and suffer for a while at least,’ Lee replied gently to Jubal Early’s profession of hatred for all Yankees forever, ‘and all controversy, I think, will only serve to prolong angry and bitter feelings.’ Mr. Berry praises Lee for remaining loyal to Virginia, advising his veterans to ‘go home…and help build up the fortunes of our shattered state,’ rather than become an unreconstructed rebel such as Early. ‘I cannot desert my native state in the hour of her adversity,’ Lee said, declining an invitation from an admiring English nobleman to expatriate and live on his estates as his guest. ‘I must abide her fortunes, and share her fate.’ According to Mr. Berry, ‘This sharing of fate is the act and the essence of the devotion to one’s land and people that is properly called “patriotism.”’
Lee, writes Mr. Berry, ‘is important to us, and I mean to all of us, because more prominently than anybody else he affirmed, obeyed, and suffered the need to defend his homeland and his people,’ a need which in his opinion is ‘commendable and in the long run indispensable.’ Mr. Berry admits that he feels for Lee what he also feels for another tragic figure like Crazy Horse, and moreover, suggests that the Confederates have come the closest of any European-Americans to the experience of the Native-Americans. ‘Just for a little while, and within too narrow limits, it was possible for an eminent white man to imagine and affirm as sacred the cultural inseparability of land and people,’ Mr. Berry observes, a welcome exception to the course of American history. ‘Whatever we may think of Lee,’ he concludes, ‘his presence in our history and in our present consciousness raises a question that we cannot answer or avoid by sequestering monuments and memorials.’ That question, ‘How to think about our imperfect forebears?’ is one which we must answer ‘if we are to cohere and survive as an American people.’ Alas, laments Mr. Berry, ‘under our present curse of slogans, such a question cannot be heard.’
‘Once a large public division is established over some single perfectly divisive issue, such as Confederate monuments,’ writes Mr. Berry, ‘and once the difference begins to be expressed in name-calling and slogans, then reconciliation becomes impossible.’ Mr. Berry deplores ‘weaponized language’ which divides people into enemies and dehumanises the enemy. This ‘division between enemies’ can only end in the ‘division between winners and losers,’ making the division permanent and cyclical, as the losers will want to re-fight the winners. The ‘remedy,’ or at least ‘the beginning of the remedy,’ according to Mr. Berry, is ‘better, more distinguishing, personally responsible language: conversation between and among people, public discourse among spokespeople, officials, and leaders.’ Language ought to ‘to describe in accurate detail, or in detail as accurate as possible, particular persons, places, and things—and also problems, opinions, judgments, thoughts, feelings.’
Cultivating this ‘language of agreement,’ writes Mr. Berry, means resisting the temptation of the simpler ‘language of division,’ but it also means ‘the willingness to speak as and for ourselves, to account for ourselves, to bear witness.’ Individual human beings are more likely to have ‘mixed emotions’ or be ‘of two minds’ than humans organised into a mass-movement, which is more effectively united by the language of division and thereby hatred. Therefore, those of us ‘who wish to speak of love, and of the works of love such as forgiveness, have got to speak for themselves.’ With this letter, which I have rewritten and edited many times in an effort to remove any language of division, I am aspiring to answer Mr. Berry’s call.
Mr. Berry claims that, ‘the most perfected of the public angers or hatreds in this country since our hatred of the Japanese during World War II’—which he remembers from his boyhood—‘is the present politically correct or leftish hatred of the Confederacy and the Confederate soldier.’ It is a ‘moral hatred,’ with ‘the modern-day critical principle of no forgiveness’ stemming from self-sinlessness, and ‘a familiar eagerness to search out and punish dissenters and sympathizers.’ As a hatred that is free from fear—for the objects of the hatred are all dead—it is ‘a hatred of unusual purity, hatred true and whole and nothing else.’ It is, Mr. Berry is saddened to see, ‘a harder, purer, more vindictive hatred by far than most of the veterans of the two sides displayed toward one another after the Civil War had ended,’ and he contrasts it with ‘the whole-hearted charity, amity, and respect’ with which Grant and his soldiers treated Lee and his soldiers. ‘Stillness’ was the word used to describe the surrender at Appomattox, notes Mr. Berry. ‘Such a stillness, precious as it is,’ he reflects, ‘is clearly a fragile and passing thing.’
To Mr. Berry, Lee and Grant’s conduct towards one another at the Appomattox surrender—going from ‘a war of all-out brutality, as brutal as technological progress so far could make it, to highly civilized decorum and courtesy’—exemplifies the virtue of forgiveness, as a ‘matter of practicality’ if nothing else. ‘If you have a problem to solve—such as ending a war and starting a peace—surely you have got to decide what you want,’ he explains. ‘Do you want to solve the problem, which is the work at hand, or do you want to submit the past to justice or revenge, or reprise your victory?’ Politicks soon nullified the example of forgiveness which Grant and Lee had made for their men, but ‘even so,’ avows Mr. Berry, ‘the meeting at Appomattox that produced an authentic, if limited, attempt at peacemaking is a good story, worth telling and hearing again and again.’ Yet the example of Appomattox ‘seems now to have no place in public consciousness.’
Mr. Berry draws from ‘the two great streams of the Western tradition,’ the Classical and the Christian, to illustrate forgiveness borne from love and the redemptive power of forgiveness for the forgiver as well as the forgiven.
In Homer’s The Iliad, after Achilles kills Hektor, he desecrates his corpse, so angry is he over Hektor’s killing of his beloved friend Patroklos. It is not until Hektor’s father, Priam, submits to Achilles, coming to him as a father and asking him to think of his own father, that Achilles’ anger dies and the two of them grieve together for the loved ones whom they have lost. ‘At the end of his long story of subhumans in the fury of war,’ writes Mr. Berry, ‘Homer gives us the figure of a whole human, one of the greatest and most glorious of heroes, a half-god who can be made whole only by human love.’ Moreover, Mr. Berry notes how remarkable it is that Homer made Hektor, prince of Troy and an enemy, ‘the brightest hero’ of The Iliad. As he puts it, ‘It is Priam who makes Achilles, his enemy, whole. And it is the story of Hektor, living and dead, that makes The Iliad whole.’
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the titular character divides his kingdom between two of three of his daughters, disinheriting the third, Cordelia, who loves him the most but whose lack of flattery he mistakes for a lack of love, and who is finally destroyed by the evil of her sisters which her father had foolishly released. ‘Lear’s redemption comes, though too late to save Cordelia’s life,’ writes Mr. Berry, ‘with his recognition at once of the immensity in implication and result of his selfishness and of the selflessness of Cordelia’s love for him, as undeserving of it as he has been.’
From these ‘treasures of our inheritance,’ writes Mr. Berry, we ‘witness the work of love in its highest dimension of sacrifice and redemption, its making whole sometimes of the most partial and culpable humans.’ The message is not that ‘this love corrects the completed wrongs of the past or that it makes life easy,’ but simply that ‘it exists and is necessary.’
In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus must choose between remaining with his lover and captor, Kalypso, on Ogygia, where he will live forever, and returning to his wife, Penelope, on Ithaka, where he will grow old and die. ‘Let the trial come,’ states Odysseus, as he chooses the latter.
In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Adam learns that Eve has been beguiled by the Father of Lies and that both are doomed, whereupon he reaffirms his love for her: ‘Bone of my bone thou art, and from thy state mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe.’
‘These two great figures of our tradition,’ writes Mr. Berry, ‘have been forced, not by circumstances, but by their hearts’ loyalty and love, into a paradox, apparently fundamental to human experience, but in my own reading most tidily stated in Luke 17:33: “Whomsoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whomsoever shall lose his life shall save it.”’ Herein lies the meaning of the title of Mr. Berry’s book. ‘Both Odysseus and Adam must make themselves whole, or wholly human, as by their lights they conceive of wholeness,’ he explains, ‘by choosing to become only human, forswearing for the sake of their merely human love any attribute of divinity.’ In other words, forgiveness makes the forgiven as well as the forgiver whole. According to Mr. Berry, to forgive or not to forgive ‘may be the supreme test that humanity must face in this world,’ hence what is at stake in the controversy over Confederate monuments is more than just monuments.
Mr. Berry also cites Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s story from the slave state of Missouri When Huck’s friend, ‘Jim,’ is identified as a runaway slave, Huck must choose between his conscience (what is right by the standards of his society) and his heart (his personal feelings for Jim). Huck struggles with the choice for awhile before breaking down and blurting out, ‘All right, then I’ll go to hell!’ and going with Jim. ‘This is as clear and true, and as traditional, an instance of sacrificial love as any of the four that I previously described,’ writes Mr. Berry.
These stories of sacrificial love and forgiveness, avows Mr. Berry, matter to us today ‘because they stand directly in opposition to the determinism that, with us, has become so habitual and contagious. They signify a power in us, not to be morally or in any other way perfect, but to recognize wrong and to do what is right: to become in the finest, fullest sense human, even when it is “too late.”’
Forgiveness, explains Mr. Berry, requires us to realise ‘that all humans, including oneself, are painfully flawed and incomplete,’ a realisation which he sees as related to ‘a sense of humor.’ This is not laughter at another’s expence or even at a joke, he clarifies, but rather laughter at oneself for one’s all-too-human follies—in other words, humility. It takes such a sense of humour, reflects Mr. Berry, to practise ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ or ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ As a contrary example of inhuman humourlessness, he cites ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ a song of ‘terrific’—as in synonymous with ‘terrifying’—self-seriousness and self-righteousness. ‘When God has come gloriously to your side in war, any touch of humor might admit some hint of doubt or confusion or uncertainty,’ he writes. ‘Humor must be excluded, and to do that it is necessary to exclude humanity.’
Mr. Berry encourages us ‘to escape the dead end represented by the “modern-day critics” who have decided against the forgiveness of the Confederate dead,’ but he acknowledges that escaping the instinctive morality of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ as Christ preached, is easier said than done. How, then, can we find it in ourselves to forgive our enemies? The answer, he reveals, is first to imagine our enemies as ourselves. (He recalls some eye-opening realisations about the Germans during the Second World War.) After all, as it is human nature to ask for justice for others and mercy for ourselves, if we can empathise with our enemies by imagining them as ourselves, then we have an interest in forgiving them just as we would be forgiven ourselves.
Thus, taking a sense of humour and humility to heart, Mr. Berry writes in closing, ‘I am sure that all the politicians, priests, preachers, judges, and journalists in Louisville cannot weigh John Castleman’s service to the Confederacy against the good deeds he did later,’ thus returning to that ‘truly ominous’ precedent which so disturbed and frightened him. Any attempt at such a measure, he cautions, opens up a never-ending cycle of eye-poking and tooth-pulling which leaves us all less whole. ‘And can we, after all,’ he implores us, ‘realize that justice attempted simply as the evening of a score—justice without imagination or sympathy or mercy or forgiveness—can destroy everything?’
As ‘modern-day critics’ refuse to imagine their enemies as themselves, observes Mr. Berry, they cannot feel any empathy for them, and thereby cannot forgive them. ‘If they had been born white in central Kentucky in 1841,’ he writes with a perceptible sigh, ‘they would have mounted no horse to ride with Morgan’s cavalry,’ as Castleman did. These ‘modern-day critics,’ writes Mr. Berry, are replacing our often questionable history with a tidy little allegory that flatters all of their own prejudices and forbids any questions. Mr. Berry is afraid of any ‘political and cultural orthodoxies that condemn dissension with no need to answer it,’ be they from the right or the left, and argues that if the danger thereof ‘was not immediately obvious, it ought to be becoming obvious by now when the taking down of monuments explicitly Confederate has progressed to taking down, for example, the Castleman statue, and to efforts to conceal or destroy any public work of art that recalls slavery or the white people’s atrocities against the American tribes, or perhaps anything at all that might be offensive or embarrassing to any faction with the power to tear it down.’ This orthodoxy, according to Mr. Berry, ‘may, by its own logic and momentum, be extended to the statuary of graveyards, to the contents of museums, to works of art and artists, to the books in libraries, to publishers and writers, to history itself.’
To the statuary of graveyards…thus we come to the original purpose of this very letter.
Mr. Berry invokes classic literature to illustrate the need to be whole, and so I shall conclude this letter with an illustration of mine which I believe is especially apposite: ‘Antigone.’
In ‘Antigone,’ the titular character wishes to give her brother, Polynikes, who had led a rebellion against the city and had fallen in battle, the same honours as that of her other brother, who had fought for the city and had also fallen in battle. Yet Creon, the new king and Antigone’s uncle, has commanded that Polynikes’ body be left unburied upon the battlefield and thus barred from the underworld. Antigone exhorts her sister, Ismene, for help in performing the funeral rites in violation of the law, but when Ismene admits that she is too afraid to break the law, Antigone turns cold towards her. ‘It is the dead, not the living, who make the longest demands: We die for ever…’ Antigone replies, already half in the afterlife. ‘You may do as you like, since apparently the laws of the gods mean nothing to you.’ Antigone is soon caught and is brought before Creon, where she freely confesses her crime. ‘It was not God’s proclamation,’ she states when an explanation is demanded of her. ‘That final justice that rules the underworld below makes no such laws.’
Thereupon Antigone and Creon engage in a debate over whether an enemy in life deserves any honour in death, and whilst it is too lengthy to quote here, I shall simply say that vis-á-vis Confederate monuments, ‘change only the names and this story is about you.’
Creon meets with his son, Haemon, who is in love with Antigone, to explain why she must be executed. ‘Do you want me to show myself weak before the people? Or to break my sworn word?’ he asks. ‘No, and I will not,’ he answers. ‘I suppose she’ll plead “family ties.” Well, let her,’ he remarks. ‘If I permit my own family to rebel, how shall I earn the world’s obedience?’ Haemon tries to reason with his father that his law is so revolting to the people that they have come to sympathise with Antigone’s crime. ‘“She covered her brother’s body. Is this decent?”’ he has heard the people say. ‘“She kept him from dogs and vultures. Is this a crime?”’ he continues. ‘“Death? She should have all the honor that we can give her!”’ Creon responds by rebuking Haemon for his youthfulness and womanliness and, in a fit of spite, ordering Antigone to be buried alive in a cave. ‘There let her pray to the gods of hell,’ he scoffs. ‘Perhaps they will show her an escape from death, or she may learn, though late, that piety shown the dead is pity in vain.’
Teiresias, a blind seer, appears and informs Creon that these acts of desecration—the unburying the dead and the burying of the living—have outraged the gods. ‘Give in to the dead man, then: do not fight with a corpse,’ Teiresias says of Polynikes. ‘What glory is it to kill a man who is dead?’ Creon, in response, tells Teiresias that he does not trust him, thereby provoking Teiresias to pronounce the downfall of Creon’s house and city. Creon, disturbed, relents and has Polynikes buried and Antigone freed, but it is too late: When Antigone’s tomb is opened it is discovered that she has already committed suicide, whereupon Creon’s son and wife commit suicide in succession.
‘Antigone’ is interpreted as a story about individual rights versus the rights of the state. This is not incorrect, and dissidents have always found inspiration in the heroine of Antigone, but this interpretation is rather abstract and neglects what is actually at issue between the individual and the state in this story: Desecration, namely the humane and divine revulsion thereto.
Creon’s desecration (Asebia in ancient Greek) makes him less whole—that is, less wholly human. His hatred and desire to dehumanise his enemy is so overpowering that it drives him to hate that which is good to the gods and to dehumanise himself. ‘You are sick, Creon!’ cries Teiresias, as he argues with the choleric king. ‘You are deathly sick!’ Indeed, Creon is virtually inhuman, as he defines himself as the embodiment of the state and perceives any personal disagreement with him as an assault on the political order itself. As Hubris summons Nemesis, Asebia costs Creon his most precious human relationships, leaving him alone on the throne.
Antigone’s act of familial love and piety (Eusebia in ancient Greek) was so powerful that it drove her to sacrifice her own life, but nevertheless Antigone dies whole, knowing that she could not have lived with herself otherwise. ‘I will bury him, and if I must die, I say that this crime is holy,’ she confides to Ismene. ‘I shall lie down with him in death, and I shall be as dear to him as he to me.’ Indeed, Antigone embraces her fate. ‘Can anyone living, as I live, with evil all about me, think death less than a friend?’ she says during her questioning. ‘This death of mine is of no importance, but if I had left my brother lying in death unburied, I should have suffered. Now I do not.’
One wonders what Sophocles would make of this spectacle. Indeed, Creon issued his ill-tempered order to desecrate his defeated enemy when bodies were still upon the battlefield and blood was still hot, not one hundred and fifty years after the war had ended.
I have long opposed the anti-monument movement historically and aesthetically, but after reading The Need To Be Whole, I now oppose it spiritually as well. When Teiresias confronts Creon, he tells him that his act of desecration is a ‘calamity’ which has cursed his city, and likewise, I believe that the anti-monument movement—unimaginative, unempathetic, and unforgiving as it is, and thereby inhumane—has cursed our country. Convinced of its own sinlessness and compelled to desecrate the dead for their sinfulness, it has, in an irony worthy of a Greek tragedy, made itself all the more sinful. There is certainly nothing of love in the destruction of these monuments, and whatever there may be of justice is corrupted by a wrathfulness and pridefulness that can only be described as hate. ‘O my son,’ Teiresias cries to Creon, ‘these are no trifles!’
Yet there is still hope. ‘The ideal condition would be, I admit, that men should be right by instinct,’ Haemon tries to reason with Creon, ‘but since we are all too likely to go astray, the reasonable thing is to learn from those who can teach.’ Teiresias gives similar advice to Creon. ‘All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil,’ he tells him. ‘The only crime is pride.’
If you have read this letter to the end, then I thank you. The writing of it has been an agony. Arguing against the infliction of irreversible damage—upon our symbols, yes, but still more, upon our own selves—wherein the best outcome would be for the worst not to happen is, to put it lightly, demoralising. I apologise for this letter’s length, but 240-character posts on social media, 750-word op-eds in the news media, and slogans short enough to fit on a sign or be chanted by a crowd—Mr. Berry’s ‘language of division’—are how we got here. The ‘language of agreement,’ as he puts it, is naturally more complex and less catchy, but unless we want to continue living in this state of political polarisation, social chaos, and cultural degradation, then we had better start learning to speak it and, moreover, to listen to it.