Reflections on the Revolution in Chapel Hill

However powerful the cases for and against the University of North Carolina's Silent Sam Confederate statue, there are other relevant parties to consider -- not only in the here and now -- and we neglect them at our peril, warns Peter A. Coclanis.

October 16, 2018
 
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The fallen Silent Sam statue in August
 

One of the (few) joys of growing older arises from the opportunity to reread great books -- those that not only stand the test of time but also read differently as one ages and as social conditions and context change. One such book is Reflections on the Revolution in France, written by the great Irish statesman-orator-writer-political theorist Edmund Burke and published late in 1790. I have now read Burke’s Reflections three times. First as an undergrad in the early 1970s in a course on political theory. Then at Columbia University in spring 1984 as a newly minted Ph.D. teaching a section in the institution’s famous Contemporary Civilization course, which focuses on the greatest works in Western political and social thought. Then, again, in Chapel Hill, N.C., in early 2018.

Not surprisingly, my responses to the book have changed considerably over the course of almost a half century. I’ll spare readers details of my encounter with Burke in the aftermath of the unsettling decade of the ’60s or when I first taught Reflections in crime-ridden, dysfunctional New York City in the mid-’80s. Instead, I’ll focus on the way my recent rereading of the book informs my thinking regarding recent events involving a certain monument at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I am employed.

As almost all readers know by now, UNC at Chapel Hill, like many southern universities in the wake of events last year in Charlottesville, Va., has been embroiled in a protracted controversy over the fate of a long-standing Confederate monument. In this case, the monument in question -- known colloquially as Silent Sam -- has been intermittently controversial since its erection in 1913. Built at the request of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization that, along with UNC alumni, paid for its construction, the monument is a bronze statue of a standing soldier intended to commemorate UNC alumni who served in the Confederacy. The soldier is armed but carries no ammunition -- hence, the statue’s nickname.

The timing of the monument’s erection was hardly an accident, as similar statues and monuments were built across the South during the period between the 1890s and 1920s. They were expressions of the enduring appeal of the Lost Cause among many white southerners and, at least in part, a signal to African Americans that racial subordination, central to the society the Lost Cause celebrated, was still integral to the region’s political regime.

As time passed, however, both the Lost Cause and racial subordination mercifully lost much of their ideological power in the South. But the statues and monuments remained in place in various and sundry public spaces in the region until recently, when they started to come down by one means or another. At UNC “recently” meant the night of Aug. 20 and the means employed were extralegal, as Silent Sam was pulled down by what might be labeled a “ruly mob” of activists, who seemed to have planned the statue’s toppling assiduously.

Now to be clear -- and fair -- activists had been hard at work for the better part of a year trying to find a way to remove the statue, which stood prominently in a large green quad adjacent to the main entrance to the campus. Their efforts were stymied at every turn for a variety of reasons: primarily because of state law but also because some of the university’s constituents, including powerful ones, were opposed to removing the statue or even moving it to another, less prominent location like a museum or Confederate cemetery.

The fact that North Carolina voters seem to favor the “statue quo” regarding monuments such as Sam should be noted as well. The results from a survey taken by the Elon University Poll Team between Sept. 25 and 29, 2017 -- that is to say, six weeks after the violence in Charlottesville -- illustrate this point. In response to a question about whether Confederate monuments standing on government property should remain in place or be taken down, 59 percent of North Carolina voters polled answered “remain in place,” while 29 percent wanted the monuments taken down, 12 percent didn’t know and 1 percent refused to answer. Interestingly, 26 percent of the black voters polled wanted the monuments to remain in place, and another 16 percent didn’t know.

Similar results were found in a poll this year, conducted by Harper Polling between Sept. 4 and 7, just a few weeks after the toppling of Silent Sam. In this poll of likely voters in North Carolina, 50 percent opposed the legal removal of Confederate monuments, 39 percent supported legal removal and 11 percent were unsure or didn’t answer. In response to a question regarding the illegal or extralegal toppling of Silent Sam specifically, 70 percent of likely voters opposed the toppling, while 21 percent supported it and 9 percent were unsure or declined to answer the question. Assuming that the Russians did not tamper with those two polls, we need to keep their principal results in mind.

Clearly, the most vocal people both on and around the UNC campus have argued in favor of “disappearing” Silent Sam or at least of moving it off of the quad where it stood for a 100-odd years until a few weeks ago. The statue -- or, more accurately, the racist ideology it is said to embody -- is anathema to many, with African American students in particular arguing powerfully that the statue is not only unwelcoming but also akin to a festering wound, honoring parties implicated in slavery and racial subordination. But other members in the UNC community, broadly conceived, see things otherwise, arguing that the statue pays respect to the sacrifices made by common soldiers -- UNC alumni at that -- who served in the Confederacy and does not in and of itself glorify the Lost Cause. Moreover, they contend it is part of the university’s history, and, as such, should not be erased. To do so, as values change, would be to embark down a slippery slope, which would render some of the most illustrious figures in our history vulnerable to unfair and ahistorical obloquy, censure and vilification. Indeed, that process has already begun.

So where do we go from here? This is a maddeningly difficult question to answer because, by and large, the debate involves honest people of good will and strong commitments, mounting credible, often compelling arguments. While anti-Sam protesters have tried to cast the battle as one between antiracists, on the one hand, and neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis, on the other, support for Sam and other Confederate monuments is much broader than the “antis” suggest, as the polls demonstrate. Moreover, the “sides” do not always break down on predictable ideological lines. I have conservative friends who want Sam (and other Confederate monuments) removed and “progressive” friends who believe such monuments should remain standing, if only as stigmata.

Like many people, I am still unsure precisely where I stand on the issue of Silent Sam. Should the statue remain down or be reinstalled? If reinstalled, should it be moved and should it be contextualized with interpretative signage that reflects the values of today? Whether removed or reinstalled, should the university commission additional monuments honoring individuals, groups and values other than those associated with Silent Sam? If so, how should the honoree or honorees be chosen and by whom?

See what I mean? Many other people have weighed in on these concerns, and my intent here is not to argue for a particular outcome but to lay out some ideas regarding decision framing and the decision-making process itself. And here is where Burke comes in.

Burke, of course, is often remembered because a concept with which he is justly associated -- the organic society -- constitutes one of the principal ideas out of which a strain of modern conservatism developed. But not everyone considers Burke a conservative -- the distinguished critic and Burke biographer David Bromwich immediately comes to mind -- and one can appreciate the value of the concept regardless of one’s political or ideological allegiances. For example, Catholic social thinkers and left communitarians have often viewed society in organic terms, although not necessarily in the same way as did Burke.

I’d like to emphasize one particular component of Burke’s formulation, as laid out in Reflections on the Revolution in France: the idea that society is a “contract,” one that should be looked upon with reverence and “not be dissolved by the fancy of the parties” involved. To Burke, it represents a partnership, a solemn compact. And according to him, “As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

What does this have to do with the present situation in Chapel Hill? Let’s substitute the university for society -- and Silent Sam for revolution -- and see where this leads. For starters, this experiment suggests that, however powerful the cases for and against the statue made by campus and community parties today, there are other relevant UNC parties to consider, not only in the here and now. In this regard, I would include living alumni and friends of the university, along with the citizenry and elected leaders of the state, and also, figuratively speaking, stakeholders representing both the past (including the enslaved workers who helped to construct the early university) and the future -- alumni to be, in a sense. We neglect those constituencies and their interests at our peril.

I can make the point about the future in another way by adopting a rhetorical strategy I initially hesitated to employ because segueing from Burke to a present-day business journalist is not easy or perhaps advisable. But I shall do so nonetheless because an idea that Suzy Welch, former editor in chief of the Harvard Business Review, put forth in her 2009 book 10-10-10 is highly relevant. Welsh argues that, in making major decisions, it is helpful to consider how the decision will feel and what its likely results will be at different time intervals: in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years. Whatever happens to Silent Sam and whoever makes the call should keep this useful scheme in mind, particularly since it dovetails nicely in some ways with the general idea Burke articulated just about the time UNC was founded more than 200 years ago.

And before closing, I’d like to make one last plea: that we allow the university and state decision makers entrusted with this heavy responsibility adequate time to consult broadly, think deeply and do right by all of the claimants on UNC’s loyalties, whether past, present or future. The UNC Board of Governors has given Chancellor Carol Folt and the UNC at Chapel Hill Board of Trustees until Nov. 15 to come up with a plan. All interested parties need to act constructively, responsibly and, difficult as it may be, empathetically right now. This is one decision we won’t want to walk back.

Bio

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. These views are his own.

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