Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed a proclamation declaring July 13 Nathan Bedford Forrest Day. Forrest was a Confederate general, slave trader and an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.A Tennessee law dating back to 1971 mandates that the governor must issue proclamations for six state holidays each year, including days for Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee, CBS Nashville affiliate WTVF reported.
According to the Tennessee code, the governor must declare January 19 as “Robert E. Lee Day”; February 12 as “Abraham Lincoln Day”; March 15 as “Andrew Jackson Day”; June 3 as “Memorial or Confederate Decoration Day”; July 13 as “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day”; and November 11, as “Veterans’ Day.”
“I signed the bill because the law requires that I do that and I haven’t looked at changing that law,” Lee said Thursday.
According to The Tennessean, Lee declined to say if he thought the state law should be changed — something Tennessee Democrats have been hoping would happen. Previous efforts by Democrats have failed.
“This a reminder of the painful and hurtful crimes that were committed against black people,” Rep. Vincent Dixie of Nashville told WTVF.
Dixie said he was previously unaware July 13 was Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee and criticized Lee’s decision to sign the proclamation.
“Now you’re signing a proclamation honoring the same people that fought to keep people that look like me, African Americans in slavery,” Dixie said.
There is a bust of Forrest in the state capitol and there is a highly-visible statue of him on Interstate 65. There have been calls to remove the bust. The statue, which is on private property, is frequently defaced.
The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character.
The Republican Party under Donald Trump has devolved into a populist cult of personality. But Mr. Trump won’t be president forever. Can the cult persist without its personality? Does Trumpist nationalism contain a kernel of coherent ideology that can outlast the Trump presidency?
At a recent conference in Washington, a group of conservatives did their level best to promote Trumpism without Trump (rebranded as “national conservatism”) as a cure for all that ails our frayed and faltering republic. But the exclusive Foggy Bottom confab served only to clarify that “national conservatism” is an abortive monstrosity, neither conservative nor national. Its animating principle is contempt for the actually existing United States of America, and the nation it proposes is not ours.
Bitter cultural and political division inevitably leads to calls for healing reconciliation under the banner of shared citizenship and national identity. After all, we’re all Americans, and our fortunes are bound together, like it or not.
Yet the question of who “we” are as “a people” is the central question on which we’re polarized. High-minded calls to reunite under the flag therefore tend to take a side and amount to little more than a demand for the other side’s unconditional surrender. “Agree with me, and then we won’t disagree” is more a threat than an argument.
The attackers — the nature-denying feminists, ungrateful blacks, babbling immigrants, ostentatiously wedded gays — bear full responsibility for any damage wrought by populist backlash, because they incited it by demanding and claiming a measure of equal freedom. But they aren’t entitled to it, because the conservative denizens of the fruited plain are entitled first to a country that feels like home to them. That’s what America is. So the blame for polarizing mutual animosity must always fall on those who fought for, or failed to prevent, the developments that made America into something else — a country “real Americans” find hard to recognize or love.
The practical implication of the nationalist’s entitled perspective is that unifying social reconciliation requires submission to a vision of national identity flatly incompatible with the existence and political equality of America’s urban multicultural majority. That’s a recipe for civil war, not social cohesion.
Yoram Hazony, author of “The Virtue of Nationalism” and impresario of the “national conservatism” conference, argued that America’s loss of social cohesion is because of secularization and egalitarian social change that began in the 1960s. “You throw out Christianity, you throw out the Torah, you throw out God,” Mr. Hazony warned, “and within two generations people can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman. They can’t tell the difference between a foreigner and a citizen. They can’t tell the difference between this side of the border and the other side of the border.”
“The only way to save this country, to bring it back to cohesion,” he added, “is going to be to restore those traditions.”
Mr. Hazony gave no hint as to how this might be peacefully done within the scope of normal liberal-democratic politics. “It’s not simple,” he eventually conceded. Mr. Hazony notably omitted to mention, much less to condemn, the atrocious cruelty of America’s existing nationalist regime. Indeed, roaring silence around our Trumpian reality was the conference’s most consistent and telling theme.
The incoherence of an American nationalism meant to “conserve” an imaginary past was not lost on everyone at the conference.Patrick Deneen, a political theorist at Notre Dame, pointed out that American nationalism has historically been a progressive project. The nationalism of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, he noted, arose as the United States began to establish itself as an imperial power of global reach. Building nations has always been about building armies, regimenting the population and centralizing political control.
Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, similarly observed that nationalist projects meant to unite the diverse tribes and cultures of large territories generally involve a program of political mythmaking and the state-backed suppression of ancestral ethnic and community identities.
Mr. Levin suggested that a genuinely conservative nationalism, in the context of a vast national territory with an immense multiethnic population, would refrain from uprooting these traditions and communities and seek instead to preserve them in a vision of the nation as “the sum of various uneven, ancient, lovable elements,” because we are “prepared for love of country by a love of home.”
But what, today, do Americans call “home”? The next logical step would be to observe that the contemporary sum of rooted, lovable American elements includes the
- black culture of Compton, the
- Mexican culture of Albuquerque, the
- Indian culture of suburban Houston, the
- Chinese culture of San Francisco, the
- Orthodox Jewish culture of Brooklyn, the
- Cuban culture of Miami and the
- “woke” progressive culture of the college town archipelago, as well as the
- conservative culture of the white small town.
But Mr. Levin, a gifted rhetorician who knew his audience, did not hazard this step.
Barack Obama claimed resounding victory in two presidential elections on the strength of a genuinely conservative conception of pluralistic American identity that embraced and celebrated America as it exists. Yet this unifying vision, from the mouth of a black president, primed the ethnonationalist backlash that put Mr. Trump in the White House.
The molten core of right-wing nationalism is the furious denial of America’s unalterably multiracial, multicultural national character. This denialism is the crux of the new nationalism’s disloyal contempt for the United States of America. The struggle to make good on the founding promise of equal freedom is the dark but hopeful thread that runs through our national story and defines our national character. It’s a noble, inspiring story, but the conservative nationalist rejects it, because it casts Robert E. Lee, and the modern defenders of his monuments, as the bad guys — the obstacles we must overcome to make our nation more fully, more truly American.
To reject pluralism and liberalizing progress is to reject the United States of America as it is, to heap contempt upon American heroes who shed blood and tears fighting for the liberty and equality of their compatriots. The nationalist’s nostalgic whitewashed fantasy vision of American national identity cannot be restored, because it never existed. What they seek to impose is fundamentally hostile to a nation forged in the defining American struggle for equal freedom, and we become who we are as we struggle against them.
Whether couched in vulgarities or professorial prose, reactionary nationalism is seditious, anti-patriotic loathing of America hiding behind a flag — our flag. We won’t allow it, because we know how to build a nation. We know how the American story goes: We fight; we take it back.
Donald Trump slipped into the Oval Office through a wormhole of confusion about the American identity.
.. We were moving from a white-majority, male-dominated country and manufacturing base to a multicultural, multilateral, globalized, P.C., new energy, new technology world, without taking account of the confusion and anger of older Americans who felt like strangers in a strange land.
.. And we certainly don’t want men like Rob Porter who have punched, kicked, choked and terrorized their wives to be in the president’s inner circle, helping decide which policies, including those that affect women, get emphasized.
.. We don’t want the White House chief of staff to be the sort of person who shields and defends abusers — and then dissembles about it — simply because the abuser is a rare competent staffer. Or a man who labels Dreamers “too lazy to get off their asses” simply because they didn’t apply for legal protections in time.
.. John Kelly served as a character witness not only for Porter, after he didn’t receive security clearance because F.B.I. agents had heard the harrowing tales from his battered ex-wives. Kelly also testified as a character witness for Gen. Robert E. Lee and a former Marine who pleaded guilty to sending inappropriate sexual messages to female subordinates; who drove drunk to an arraignment; and who got charged in Virginia with sex crimes against children.
.. As a more lucid Trump tweeted in 2012 about Rihanna getting back together with Chris Brown, “A beater is always a beater.”
.. We don’t want a president who bends over backward to give the benefit of the doubt to neo-Nazis, wife beaters, pedophiles and sexual predators — or who is a sexual predator himself.
.. We don’t want a president who flips the ordinary equation, out of some puerile sense of grievance, to honor Russia and dishonor the F.B.I.
.. We don’t want a president who is too shallow to read his daily intelligence report and too obsessed with the deep state to deal fairly with our intelligence agencies.
.. We don’t want a president who suggests that Democrats who don’t clap for him are treasonous and who seems more enthralled by authoritarian ways than democratic ones.
.. who loves generals but trashes Gold Star parents
.. who wants the sort of chesty military parade that we mock Kim Jong-un for, a phallic demonstration of overcompensation that would only put more potholes in the D.C. boulevards.
.. one who could be so easily trapped in lies that he can’t even be allowed to talk to an investigator.
.. And, finally, we surely don’t want a president who seeks advice on foreign affairs from Henry Kissinger. Ever. Again.
Trump’s first definition, in the person of Reince Priebus, was as an executive who preferred to surround himself with toadies constitutionally incapable of standing up to him and prepared to pay the price of slathering him with praise. The most vivid illustration came during Trump’s first full Cabinet meeting, in June, when Priebus gushed, “We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people.”
Just as Priebus revealed Trump’s insatiable desire for stroking, Kelly illustrated his unsettling attraction to strongmen.
.. The problem, as it turned out, was that Kelly not only reinforced some of Trump’s worst instincts — he displayed them himself. Where Trump resisted condemning white separatists protesting the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville last summer, Kelly followed a few months later with a paean to Lee as “an honorable man” and asserting that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”
.. Kelly seems to share Trump’s inclination to escalate and allergy to apology. After Kelly attacked Florida Democrat Rep. Frederica S. Wilson as an “empty barrel” and a video showed that he had misrepresented her comments, Kelly vowed he would “never” apologize... He cared more about keeping one of the few capable people inside the West Wing at his side than about having an accused abuser on the staff... When the Porter story broke, Kelly’s response was classic, Trumpian bravado: to urge Porter to fight on and issue a statement praising him as “a man of true integrity and honor.”
Foner gives the South’s greatest Civil War general his due in terms of character and personal rectitude. He reports that the young Lee, at West Point, never got any disciplinary demerits, “an almost impossible feat.” The general, writes Foner, “always prided himself on following the strict moral code of a gentleman.”
.. He merely predicts that future historians won’t likely return Lee to his pedestal, “metaphorically speaking.”
.. That’s because it’s all about power. As Foner wrote in another Times piece in August, “Historical monuments are, among other things, an expression of power—an indication of who has the power to choose how history is remembered in public places.”
.. Between the Civil War’s end and the 1890s, Lee’s image as an American went from his being “the embodiment of the Southern cause” to his becoming a “national hero.”
.. Historians such as W. A. Dunning and Claude Bowers argued that the harsh Reconstruction policies of congressional “Radical Republicans” delayed the sectional healing needed to bring the country back together. According to that argument, it kept the prostrate South at the mercy of freed blacks and Northern carpetbaggers, whose political machinations were designed to keep the old white planter class out of the power equation.
.. In short, they have not turned history on its head, but rather, they recognized that much of what Dunning’s disciples have said about reconstruction is true.”
In other words, it was complicated.
One difference between democracies and dictatorships is that the constructing and revising of public spaces is not a propaganda opportunity for the ruler but a realm of democratic discourse, influenced by popular opinion and competitive electoral politics. After the shock of Charlottesville, as many American cities, towns, and campuses have taken down statues of Confederate leaders and generals, or debated whether to do so, New Delhi’s example is perhaps a useful one.
.. Lonnie G. Bunch III, who leads the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, told the Times, “I am loath to erase history.” He suggested that the statues that were removed should be grouped together in new spaces and contextualized. As it happens, that is what New Delhi did
.. And, by again raising the question of why a statue of Robert E. Lee is more offensive than one of a slaveholding Founding Father like Thomas Jefferson, the statue debates have again forced Americans to reckon with the foundational role of slavery in the construction of the Republic.
.. They stand still, while the struggle for rights and democratic pluralism is dynamic. And that struggle can lurch backward suddenly. In India today, the Bharatiya Janata Party, with its Hindu-nationalist ideology known as Hindutva, is busy rewriting school textbooks, to falsely revise the history of Muslim conquest of the subcontinent, and to reduce the prominence in the story of Indian independence of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was India’s first Prime Minister and who, during his seventeen years in office, built the modern state and its resilient democracy. Nehru was an avowed atheist, who promoted science, industry, and secularism; he worked to keep Hindu chauvinism on the sidelines, and the Hindutva movement’s ideologues have not forgotten.