Religion, Fundamentalism, Gnosticism, BLM: Part VI

In April, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed legislation facilitating the removal of Confederate monuments, nattering the while: “These monuments tell a particular version of history that doesn’t include everyone. In Virginia, that version of history has been given prominence and authority for far too long.” Since every history is particular, and therefore doesn’t include everyone, Northam might have said “these monuments tell history,” and left it at that; the remainder is flatulence occluding the meaning of his statement, which is that history, such as it is necessarily, is objectionable.

Every story is particular, but only a story of a yet more particular kind will serve as an organizing myth and as a powerful subject of symbolic representation. Stories in which loss, defeat, or sin are translated to recovery, victory, or righteousness have a special poetic resonance fitting them for these uses. David Martin writes: 

“The core narrative of a faith, or of a national movement or of a revolutionary political programme turns on a poetic axis of loss and retrieval, the grief song which is also a TriumphLied…[a] dance between the legacy of disgrace from generation to generation that follows on primal corruption and the treasury of grace created for all generations by sacrificial or exemplary death.”

In the South, the story of Robert E. Lee retains something of this resonance. Young Southerners used to be taught how Lee refused the command of the Union Army—although personally favoring the South’s continuing union with the North and thinking slavery a moral evil—because he believed that his primary loyalty must be to Virginia. He conducted the war with daring, intelligence, some success against strong odds, and, above all, with gallantry as a Christian gentleman, eschewing the tactics of total war employed by the North. Lee accepted defeat with dignity, counseling the South against resentment and urging peaceful reconciliation to the Union. A symbol of dignity despite defeat—in Martin’s terms, grace after disgrace—is something the South would need during the ordeal of Reconstruction.

Is this, as is so often urged, hagiography rather than history? If so, we may still say that the distortions of hagiography are less than those of fundamentalism. Black Lives Matter, for example, have their own myth (again following the grace after disgrace pattern) according to which oppressed black communities will engage in a “beautiful struggle” against white oppressors. This narrative is more comprehensive—it “includes everyone” as Northam would wish—only at the price of a dualistic apportioning of humankind between oppressed and oppressor, good and evil. History, or if you must, hagiography, is selective, but fundamentalism is reductionist. 

Moreover, because it loads the world’s evils upon the oppressor category, this dualistic reductionism cannot supply resources for self-criticism to those identified with the holy oppressed, whereas, even in its most adulatory form, the Lee myth holds its celebrants to a standard of conduct. Identify with a holy man and learn to revile yourself; identify with a holy class and learn to revile other men.

Societies must organize by means of a “particular version of history”; without this story’s enactment and embodiment there can be no popular support for public order. Black Lives Matter understand this well: they vowed to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure” and, as a sensible means to that end, promptly set about the defacement of monuments, General Lee’s among them. The trade of a flawed hero for collective resentment is a poor one, and Northam’s heedless complicity in this effort is appalling.

Also in this series:

Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V

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