Monday, June 22, 2015

Historical imagery in the politics of the moment

A national argument is raging over the symbols of the Confederacy and their meaning in today's United States. If you are reading this blog you surely know the contours of that argument, or at least the tweet-length summaries of those contours. This has happened before, but it feels as if this time the Confederacy jig is up, and that after this moment its symbols will be historical curiosities rather than objects to venerate. The cleansing fire is spreading. Jeff Davis may not long survive in his place of honor on the University of Texas campus, and expect an extended argument over more than one state flag.

Whether you regard this fight as a long overdue correcting of the historical record -- my view -- or a politically correct distorting of it, it is absolutely not the first time we have fought over history's images to serve the moment's politics. Your blogger is in the middle of Daniel Okrent's excellent Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, which explores how "a mighty alliance of moralists and progressives, suffragists and xenophobes ... legally seized the Constitution" and bent it to a new purpose. This vignette from the book reminded me that fighting over imagery is nothing new:

Commemorating the centennial of American independence in 1876, the Manhattan lithography shop of Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives reissued a popular item Currier had first published in 1848, Washington's Farewell to the Officers of His Army. The great general stands in the exact center of the print, his associates arrayed around him, his tricorne hat on a stout table by his side. Washington is in full dress uniform; his right hand, fingers curled into a fist, rests on his breastbone. He looks to be making an emphatic gesture, but the officers in the picture seem lost in thought. It doesn't make a lot of sense.

It did, however, when Currier first published a version of the image twenty-eight years earlier. In that version there's no hat on the table; a decanter and some wineglasses occupy that spot. Nor is Washington making that peculiar fist. His fingers are extended, the better to grip the glass of wine he's holding. He's apparently delivering a heartfelt toast to the officers, whose considered expressions convey both their sadness and their humility.

The original image makes historical sense. Washington's fondness for Madeira found expression in the postprandial bottle (and accompanying bowl of hickory nuts) he shared with his guests almost nightly. At the event depicted -- his valedictory at Fraunces' Tavern, in 1783 -- he had opened the emotional proceedings by pouring himself a glass of wine and inviting his officers to join him. Currier and Ives were businessmen, however, and business required them to oblige the temperance agitators who objected so vociferously to the original image. It was easy enough to obliterate the decanter and glasses by drawing in the hat; chopping of Washington's own goblet, as well as the top two joints of his fingers, may have required a little more skill, but presumably it was worth the effort. That this self-censorship occurred as early as 1876, when the WCTU and its allies were only beginning to develop their strength and their strategy, suggests the degree to which aggressive actions would soon replace the prayerful entreaties of Mother Thompson -- not least because they worked.

Currier and Ives are no doubt looking down quite delighted that they did not have to suffer the argument over their airbrushing among bloggers, Facebookers, and Tweeters. They probably need a drink just in the contemplation of it.

Regardless, please do not believe that I am constructing some sort of confusing or equivocating analogy between the torturing of Washington's Farewell and the present debate over Confederate imagery. There is no such analogy for any number of reasons. The story does remind us, though, that history's images have meaning today, and fighting over them is a storied tradition in American democracy.


Chris M. said...

I suggest a trade: Southern state houses take down symbols of the confederacy when the federal government removes prominent progressives and democrat party founders from its symbols. That is to say, remove FDR's visage from the dime, Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill, and reduce the FDR's monument on the Washington mall to rubble. If Hamilton is taken off of any currency then the whole deal is off.

The ol' battle flag remains more as a "screw you" to the federal government than a symbol of racialist ideology.

TigerHawk said...

The ol' battle flag is clearly both a genuine expression of low-grade rebelliousness (hence its prevalence at country music festivals and on motorcycles, both subcultures that revel in the "outlaw") and profoundly irritating to African-Americans. Virtually none of the latter vote for conservatives, and few of the former vote for Democrats, so the whole subject has become partisan, among other things. But I am persuaded that this is an easy change to make, at least as a question of government expression.

Chris M. said...

So if it has become partisan, make it political as well. Tit for tat. Demand a compromise. As you noted, our history's symbols have been debated virtually since the country's founding. Why let this crisis go to waste? Take the fight to the enemy and watch them blink. Now that you have demanded I do X maybe I will if you do Y. Don't simply kowtow to the twitter mob. Yes, R's may earn a few points with educated and informed African Americans but D's come out huge and vindicate the mob's weird association that all R's are evil racists. Maybe even make it known who those southern democrats were and that they fought FOR segregation.

Chris M. said...

Then again, it was D's who raised the flag in the first place! I am just saying don't dash yet another opportunity.

Newer Post Older Post Home