Since it will undoubtedly become a major document in the ongoing post-Charleston public reevaluation of the Civil War’s place in American politics, I urge everyone to read New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu’s moving speech on the removal of four Confederate monuments from his city. At this low moment in American politics, the speech is a refreshing reminder that (some) public figures can be thoughtful, eloquent, and humane. “I want to try to gently peel from your hands the grip on a false narrative of our history,” Landrieu says at one point, requesting genuine engagement from his audience—an all-too-rare example of a politician presenting the public with an argument that might actually challenge them, rather than appease them with a catalogue of platitudes culled from the notes of yet another focus group.
So well-done is the speech, in fact, that I almost hesitate to single any part out for criticism. But in the spirit of the democratic engagement in which it was offered—and in keeping with what I take to be one of its key arguments—I want to call attention to a rhetorical gesture that Landrieu regrettably leans on. It’s one you’ve heard before. “And I knew that taking down the monuments was going to be tough, but you elected me to do the right thing, not the easy thing, and this is what that looks like…This is not about politics.”
“This is not about politics” is a phrase that should always set off alarm bells, especially when it comes from a politician. Interestingly, the word “politics” does not make another appearance in the speech. But what else could a political figure making a speech about racist public memorials be talking about? Landrieu’s suggestion might be that the issue is somehow beyond politics—that a democratic argument over the statues would be inappropriate because they are so obviously unfit for public display. But if he truly thinks that, then the persuasive effort offered by his own speech is very strange indeed. Perhaps what he really intended was to say that the issue should be beyond politics, by which he means beyond disagreement: No American citizen should approve of a pro-Confederate public memorial. That is a world worth striving for, but as Landrieu knows, it is not an accurate description of the world we live in. The world we live in is home to many intellectual and political descendants of the Confederacy, and pretending that they somehow exist outside politics, or that they are not enabled by so-called “respectable” mainstream figures, is confusing and misleading.
Instead of marring an otherwise excellent speech with this trite declaration, Landrieu should have said something that the current crisis demands, something we must repeat loudly and often: The question of how we Americans remember our past and, symbolically, draw the boundaries of our civic community is a deeply political one. Indeed it is one of the oldest and most difficult, and something that would certainly be very dangerous to get wrong. The sickening blend of ahistorical nostalgia and white nationalism that currently dominates the White House is proof enough of that. In response to its ascendance, we should not only hope for moral transformations in the hearts of individuals; we should actively work for more just and democratic ways of understanding ourselves, and our history. The significance of that project, and the very activities of public engagement and argument through which it is carried out, is absolutely and necessarily political. Finding and elevating more politicians capable of giving speeches like this one, save that one pesky rhetorical feint, would be a good place to start.