The Searing and Essential Truths

In May 2017, Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans addressed the nation regarding the removal of the city’s Confederate Monuments. Simultaneously expository and vulnerable, it’s one of those rare speeches that educates and inspires.

While the speech is thoughtful and insightful on its own, it inspired me to look at the same issues in a broader context.1

This led me to America’s favorite stories, but let’s back up and begin with the truth.

The speech is about truth. It’s about historical, personal and societal truth. It’s about confronting the truth and choosing our truth.

There’s even more truth: objective truth and subjective truth. The former is made of fact whereas the latter is made of belief. Only one is tangible, but both are real.

We create subjective truth when we choose to believe in a story. This is both delicate and powerful. If no one believes the story, it isn’t true. However, if many people believe a story, it yields power proportional to size of the story and the number of believers.

Consider the United States2. What is the United States? It’s not the land. It’s not the government. It’s not even the people. It has no objective truth. It is a very big story with very many believers. If one day, everyone stopped believing in it, the United States would not exist.

During the Revolutionary War, the United States, itself, was born from belief in a story: freedom.

On the Frontier, we chose to add a new story: opportunity.

During the Civil Rights Movement, we chose another: equality.

Shared belief in these stories is the force that holds hundreds of millions strangers, dispersed over millions of square miles, together.3 This belief is our societal truth. It is the foundation. You know it as The American Dream.

However, our truth is not without falsity, which brings us back to the Confederate Monuments.

But there are also other truths about our city that we must confront. New Orleans was America’s largest slave market: a port where hundreds of thousands of souls were bought, sold and shipped up the Mississippi River to lives of forced labor, of misery, of rape, of torture. America was the place where nearly 4000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom Riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp. So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth.

Confronting historical truth is part of building a societal truth. The history we recognize, and the history we neglect, greatly influence the story we believe. Without an accurate history, we compromise our truth… our foundation.

And it immediately begs the questions, why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame… all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans. So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission. There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.

Omissions are insidious. Although an omission is not a lie, it often contributes to one. An accurate history is a whole history.4

The Confederate Monuments are not just an omission.

They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for… After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism as much as a burning cross on someone’s lawn; they were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.

These searing truths are incontrovertible. Revisions are worse than omissions. Memorials that celebrate the Confederacy erode belief in the American story. The Confederacy’s foundational stories were slavery and inequality. Any reverential image of it undermines freedom, opportunity and equality.

[A] friend asked me to consider these four monuments from the perspective of an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city. Can you do it? […] When you look into this child’s eyes is the moment when the searing truth comes into focus for us.

By removing the statues, we begin to confront our historical truth, and thus, strengthen our societal truth. We have a long way to go.

Along with strengthening our current stories, it feels like we’re considering a new one.

Centuries old wounds are still raw because they never healed right in the first place. Here is the essential truth. We are better together than we are apart. […] We forget, we deny how much we really depend on each other, how much we need each other.

The essential truth is belief in a new story: unity.5

We could add it to The American Dream, but first, we have to believe.

Belief is not abstract. It must be woven into our societal tapestry. Schools need to teach it. Laws need to support it. Neighborhoods need to reflect it. People need to preach it.

Unity: shout it from your keyboards.

  1. Unfortunately, sometimes this is a bit of an unhealthy tendency for me.↩︎

  2. Or nations, in general.↩︎

  3. This is the case for every human society. Stories are the only mechanism we have to facilitate large-scale cooperation. Sapiens is provocative.↩︎

  4. We are not natural skeptics. It’s unreasonable to expect people to look past their immediate environment. Thinking, Fast and Slow is enlightening.↩︎

  5. Perhaps more accurately, solidarity. But, unity looks and sounds better.↩︎