The Battle for Memorial Day in New Orleans

The Atlantic Opinion

Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans has revived the genre of Memorial Day orations. In his widely read and re-played speech of May 19, 2017, defending his leadership of the removal of four prominent public monuments, one to Reconstruction era white supremacist violence, and the other three to Confederate leaders, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P. G. T. Beauregard, Landrieu eloquently tried to pull the Confederacy once and for all – at least in New Orleans – down from its pedestals. He beautifully labeled his city “a bubbling cauldron of many cultures,” expressing its ancient roots in many Native American peoples; in at least two European empires; in African, Irish, Italian, French, and many other ethnic lineages; and of course in cuisine, jazz and “second lines.” New Orleans, he said, is a city made by all the nations of the world, but one great “gumbo” made from many. The speech was as deeply patriotic as it was also deeply political—“e pluribus unum” carries a weight right now in Trump’s America that makes most politicians shy from such fulsome embraces of pluralism and brutally honest historical consciousness. Indeed, any historical consciousness, save for toxic forms of nostalgia, is out of style among Trump’s supporters as well as his cowed, silent enablers in the Republican Party.

Delivered a week and a half before Memorial Day, but during the stunning dismantling of the huge Lee monument in the heart of the city, Landrieu’s speech should be read against the grain of the 152 years of Decoration Day rhetoric. Wittingly or not, the mayor gave the whole country a serious lesson in how Americans should contemplate their war dead, indeed their broader past, in this divided and quarrelsome nation. He suggested they learn some good history first, face its most troubling parts however painful, and separate “remembrance of history and reverence for it.” It is an extraordinary act for a Southern white politician to ask his fellow citizens to seriously separate heritage from history, to look down the dark tunnel of slavery and New Orleans’s infamous “slave markets,” and the “misery, rape, and torture” that followed for so many unnamed individual Africans, Creoles, and African Americans sold as property into the Mississippi River valley. Landrieu argued that ignorance or denial of this past for so long had been collective “historical malfeasance, a lie by omission.” He called New Orleanians, and thereby all Americans, to an alternative kind of remembrance for this Memorial Day. He asked his auditors to learn a more complex past and to grow some historical and moral backbone as they think about memorialization.

As a ritual of decorating the graves of the dead on both sides, Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was known for generations, began with the ending of the Civil War. Its deepest roots lay in the dreadful task of women going to battlefields to seek remains of their dead loved ones during the war, but its most remarkable formal beginning occurred in Charleston, South Carolina on May 1, 1865, in an astonishing parade and cemetery dedication enacted by some 10,000 people, mostly African Americans, about which I have written elsewhere. The last Monday in May gained official recognition as Memorial Day in the North in 1868, led by the Grand Army of the Republic, the most prominent Union veterans association. And in the South, a Confederate Memorial Day took root as early as 1866, recognized in different regions on April 26 (the day of General Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender to General William Tecumseh Sherman); May 10 (the anniversary of General Stonewall Jackson’s death); and June 3 (Confederate president Jefferson Davis’s birthday). By the early 1870s, and for at least two decades thereafter, as late spring arrived and flowers were in full supply, in every city or village, North or South, Americans by the thousands engaged in ever more elaborate rituals of decorating the graves of the more than 700,000 Civil War dead. Those dead still haunt us, even as we ignore them and most of their monuments, which are ubiquitous all across our civic landscapes.

Sorrow and loss, the mourning of the dead and missing, dominated these events for decades, until at least the 1890s when amusement and sport also penetrated the gloom on this holiday; picnics, bike races, and baseball games emerged as equally popular Memorial Day practices, and of course still are to this day with the addition of department store sales and auto races. On many an outdoor platform or in church pulpits, Americans took up the ancient art of the funereal oration and made it their own. Decoration Day speeches by ministers, politicians, and countless former soldiers remained first an act of sacred bereavement, but they also widely assumed a political character. The dead and their monuments—to the ordinary and the famous, in cemeteries and on town greens and in city squares—along with the lilacs and roses aplenty were together useful to the politics of memory as well as policy. Memorial Day speeches served Southerners in the development of what Landrieu called the “cult of the Lost Cause,” a cluster of ideas forged to help face defeat, construct a story of noble sacrifice for a holy cause of home and independence, and especially in the service of a racial ideology that would sustain white supremacy. At the heart of the Lost Cause was the claim that white Southerners never fought for slavery, but only for their home, hearth, and “liberty.” The Lost Cause was a set of beliefs, painful experiences, and sheer grief in search of a past. It evolved into a deep mythic story of loss in search of justification. And it provided a foundation on which Southerners built the Jim Crow system

In the North, lines of orphans and young girls in white dresses often performed as the bearers of flowers to the graves of the dead on Memorial Days. Yankee orators, soldiers or not, used Memorial Day rhetoric to pronounce their sense of victory over the rebellion and often over slavery. Northern volunteers had saved the Union and rid the nation of slavery. Their cause had won with a sense of completion. But the ritual also served as the occasion for some to begin to forge a spirit of reconciliation with their defeated foes. Northerners began to find ways to accept reunion with the South as necessity while they also still voted for the Republican “bloody shirt,” keeping alive for several election cycles a strong sense of just who was responsible for all the blood shed between 1861 and 1865.

Above all a deep tradition of martial heroism manifested in the Memorial Day rhetoric of the late 19th century. Many a mother or widow at Decoration Day observances strained for forbearance of endless expressions of joyous death on the altars of national survival or Confederate glory. At Gettysburg in 1869, the great preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, drew apocalyptic imagery, “heroic devotion,” “mothers,” and “orphans” into a prayerful message to the next generation. “May the soldiers’ children never prove unworthy of their fathers’ name,” said Beecher, “let them be willing to shed their blood, to lay down their lives, for the sake of their country.” Martial glory and its terrible expectations were not out of style, at least rhetorically, five years out from the carnage at Gettysburg.

The huge Lee monument in New Orleans was unveiled on February 22, 1884, George Washington’s birthday, a linkage already laid deep as a kind of cornerstone of the Lost Cause tradition. Confederate memorialists as well as the creators of the Lee mythology—the Christian soldier, genius on the battlefield, and the man who never really fought for slavery but only for his state and his new country—had long placed the Confederate general in the direct line from Washington. They were the father and the son-like defender of American “liberties” in this odd version of history, each achieving a godlike character in their own time. Lee was related by marriage to the Washington family and indeed grew up in a famous military clan. The huge crowds that gathered for the original unveiling were dispersed by an untimely deluge of a thunderstorm, and the long oration by Charles E. Fenner had to be delivered indoors. From 1884 forward until May 19, 2017 there stood Lee atop the Crescent City, surviving hurricanes and many a scowling Louisianan offended by his presence, his arms folded, looking out majestically on his defeated but unbowed cause.

Today’s context for Confederate monument reckonings is at once completely different from when the Lee statue was unveiled in 1884, and yet also resonant with similar lessons. The Lost Cause took root after the war in a Southern culture awash in an admixture of physical destruction, the psychological trauma of defeat and loss, a Democratic party increasingly successful in resisting Reconstruction’s experiment in racial equality, in racial terror and violence, and with time in an abiding sentimentalism. On a broad level the Lost Cause became a mood, or a disposition toward the past. The South, the story went, was conquered, occupied by a form of Yankee colonialism, put under despotism led by Northern carpetbaggers bent on power and fortune, and all made possible by the voting and economic activity of the inferior and barbaric former slaves in their midst. Or so the story went as it sank deeper into the national historical imagination.

As early as an 1877 Decoration Day celebration in Brooklyn, New York of all places, a former Confederate general and now lawyer living in Gotham, Roger A. Pryor, delivered an especially forceful speech, “The Soldier, the Friend of Peace and Union.” Pryor, a Virginian and fiery secessionist in 1861, was among the “Confederate Carpetbaggers” who had moved to New York to make new lives and fortunes. Known to some in the press as the “rebel Pryor,” but welcomed by the local Democratic Party, which hosted Union veterans in his audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Pryor argued aggressively for equality between the Confederate and Union soldiers. All had fought with valor and devotion. He went even further though, declaring the “bloody work of secession” never the solders’ doing, but “wholly the act of … politicians.” Pryor believed Confederate veterans especially deserved the sympathy of the American people for their steadfastness in a cause against overwhelming odds, an idea in which the Lee cult also rested. In twisted but common logic, the greatest heroes were those who fought for the cause lost. History contains many grand causes, even empires, glorified by defeat and destruction. Here surely was one, whether commemorated in the common soldier on hundreds of local monuments leaning on their muskets, or Lee standing high above a city or on a rearing horse.

Most eagerly Pryor, the Confederate partisan speaking in a Northern, albeit Democratic stronghold, delivered a full-throated condemnation of Reconstruction. He called the era “that dismal period—massacres of the helpless, violations of the ballot, usurpations of force on the popular will and the independence of the States.” Pryor, like many other Lost Cause advocates, fashioned a beguiling version of the evil image of Reconstruction. It had been, he claimed, a time of “alien rule and federal domination by which sovereign states were reduced to the impotence of satrapies.” The national reunion now possible after the political compromise of 1877 was, therefore, a victory over Reconstruction, over racial equality, and over federal enforcement against the South. “Fallen it [Reconstruction] is at last,” Pryor declared, “fallen like Lucifer never to hope again; fallen by the thunderbolts of the people’s wrath.” In this Memorial Day voice, the Lost Cause was the South’s vindication and the North’s triumph.

In such rhetoric and soon in reality, the Lost Cause emerged as a story and a set of rituals not about loss at all, but a narrative of victory, a victory over Reconstruction. In a speech to Confederate veterans in Mississippi in 1878, Jefferson Davis made this equation of Lost Cause ideology explicit. “Well may we rejoice in the regained possession of local self-government,” Davis proclaimed, “in the power of people to legislate … uncontrolled by bayonets. This is the great victory … a total non-interference by the federal government with the domestic affairs of the States.” Protected by this victory over Reconstruction, Southerners forged their story of redemption, and the large monuments they erected all over their land over the coming decades pronounced such a victory resoundingly and with presumed permanence.

But why hasn’t something that only lasted as a four-year insurgency against the life of the American nation just gone away? Why are its symbols, especially flags, still so controversial?

Landrieu pointed in several ways to the answer. Everyone has his or her own “journey on race,” he remarked. Imagine an American nation without slavery and race and there would have been no Confederacy, no insurgency, no flags, no Lost Cause, no R. E. Lee, no massive monuments of generals, farm boys, and politicians musing down and out at us all over the land. The Confederacy will and should remain an enduring subject of study and teaching. Just how reverentially it should be treated, and where in our public memory it ought reside, are the questions.

Landrieu is right to associate Lee and the other major statues of New Orleans with the Lost Cause tradition. Those tall memorials adorning so many Southern cities, often equestrians, were not only honors to individual men and heroes. They were erected, as Landrieu said, “to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity.” One might wish that the word “truth” would not be so easily thrown around, slipping in and out of everyone’s grasp. But Landrieu is right; the monuments now removed were there to “purposely send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city.”

Different constituencies have had wildly opposite reactions to that Lee statue over the years; Landrieu offered a bold hope of squaring those opposites. There are no utopias in the politics of historical memory. Each person holds a treasury in his or her mind when it comes to the past, and historians are far outnumbered by public memory. But we are a learning species, despite how we behave. Eloquence alone cannot solve these dilemmas, but Landrieu at least made a start.

It is difficult for historians to favor monument destruction or removal. We worry endlessly about historical erasure or purposeful ignorance of any kind. We favor debate however conflicted, and new memorials that augment or change the narratives told on our public landscapes. But I nod with understanding and approval when the mayor asks: “Why are there 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?” For half a century and more American historians of all stripes have written and taught newer, more inclusive, and yes, often darker histories such as Landrieu advocates. But it is essentially true that these histories of pain and tragedy, destruction and survival, do by and large await public memorials. They are receiving public museum exhibition and exposure. But in great civic monuments, not so much. The massacre in Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston in June 2015 took America on this new tortured, surprising path to Confederate flag and monument removals. Where and when it ends Americans do not know. More than any other Southern politician, Landrieu has expressed this reckoning with the Civil War’s legacy in a newly eloquent honesty. Americans ought to debate how best to take up his call. Many great and challenging monuments, both old and new, exist in the United States. The world wars, the Irish famine, the Vietnam War, the civil-rights movement, the attacks on 9/11, the Holocaust, and even the Civil War itself have inspired brilliant works of public art. But Americans have to know more history in order to learn to think about them more imaginatively.

The monuments in New Orleans, relocated to warehouses or holding stations and gone from view, are now the subjects of a new time, new imperatives, indeed even alternative victory narratives. Landrieu and the forces of popular support as well as the City Council have just declared the Confederacy, as the mayor put it, “lost and we’re better for it.” The “four year aberration called the Confederacy,” Landrieu said, ought never again to be celebrated even if never forgotten. His city, he maintained, ought never to embrace publically a “sanitized Confederacy,” held together by Orwellian language about history and “marinated in historical denial.” These are high ambitions about how America can actually heal the past and find justice. Much higher even that Lee’s statue stood. Landrieu invoked many of the best voices possible to his cause: Thomas Jefferson’s preamble in the Declaration of Independence, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln from the ending of the Second Inaugural, and George W. Bush as he honored the opening of the new African American history museum in Washington, DC.

It remains to be seen how neo-Confederates will take their latest defeats. They have a fledgling, unsteady, ahistorical victory narrative to follow now in the presidency and the White House. But Landrieu, with Dylann Roof and a host of many other major players, progressive and regressive in their aims, may have taken America into a truly new era of Civil War remembrance. Americans may never find e pluribus unum in their political lives. But we can surely keep striving to write, teach and know about our pluribus. American politics is an impossible distance from ever knowing how to be “out of one, many,” but the history keeps changing on us, keeps becoming many, forcing us to, as the mayor suggested: “By God, just think.”. Monuments, those removed after more than a century of struggle, or those erected in a new era with new histories, may never accomplish as Mayor Landrieu hopes, “making straight what has been crooked and making right what has been wrong.” But if this process makes Americans learn and think about our history more knowingly and reflectively, if painfully, it is all for the good.

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How Trump Is Torturing Capitol Hill

The Atlantic Opinion

The speaker of the House strode to his lectern on a recent Thursday to confront another totally normal day on Capitol Hill: health care, tax reform, a president under investigation, rumblings of impeachment.

“Morning, everybody!” Paul Ryan chirped. “Busy week!”

It was indeed: Less than a day had passed since the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s involvement in the presidential campaign; just a few hours since President Trump angrily tweeted that the investigation was “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”; and only minutes since the Russia-linked former national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, had begun defying congressional subpoenas. A few days prior, the president had been accused of revealing sensitive intelligence information to the Russian foreign minister.

As Ryan earnestly touted his party’s work on “landmark federal IT reform legislation,” there was a grim, haunted look in his bright-blue eyes, and it wasn’t hard to imagine why. What ought to have been the salad days of Republican-led government had instead become a ceaseless, disorienting swirl of scandal, 120 days of self-inflicted chaos and crisis.

At the fifth question of the press conference—what was his view on the idea that Republicans might be better off with the vice president, Mike Pence, in the White House instead of Trump?—Ryan shook his head in exasperation. “Oh, good grief,” he said. “I’m not even going to give credence to that.”

“But your members are saying that!” the reporter said. Republican members of Congress were buzzing about this idea, openly wondering, as the presidential mess threatened to consume their careers and priorities, whether it might be possible to remove the president and move on.

Congress, Ryan insisted, was perfectly capable of doing its job. “I know people can be consumed with the news of the day,” he said, as though a potential impeachment were the latest celebrity scandal, or the time everyone was up in arms for 24 hours about avocado toast. “But we are here working on people’s problems every day. We have all these committees that do different jobs, and our job is to make sure that we still make progress for the American people, and we’re doing that. It’s just not what we’re being asked about.”

Ryan listed more accomplishments underway—streamlining the Pentagon, sanctions on Syria, workforce-development programs—and insisted the House could “walk and chew gum at the same time.” But Trump’s troubles have cast a long shadow over the 291 members of his party in the House and Senate, who see their agenda going up in smoke in what is generally a presidential party’s most productive year.

A flawed, unpopular health-care bill is stalled in the Senate, the president’s budget proposal has been dismissed out of hand, and hope is fading for other priorities such as tax reform and infrastructure. “How do you pack all that in?” Senator John McCain asked last week, adding, “So far, I’ve seen no strategy for doing so. I’m seeing no plan for doing so.” One Republican congressman suggested that what was needed was for the president to throw “a temper tantrum” to get lawmakers to act—this congressman happened to be named Brat.

Meanwhile Democrats sit back and watch it burn, with no small amount of schadenfreude, and the Republicans who never liked Trump see their worst predictions fulfilled. “You bought this bad pony. You ride it,” the anti-Trump consultant Rick Wilson tweeted recently. A staffer to a Senate Republican who did not vote for Trump told me, “We didn’t have high expectations, so we’re not disappointed. We tried to warn you.”

But Paul Ryan, with his long-cultivated persona as the party’s resident idealist, has always had high expectations. He watched last year as Trump ate his party; now he must watch as the president consumes his dreams. “Paul wants to govern, he’s trying to get what’s possible to get done, and he’s got a lot of credibility on the line,” Ryan’s friend Jimmy Kemp, the son of the late former Representative Jack Kemp, told me. “He’s been working on these issues for so long.”

Kemp, who wrote in Ryan’s name on his presidential ballot, described the speaker as burdened but steady. “He’s frustrated and it’s wearing on him, but he’s not throwing in the towel,” he said. “He just has to answer questions about so many things he doesn’t want to answer questions about.”

For the Republicans running the government, Capitol Hill has become a workplace with extremely poor morale. The moderates fear for their careers, while the conservative true believers see little to hope for. When the liberal magazine Mother Jones credited Representative Justin Amash of Michigan with being the first Republican to raise the possibility of impeachment, the office of Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida called to request a correction: Curbelo had gone there first.

But for the most part, his party has not openly turned on Trump. What would be the point? Behind closed doors, a longtime House Republican staffer told me, a few lawmakers still wholeheartedly defend the president; among the rest, there are differing degrees of fatalism. One group thinks it is possible to fight through the crisis, while another is resigned to “a long slow death,” as this staffer put it, potentially culminating in a Democratic-controlled House beginning impeachment proceedings in 2019. “This is like Reservoir Dogs,” the staffer said. “Everyone ends up dead on the floor.”

Later that day, a few hours after Ryan’s press conference, a dozen television cameras and perhaps 30 reporters crowded into the Capitol basement, where subway cars run from the building that houses the Senate to the buildings where senators keep their offices. In a secure chamber nearby, Rod Rosenstein—the deputy attorney general whose three-page memo had argued for the firing of the FBI director, James Comey, the previous week, and who had appointed the special counsel the day before—was briefing the senators.

The appointment of the counsel, Robert Mueller, was a glimmer of hope to Republicans badly in need of it. Several GOP staffers described the feeling to me in the same terms—a nearly audible “sigh of relief” that swept through a Capitol on edge. For a while, new developments related to the Comey firing had been coming at such a furious pace that the Capitol press corps nearly turned into a mob. Roving swarms of cameras and microphones pursued lawmakers, prompting Capitol administrators to send a memo warning, “Collectively, press following senators have become large and aggressive. We are concerned someone may get hurt.”

The senators crossed the microphone gauntlet as they trickled out of the Rosenstein briefing. Lindsey Graham, the jocular, Trump-skeptical South Carolinian, was asked about the president’s statement that the special counsel “hurts our country terribly.” “Well, he’s entitled to his opinion,” Graham said. “If I were the president, I’d focus on defending the nation and trying to get his legislative agenda through the Congress.”

The Mueller appointment meant different things to different Republicans. To those wary of Trump, it put the investigation in the hands of someone they trusted to do the job seriously—critics had charged that congressional Republicans were not exactly pulling out the throttle to investigate their own party’s president. For members more publicly loyal to the president, it took the heat off, at least for the moment.

The White House had not been giving them much to go on to answer all those unpleasant questions: The previous day’s list of talking points issued to congressional Republicans urged them to take up the president’s claim that the leaks were the real scandal. The document included a numbered section entitled “Top Ten Politically Motivated Criminal Leaks of Classified Information.” (A House Republican staffer likened this defense to “It’s not that I’m beating my wife, it’s that my kids are telling the cops about it.”) But now they could simply say that the whole thing was out of their hands.

Inside the briefing, some Democrats pressed Rosenstein for more information, and once they emerged, they declared themselves less than satisfied by his answers. “He declined to answer in any meaningful way questions about the process that led to the decision to fire Jim Comey—the preparation of his memo, who he consulted, who told him to prepare it—we must have asked that question about 25 different ways,” said Senator Chris Coons of Delaware.

Democrats stressed the importance of continuing the congressional investigations and having them in the open. “The public deserves a strong, open, public oversight by Congress on how Russia was trying to influence our country, and whether it is still trying influence our country,” declared Pat Leahy of Vermont.

“There is mounting evidence of obstruction of justice,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. “The special counsel must pursue all the evidence.”

Democrats and Republicans alike praised the choice of Mueller. The Republicans, as they emerged, were more apt to stress the importance of deferring to him: “Director Mueller, as special counsel, is doing this investigation, and we don’t want to do anything to get in the way,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas. With all of the oversight investigations occurring in various committees and subcommittees, he said, “that is a train wreck waiting to happen.”

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida was asked whether the Rosenstein briefing had made him more or less “comfortable” with the events of the week. “Well, I don’t know if it’s a level of comfort,” he said. “I think it’s a level of the fact that we are a nation of laws, and we have institutions, and irrespective of people’s political views, those laws and those rules are going to be followed.”

As Rubio walked away from the microphones, I asked him if he thought Trump’s presidency was in crisis. He blinked and mumbled, “Um, we’re not at that point,” before dashing away.

It has become a Capitol Hill cliché lately that the days feel like weeks and the weeks feel like years. Lulls in the news feel ominous, and you never know what is going to happen. Tempers are fraying: the GOP’s congressional candidate in Montana’s special election last week tackled a reporter for pressing for his position on health care (and still won the election). “There is total weirdness out there,” Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina said after the Montana incident. Trump, Sanford said, had “unearthed some demons.”

As the senators hurried away from their briefing, Trump was holding a press conference of his own. He once again decried the “witch hunt,” declared there had been “no collusion” with the Russians, and expressed surprise at the controversy over the firing of Comey, who “was very unpopular with most people.”

“I’m fine with whatever people want to do,” Trump said, “but we have to get back to running this country really, really well.”

In the White House, the mood consists of “panic and finger pointing,” one outside adviser told me, with shakeup rumors rampant and the palace intrigue as ugly and chaotic as it has been from the start. Attempts to get Trump to bring in an old Washington hand to impose order have failed. Instead, presidential strategists are building a “war room” to aggressively combat all the negative stories—a seeming admission that the administration considers itself to be in a permanent state of emergency.

Comey still plans to testify before Congress, though no date has been set. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is the subject of increasing scrutiny after revelations about his dealings with Russian representatives post-election. Trump’s strongest supporters may be peeling away, according to polls; those who remain say they support him “partly because he is under fire,” and that they take it personally when Trump is criticized.

Trump spent last week out of town, on his first foreign trip, where he had tense interactions with such traditional American allies as Israel, the United Kingdom, and Germany. With the president away, life on Capitol Hill was markedly quieter. More than one Republican privately noted how much easier life was without him around. But, of course, he will be back.

Washington’s turbulence has yet to redound to the benefit of Democrats, and the Montana victory soothed some Republican nerves. But one GOP lobbyist wondered to me whether longtime members of Congress might soon take the opportunity to retire if the situation doesn’t improve. “You finally have united Republican government, and this is as good as it gets? Why bother?” he said. “A malaise is setting in.”

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The Disappearance of Virtue From American Politics

The Atlantic Opinion

In just two short years, Senator Ben Sasse has gone from Capitol Hill newbie to digital president puncher, tweeting about Donald Trump’s affairs and the Midwestern dumpster fires he found more appealing than 2016’s Oval Office contenders.

Yet, on his breaks from Twitter, Sasse managed to craft a serious new book, The Vanishing American Adult. It advances a thesis that’s at once out of place at this political moment and almost too on-the-nose for the Trump years: He believes Americans have lost their sense of personal integrity and discipline. For the country to deal with the troubles ahead—including automation, political disengagement, and the rise of nativist, huckster politicians, he says—people must recover their sense of virtue. The republic depends on it.

Earnest talk of virtue is uncommon in American politics. Forget the low lows of 2016, a year defined by political cynicism and brutish behavior, or even these first months of 2017, which have been swallowed by dramatic revelations and relentless Washington in-fighting. At this point, the idea of a shared culture is almost unimaginable: America has been carved up into mutually exclusive spheres bounded by religion, race, income, and city-limit signs. Sasse is taking on a problem more challenging than getting legislation through Congress, courting disgruntled voters, or even figuring out what to do about America’s haphazard president. He’s trying to articulate a language of shared culture and values in a country that has been rocked by technological, cultural, and demographic change. It may be an imperfect attempt. But at least Sasse has identified the right project.

The Vanishing American Adult is written as a reflection on the purpose and nature of education, which, Sasses argues, should extend beyond schooling and classrooms. “Everywhere I go across the country, I hear from people who share an ominous sense that something is very wrong with our kids,” he writes. “We’ve lost something from our older ways of coming of age.” Instead of relying on “institutionalized school-centric childhood[s],” Sasse says, families should develop practices that will prepare their kids to become “fully formed, vivacious, appealing, resilient, self-reliant, problem-solving souls who see themselves … called to love and serve their neighbors.” This is the future he wants for his kids.

Sasse’s proposed cultivation program is a cross between boot camp and a great-books seminar. In a chapter called “Embrace Work Pain,” Sasse encourages families to set their alarms early, maintain a rigorous chore system, and send their kids out to do hard labor; in his case, it was detasseling corn, while his daughter Corrie learned how to care for pregnant cows. Sasse holds up multi-generational relationships, world travel, and voracious reading as ways of building greater empathy and self-knowledge. He spends pages fretting about which 60 volumes he should include in his family “canon,” which he and his wife built to “model … a life saturated by a stack of truly life-changing books” for their kids.

The Republican senator also shows his countercultural streaks. A large portion of the book is dedicated to forms of stoicism, discipline, and self-denial: “There is almost nothing more important we can do for our young than convince them that production is more satisfying than consumption,” he writes. “Anyone who swims so completely in a sea of material surplus as to be unaware of the virtues of the simple life is flirting with great moral risk.” His tips are concrete—cut down on spending, screen time, and for the tired parents, drinking—but the purpose is lofty: “It is very difficult for a rich republic to remain virtuous.”

In fact, everything in the book is ultimately pitched for the good of the republic. Citizens who take little interest in books threaten the idea of democracy, which “assume[s] the ability to read—and a desire to read.” Americans have long held the “ideal that work is a necessary component of becoming a fully formed adult, that a life well-lived entails a forward-leaning embrace of responsibility.” The country’s great challenge is “to create lifelong learners and lifelong producers,” he writes. “The vast majority of the challenge is about nurturing more resilient souls. And governments cannot nurture.”

Americans “are a drifting and aimless people—awash in material goods and yet spiritually aching for meaning.”

Even though Sasse is an elected official, or perhaps because of what he’s seen in politics, he believes culture—and the acculturation of the young—is more important than policy. “The heart of the problem we are tackling in this book is well upstream from politics,” he writes, explaining “why this wasn’t a policy book.” Americans “are a drifting and aimless people—awash in material goods and yet spiritually aching for meaning.” His proposals are about recovering this sense of meaning and establishing a shared language for talking about it, thickening the civic culture that serves as the foundation of political deliberation.

This is an increasingly radical idea. America has largely responded to the challenges of diversity and pluralism by pushing moral language out of public life. Democratic deliberation is almost uniformly tainted with the assumption of bad faith. Platforms like Twitter, beloved by Sasse and Trump alike, thrive on outrage, reduction, and snark. The fact that Sasse still believes in a shared American cultural project is remarkable, given the extent of its unwinding and intensity of the factors working against it.

Perhaps Sasse doesn’t take those challenges seriously enough. Throughout the book, Sasse crutches on the presumptive “we,” as in, “Because we are the richest people the world has ever known, our children know few limits.” Or: “In our efforts to develop kids’ talents, to provide them with a set of extracurricular experiences even more impressive than our own, many of us” may focus on the wrong goals. The “us” implied in these statements is slippery: While Sasse may claim he’s talking about all Americans, he’s really speaking to the upper-middle class, the privileged few whose only barrier to living “somewhere else for 60 days”—another of Sasse’s tips—is “a review of their family’s calendar” and “searching for the opportunity.”

Sasse pays little attention to the real divides in income, race, and religious conviction that have left many Americans feeling like they live among strangers in a country that wasn’t built for them. Some of his ideas seem punitive, showing the dark side of the Protestant work ethic he so cherishes: Historically, Sasse writes, “the important American cultural cleavage was … not rich versus poor, but rather dignified working poor versus supposedly lazy, undeserving poor.” He updates this mythical archetype for the modern age: parents who stream another Netflix sitcom instead of shoveling their neighbor’s walk, or “needy, undisciplined, coddled, presumptuous” young people who lack “much of a filter between their public personas and their inner lives.” Blaming Millennials for American’s cultural drift is the book’s most grievous and inexplicable category error—maybe we could call it ad millennialem, in the spirit of Sasse’s exhortation for the young to study ancient Rome on their path to virtue. It’s an out for the 45-year-old senator to finger the generation below him rather than grapple with the structural inequalities and cultural differences that have fractured the country over the course of many years.

“It is very difficult for a rich republic to remain virtuous.”

But it’s also a mistake to call The Vanishing American Adult a “consummate politician’s book” or a naïve ode to the power of chores, as The New York Times has done—Sasse is working in a much older tradition of writing and thinking. Throughout the book, he keeps returning to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile as a reference point and implicit model for what he’s doing. In keeping with Sasse’s studied performance of folksy erudition, this 18th-century text is a bit of a political-philosophy deep cut. It follows the fictional story of a child, Emile, as he gains the education he needs to survive in a corrupt society. The book is about the wisdom that comes from firsthand experience, like flying kites to teach a sense of direction or swimming streams that will one day become the Hellespont.

Like Rousseau, Sasse believes challenging experiences form a person’s character and the heart of education. Like Rousseau, Sasse sees healthy society as a function of virtuous individuals. The senator is making “a plea for self-discipline and self-control” as “the one and only dignified alternative to discipline and control” by the government. At its core, the book also pleads for something greater: the rehabilitation of shared values in a time of intense difference; a focus on culture as the deepest challenge of politics; and the ability to imagine virtue as part of who we are as citizens, whether Sasse gets it right or not.

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The Challenge of Memorializing America’s Wars

The Atlantic Opinion

Each Memorial Day, tourists descend on the nation’s capital to visit memorials and monuments honoring members of the U.S. armed forces who’ve died defending their country. For the family and friends of the fallen, the act of remembering is daily—as is their grief. This distinction between public acknowledgement and private grief is captured tangibly in the sites on the National Mall.

Often the terms “monument” and “memorial” are used interchangeably to describe the iconic sites in the nation’s capital, but there is a difference. The New York Times recently cited philosopher of art Arthur Danto’s definition to illustrate this distinction: “We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget.” While memorials are a source of remembrance, monuments seek to celebrate the purpose, the accomplishments, the heroic. They evoke the cause. As the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation campaigns for a site to honor those who’ve died in Iraq and Afghanistan, its members will likely have to grapple with these definitions in deciding what exactly it should be.

In March, Representatives Mike Gallagher and Seth Moulton introduced legislation authorizing a study and fundraising for a new national memorial. The bill also exempts the memorial from current law, which states that a memorial can’t be authorized until at least 10 years after the war has ended. The Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation is leading the initiative. In an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune, Andrew Brennan, the founder and executive director of the group, argued that “we have met the historic burden context,” in light of the thousands of those who have died, been wounded, or deal with post-traumatic stress. But memorializing wars while confronting and remembering sacrifice can be a complicated endeavor.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall provides a striking example of this. The wall, inscribed with more than 58,000 names of servicemen and women, has become a major attraction in Washington D.C. and plans are now well underway for an adjacent education center that will provide information on the individuals the wall records. But bringing the memorial to fruition was fraught with conflict. The tension that divided supporters of the memorial 35 years ago stemmed from two key questions: How does a nation remember its wars? How do we memorialize our war dead?

On July 1, 1980, Congress authorized the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and allocated three acres on the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial for its construction. The Memorial Fund, led by Vietnam veteran Jan Scrugg, the originator of the initiative, raised over $8 million with the support of nearly 300,000 individual contributors.

The design review committee selected the design of Yale University architecture student Maya Lin. Lin proposed a polished black granite wall with the inscribed names of the Americans who had died in the war. The proposed wall, with no decoration, not even a flag, provided a stunning tally of loss. Many of the early supporters of a memorial were troubled by the absence of any recognition of heroic service.

Vietnam veteran Jim Webb found it nihilistic, ignoring the honor and courage of those who served. Ross Perot, one of the early advocates of a memorial and a major financial contributor, called it a tombstone and Tom Carhart, a Vietnam veteran, described it as a “black gash of shame.”

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial leadership accommodated much of the criticism. They agreed to display prominently an American flag and commissioned Frederick Hart to design a statue that would stand nearby. With these modifications, then-Interior Secretary James Watt approved the plan. Hart’s “Three Soldiers” statue was dedicated in 1984. The 1993 dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial recognized the thousands of women who served courageously in Vietnam. The wall—and the two accompanying statues—completed a site that many, including nearly all of the early critics, came to consider special, even sacred.

Today, the Vietnam Wall cries out eloquently the magnitude of sacrifice, nearly 500-feet long, marked by line after line of chiseled names. Each name, in turn, whispers the record of a single life lost, and invites its own private memorial. The ground below has been personalized by mementoes left behind—and by many tears.

The celebration of warriors and their sacrifice is at least as old as classical Greece. According to Thucydides, Pericles eulogized the Athenians who died in the Peloponnesian War as men “who preferred death to survival at the cost of surrender.” He judged them as the valiant dead who “proved worthy of their city.”

Memories of patriotic sacrifice enrich national pride: The courageous dead were worthy of their city or their country. Now the survivors must be worthy of them. It is not necessary to go back 2,500 years to Athens to affirm this. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln stood at Gettysburg, on ground still stained by death and in air filled with the stench from shallow graves, and eulogized the dead only in the most general terms. He provided no tally of cost, focusing instead on the purpose of their sacrifice. He promised, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion,” and assured that “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

Lincoln mourned privately even as he resolved publicly. More recently, the Marine Corps Memorial in Arlington, dedicated in 1954, reflected this patriotic resolution. The Felix Weldon statue, based on the Joe Rosenthal photo of the six marines raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima, provided a stirring tribute to the Marine Corps—and to the World War II generation. The base quotes Admiral Chester Nimitz: “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” There is no acknowledgement, however, of the more than 6,800 Americans who died in that battle, including three of the six men who raised the flag.

There has been a democratization of memorials since the 19th century when town squares and public plazas were marked by resolute figures, typically generals, and usually on horseback. From the Civil War onward these public places generally included a tablet or statue base that listed the community members who served—and those who sacrificed.  

National memorials, meanwhile, continue to illustrate the tension between statue and base, between the several goals of heroic celebration, honoring service, and remembering loss. Dedicated in 1995, the Korean War Memorial features a striking tableau with 19 stainless-steel statues representing American troops warily crossing a field, bounded on one side with a black granite mural showing the experiences of and honoring those who served.   

In the years since it was completed, Korean War veterans have worked tirelessly to include the names of those who died in this war. In October 2016, President Barack Obama signed the Korean War Veterans Memorial Wall of Remembrance Act. Now the Korean War Veterans Memorial Foundation is raising funds to add a laminated glass wall including over 36,000 names of those who died in the conflict.

The World War II Memorial dedicated in 2004, on the other hand, is monumental in a traditional sense. It includes granite pillars and arches representing the theatres of operations, bas-relief sculpture, two poles with American flags, a plaza, a pool, a fountain, and a wall with 4,000 gold stars each representing 1,000 Americans who died while serving in that war. These stars are symbolic, abstract, not personal—they project the scale of loss, though not the individuality of sacrifice.

It is a memorial but it is also emphatically a monument. None of the other memorials on the Mall, completed or proposed, has sought to be so large and magisterial, traditionally monumental even.

Apart from the triumphant scale, this merging of forms is what the Vietnam Memorial became when the representational statues joined Lin’s Memorial Wall. It is what the Korean War Memorial will become when the Wall of Remembrance is completed. And it is what the Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation will be tasked with as it presses forward with its site.

Recognizing those who served is important. But to do so without honoring those who sacrificed, as individuals and not as numbers, would provide an incomplete narrative of war. It is their narrative Americans salute today. And need to remember every day.

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The Upcoming Votes Republicans Are Really Dreading

The Atlantic Opinion

There’s nothing that united Republicans more tightly during the Obama years than their shared criticism of all the debt that racked up under the president’s watch. They raised political hell every time Democrats needed to raise the debt ceiling, and in 2011 they brought the country to the brink of default by insisting on spending and reforms in exchange for their votes.

This year, however, it’s all on them.

Trump administration officials told lawmakers this week that the Treasury Department would need authority to issue more debt earlier than expected this year, urging Congress to act before its traditional summer recess begins in August. Republican leaders initially believed they would have until the fall before the Treasury Department exhausted the “extraordinary measures” it undertakes to buy more time, but Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, testified that tax receipts have come in slower that expected.

In a separate appearance, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told lawmakers that he preferred they pass a “clean” increase in the debt limit—that is, without conditions or extraneous provisions. That request was both entirely expected and somewhat galling, coming from the administration of a party who for years had opposed that position when it was advocated by a Democratic president.

Mnuchin’s push drew a swift rebuttal from the House Freedom Caucus, which adopted an official position in opposition to a “clean” debt-limit hike calling for Congress to pair the new authority with spending reforms. The pushback set up an all-too-familiar quandary for Republican leaders: Negotiate with conservatives on a bill that might turn off moderates and fail in the Senate, or abandon the party’s right flank and turn to Democrats for help.

“We’re going to be talking with our members and with the administration on how we resolve the debt ceiling,” Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters on Thursday. “The debt ceiling issue will get resolved.” He acknowledged that the administration’s demand for an earlier vote had forced them to move up their timetable for acting on the debt ceiling, but he didn’t flinch at Mnuchin’s request for a clean bill. “Every treasury secretary says this and every treasury secretary needs to say this,” Ryan said.

Other Republicans suggested the Trump administration was borrowing a negotiating tactic from Obama by dialing up the urgency; Congress rarely acts without a deadline, and telling lawmakers the markets will crash in early September is probably the best way to get them to vote in July before heading home for a month. In the last couple of years, GOP majorities have mostly given up on debt ceiling fights; instead of trying to woo conservatives, Republican leaders have swallowed hard and asked Democrats to bail them out. That might be the likeliest outcome this year, and so far, Democrats have given no indication—yet—they’ll try to extract policy concessions in exchange for their votes. Watching Republican endure a round of embarrassing headlines has been reward enough.

For a time prior to the brinksmanship of the Obama years, congressional majorities approved debt-ceiling increases alongside their annual budget resolutions. That might be an appealing option for Republicans, who could meet the Freedom Caucus’s demand for spending reforms in the budget and demonstrate their continuing desire to erase longterm deficits.

The problem is that the budget isn’t proving any easier to pass.

As a non-binding statement of priorities, the budget had once been a point of pride for House Republicans, who rallied behind the entitlement reforms and tax cuts in the blueprints Ryan wrote as chairman of the Budget Committee. But this year, GOP lawmakers have spent more time picking apart President Trump’s proposal than debating their own. The party is divided about how deeply to cut domestic spending and worried about endorsing policies that could offer more political fodder for an energized Democratic opposition.

The budget process is already about two months behind schedule, and as with health care, there is growing skepticism among senior Republicans that they can pass anything in the more conservative House that could gain the support of the far narrower GOP majority in the Senate. “I’m always leery of the Senate, because their record on this is frankly not nearly as good as the House,” said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior member of both the budget and appropriations committees. “But I think there’s cause for concern on the House side, too.”

“We’re still a ways away,” Cole told me.

Another obstacle for House Republicans is the underlying mistrust between the members who write the budget proposals setting strict caps for departments, and the appropriators who then draft spending bills that must adhere to those spending levels. In recent years, those appropriations bills have often failed to pass out of the House, frustrating committee members who feel their colleagues have given them unrealistic spending targets only to abandon them on tough votes later on. “That’s starting to wear on some people,” Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, co-chairman of the moderate Tuesday Group and a member of the Appropriations Committee.

Republicans got away without passing a budget last year, relying on a two-year agreement they struck with the Obama administration a year earlier. But that’s not an option this year if the party wants to enact tax reform, its top priority after repealing and replacing Obamacare. Passing a budget resolution is necessary to start the reconciliation process that Republicans are relying on to cut taxes without running into a Democratic filibuster in the Senate. As a last resort, the GOP might even skip all the details about entitlement reform and budget cuts, slap a top-line spending level and instructions for tax reform on a few pieces of paper, and call it a budget. “Much of the rest of it is aspirational and messaging,” Dent said. “But this is what is real.”

A stripped-down budget would serve the GOP’s immediate needs, but it risks adding to the list of complaints that conservatives have lodged against the party leadership—and which might grow longer still if Republicans cave on the debt ceiling. With their promises on health care and tax reform each in doubt, it would mark yet another opportunity gone by for a party that hasn’t proven itself to voters, one that began the year with grand ambitions but finds itself merely treading water instead.

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