It is difficult to drive by Hill Park in Helena and see the empty space once occupied by the Daughters of the Confederacy fountain and not feel a sense of the sad and useless nature of its removal. Designed by a Northern architect, given to the city in a “spirit of union,” and gratefully accepted by the city, why, after one hundred quiet years, has it come to be seen as a monument to racism? Is it so wrong that women of the South honor their fallen dead? The ferocious civil war that resulted in the end of human slavery in the Americas has been fought and dearly paid for with the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans from both sides, and not the least the life of the President himself who fervently desired Americans to proceed “with malice towards none.” It is a great disservice to that man, and to those soldiers and citizens alike who gave the “last full measure of devotion,” that their sacrifice is not honored. The fountain as an object of beauty could just as easily been re-dedicated to the spirit of union with which it was originally presented. It could have been embraced as a monument to strength, community and the power of reconciliation. Instead, that high ground was surrendered and an important opportunity missed.
It is particularly disturbing that in these tumultuous times with so many avenues for involvement in human affairs relevant to change and the ability to move forward, Helena has found it worthwhile to eliminate that old fountain. Who knew that evil could hide in cold stone, especially when so much present evil reveals itself through living flesh and blood? The war against Iraq, birthed in lies, is such a thing. We live in the shadow of that deceit to this day, twisting slowly in political oblivion, trying with little success to right the floundering ship. Yet the ability of people to adjust to absurd circumstances can never be underestimated. Accepted as a fact of modern life, our war goes on in unreal other-places as dramatic productions of heroism and salvation, America saving the day, all the while decimating cultures, leveling cities, creating enemies, and obliterating budgets.
This militarism is white supremacy. War is racism. A glaring example is the massive prison camp at Gaza, Palestine. Here, two million people are savaged with violence and humiliation, year after year, with nary a sound of protest from the “civilized” world. We have learned to live with slow-motion genocide and our flatulent response is the destruction of a monument that says “Confederacy”? Meanwhile, the plight of the Palestinians under a racist Israeli regime, supported as it is with American firepower and massive amounts of American money, crushes without mercy the aspirations of the native Arabs for self-determination. Israel continues to expand and expropriate land with cold brutality. Americans continue to pay and look away. This would seem an obvious and critical target in the struggle against racism, especially for Native Americans, who must see a reflection of their own suffering in the faces of their indigenous brothers and sisters in Palestine living under the boot-heel of Israeli apartheid. Elements of this same juggernaut have reduced Yemen to famine and despair, driven poor Burmese into the mud of Bangladesh, reduced Syria, Iraq, and Libya into a bloody and ponderous instability, bombs Afghanistan into whatever comes before the stone age, and forces the migration of millions of refugees onto the shores of nations who simply do not deserve it. These conflicts are driven, with no obvious concern for the tragic consequences, by a dominant American/Israeli desire to reshape the Middle East more to their liking. They roll destructively through countries, disrupting millions of lives forever.
In this context, removing a beautiful old fountain from a park in Helena seems little more than a weak, pathetic attempt to avoid reality. Maybe the Stars and Stripes should fly there now, upside down, or maybe that place should remain empty as a testament to what fear looks like when it masquerades as principle. It is a hollow sanctimony that solves nothing. There are fights to fight, but looking back and erasing history carved in stone is not one of them. We have our day, and there is no lack of opportunities to stand for justice. Let the dead lie. Our responsibility is to the living.