Update on 5/22: Quoted in Judy Pasternak’s piece at the Daily Beast.
Shistorian ociologist James Loewen and Edward Sebesta (his blog) have written a letter calling on President Obama to discontinue this practice as party of Memorial Day exercises:
Since the administration of Woodrow Wilson, presidents have sent annually a wreath to the Arlington Confederate Monument. Prior to the administration of George H. W. Bush, this was done on or near the birthday of Jefferson Davis. Starting with George H.W. Bush, it has been done on Memorial Day. We ask you to not send a wreath or some other commemorative token to the Arlington Confederate Monument during your administration or after.
Their letter, along with a number of signatures by notable historians, was recently published on the History News Network. The content of the letter outlines the racial and political context of the early twentieth century by citing a number of the speeches that were given at the monument’s dedication, including President Wilson’s. Yes, the monument is a reflection of the Lost Cause myth, which emphasizes the bravery of the men who fought in Confederate ranks. It downplays the role of slavery as the cause of secession/war and emphasizes states rights; in addition, the monument gives expression to the myth of the loyal slave both before and during the war. In that sense, the monument has much in common with most Civil War monuments that were erected between 1880 and the first few decades of the twentieth century. As interpretation, I have very little problem with the content of this letter, though the tone of it is likely to alienate rather than engage the general public in an open dialog – no surprise there.
While I am sympathetic with their view of this matter, I think it would be a bad idea for Obama to end this practice. While I do not agree with all of Obama’s policies, the one thing that I have come to appreciate is his willingness to engage constructively with those he disagrees. The president’s visit to Notre Dame this weekend is a case in point and reflects his enthusiasm for taking on extremely complex and emotionally-charged issues in a mature and honest manner. There are no doubt moments where the president must be decisive in making specific decisions, and this will no doubt alienate and/or disappoint others, but this man cares what others believe and even seems to be willing to amend his own outlook when presented with a compelling argument. I value having a president who is thoughtful, who listens, and who makes me think.
My problem with this letter is that it is a non-starter. It is unlikely to lead to anything approaching constructive dialog and it is likely to lead to increased tension and misunderstanding. Just check out the comments section of the HNN post for evidence of this. It’s not simply a matter of picking and choosing one’s battles, but it is also how intelligently we choose to take on certain subjects. Under extreme pressure, President Obama has already demonstrated that he can intelligently address some of the tough questions, from his Philadelphia speech on race back in May to this past weekend’s speech on abortion at Notre Dame. I will leave it to Loewen and Sebesta to explain what good a refusal to send a wreath to Arlington would do in the short- or long-term.