The Difference Between Celebrating and Not Forgetting

The New York Times published an article on May 27th entitled, “In Popular Park, a Point of Contention.”  The opening line provides the angle for the piece:

“ST. LOUIS—The angry, divisive fight over public symbols of the Confederacy has swept through Columbia, S.C., Birmingham, Ala., and New Orleans.  This week the debate made its way some 600 miles north, up the Mississippi River, to St. Louis…”

The article went on to explain that a 103-year-old monument containing images of confederate soldiers located in a park in St. Louis, Missouri had become the subject of an intense debate.  The mayor, Lyda Krewson, commented, “It reveres something that, you know, we’re not proud of.”  Others indicated that removing it would be, “blotting out the history of the Civil War.”  One passerby suggested, “I feel like it is O.K. to honor ordinary soldiers.”  This last line was not the focus of the piece, yet for me it resonated deeply because it highlighted the important difference between “celebrating” and “not forgetting.”

If a monument or a symbol glorifies something, it is celebratory.  For example, the famous WWII image of the flag-raising by U.S. Marines in Iwo Jima, celebrates a great victory.  Whereas, if I were to visit the 9/11 Memorial where the names of the almost 3,000 men, women, and children who were killed in the attacks are inscribed into bronze parapets surrounding the memorial pools, I would file that under “not forgetting.”  Many young soldiers on the Confederate side may have viewed their service as doing what was expected and felt they had no choice but to follow orders, but we cannot celebrate their service because it is at the expense of all of the victims of slavery.

If I compared this to a much less emotional and fictional example to drive home my point, imagine that a mid-level employee in the back office of Bernard Madoff’s securities investment firm retired in 2006 after thirty-years of service.  Throughout her career she received numerous awards—she was employee of the month several times and was given a special commendation for the reorganization of the human resource system, which she viewed as her career-capping achievement.  At the point of her retirement in 2006, her home office was fully decorated with all of the symbols of her consistent good work over a thirty-year career.  She did her job well, had no idea of the terrible Ponzi scheme that would ruin the lives of so many, and enjoyed glancing at her wall of honor every time she sat at her desk to pay her bills.

Unfortunately, when the scandal broke in 2008, her first order of business should have been to take all of her awards down from the wall, because while her service to her employer still cannot be questioned, she now fully appreciated the evil nature of the organization, which may have been hidden from all but a few at the top.  Is this unfair to her, just as perhaps it is unfair to the young confederate soldiers?  The answer may be yes, but the bigger issue becomes that any celebratory symbol that is at the expense of countless victims is inappropriate.

My imaginary Madoff employee likely spent many hours in the years following the news of the scandal wondering how she didn’t know.  She might have also experienced some level of guilt at her unwitting participation in this terrible scheme.   In other words, she should “not forget,” but it is no longer appropriate to “celebrate.”

Perhaps it was wrong to compare the suffering from slavery with that of the financial kind, but you see my point.  The monument should come down and, therefore, the “celebration” should end, but none of it should ever be “forgotten.”