Speech on the Silent Sam Memorial at UNC

I was recently allowed to share my thoughts on the Silent Sam Confederate monument at UNC. Beforehand, I shared my anxiety about this.  The full transcript of my speech is available below.  My own recording can be viewed here, and perhaps an official recording if the University releases it.

The speech:

Way back when, during the America Civil War, a number of students here at UNC left their studies, left school, and went to fight in the cause of the Confederacy.

They fought out of a sense of honor,
a sense of duty,
a sense of loyalty,
a sense of service.

They believed the cause they were fighting was
a just a cause,
a noble cause,
and a worthy cause.

They would have heard from
and elected leaders
and news media
their families
and fellow students
and even their professors

— every voice in their lives that they trusted —

that this cause was a just and noble and worthy cause.

Today, we can look back and recognize that it was not.
It was not a noble cause they fought for.

Students today are also fighting.

They are LITERALLY fighting.

They are brawling in the streets,
throwing riots on campuses across the country,
setting fires
smashing in windows
and ribcages,
assaulting innocent bystanders and peaceful demonstrators for holding opinions they dislike.

They are shouting down invited guest lecturers with whom they disagree.

They are shutting down important debates and discussions that are vital to our civic life in democracy.

They are silencing through their activism
and violence
their fellow students,
their professors,
and others on campus.

Students are fighting for speech codes, restricting our first amendment rights to outlaw speech that offends them, calling it hate speech.

Students are opposed to our basic freedoms and liberties dear to our democracy.

Freedom of speech,
freedom of religion and worship,
freedom of conscience
freedom of association
freedom of self-determination

Students are fighting to overthrow free market capitalism

— which has brought us unprecedented prosperity —

and instead replace it with the economic system that all the world over has given us nothing

except Supreme Leaders and zoo meat.

Students are being told that these causes are just, and noble and worthy.

We are being told this by
our politicians
and elected leaders
By the news media
and by Hollywood actors and late night comedians who for whatever reason we listen to
By our families
and fellow students
— more than any other voice —
by our professors.

Every voice in our lives that we trust is telling us that these causes are just and noble and good.

I think the message Silent Sam has to offer UNC students is very important.

It is not the original intended message.

It is instead a call to sober reflection on the lesson of the past.

You can believe you are acting out of principles of virtue.

You can see your cause as so self-evidentially right only evil tyrants would oppose it.

You can feel Lady Justice’s hand on your shoulder, beckoning you to honor and duty.

You can hear from every voice around you that this is the noble cause.

And yet be so very wrong.

Thank you.

My speech went over about as well as you would think it would.  Looking back, I perhaps could have been more clear on what I was actually speaking about.  For anyone wishing to characterize my speech as one side or another, the full text is there.

9 thoughts on “Speech on the Silent Sam Memorial at UNC”

  1. I think that this plays very well against much of what is occurring on both sides of the spectrum. It feels like it was meant to inspire “…a call to sober reflection…” and I liked it. Short and sweet.

  2. This strikes me as well-written, but small-minded and asinine. I read it as an extended analogy between those who were willing to kill to defend slavery and those who are willing to engage in modern political activism of any form, so long as they’re liberal. If you think you weren’t talking exclusively about liberals there, consider the context of your last post, in which you described hearing the assumption of liberalism from everyone around you, including authority figures. Compare that to your paragraph which opens with “We are told this by…”. You included groups which are strongly associated with liberals (late night comedians, Hollywood actors, and professors), but not those associated with conservatives (clergy, talk radio). Consider also that you’ve mentioned controlling what you say, and that both the partisan lean of your environment and the effect of causing silence are public knowledge, and I expect you’ll understand that your readers and listeners are paying attention perhaps as much to what you aren’t saying as what you are. Though you seem genuine in your opposition to the alt-right, you aren’t nearly as comfortable publicly calling them out as you are liberals.

    What makes the speech sound small-minded to me is that it never escapes your personal sense of grievance about being surrounded by liberals who genuinely care about liberalism. That’s the apparent motive for making the speech, which has only the most tenuous connection to balancing the interests associated with confederate monuments. If you had simply wanted to advocate for keeping the monument as a reminder of the fallibility of authorities and the value of an independent mind, you seem to understand you could easily have made that point less provocatively and more effectively. You might even have suggested that the monument could be retained, but a second monument built near it memorializing a famous Southern free thinker of the period who opposed the war and slavery, to contextualize that message. Instead, you needlessly antagonized your audience to make a contemporary political point.

    It’s an important point! I think there’s real value in hearing more from people like you about it and how to address the partisanship of university life. But it undercuts the position usually advanced for keeping these monuments that doing so represents fidelity to the history as opposed to an expression of our contemporary political values. That makes this seem, not like a principled stand on an issue of primary importance to you, but like a hijacking of a tangentially-related issue to vent a largely unrelated concern. It sounds like you were mad, and wanted to take any opportunity to express that anger, rather than trying to solicit other views and thereby build the empathy which would rob that anger of its visceral thrill.

    It reads as asinine because the comparison is absurd. Those who object to paying for and being associated with bigoted speech, and who oppose it with their own speech (which is the overwhelming majority of the activism), share very little in common with those who would kill to defend slavery. The cause is far more just, and the means far less violent.

  3. It’s not an invalid criticism. I did want to air my grievances. That’s why I was there.

    The other speakers offered great ideas on what to do with the monument. Some said take it down, some said keep it but put a statue of Harriet Tubman, some said replace it with a different monument that is less clearly tied to racism, some said to move it to a museum. I think moving it to a museum is more fitting, personally.

    My message was that the statue represents a moral blindspot in our history, and we must learn from moral blindspots. The people of the past aren’t any less fallible than us, and the fact that they can fail teaches us that we can fail.

    And where I think students today are failing is in their (often violent) attacks on free speech and their support for socialism. We swim in constant reaffirmation of these causes, just as the students back then swam in a sea of Confederate sentimentality.

    I think students can learn something from the statue. Something really important. So that’s why I said what I said.

  4. My point is just that I think your desire to air your grievances was in tension with your desire to bring it about that students would learn what you wanted them to learn, and your approach accomplished the former by sacrificing the latter. Very few students are going to think your perspective is reasonable when you describe campus activism as often violent; most of them see it as extremely rarely violent, and view the portrayal of it as violent as largely a propaganda tool of right-wing media intent on whipping up hysteria about them rather than (and in order to avoid) engaging with their ideas.

    Moreover, displaying a Confederate statue to foster opposition to socialism by reducing confidence in authorities seems extremely indirect. The cause of slavery paints capitalism in possibly its worst light–it suggests, not that free markets allow communities to encourage one another in virtues (as Adam Smith contended), but that profit and the search for cheap goods so corrupt our relations that we will often be complicit in horrible evils, and will invent and accept perverse absurdities in order to justify our pursuit of material gain.

    The negativity directed at your fellow academics combined with the poor fit between your stated lessons and the means you’ve chosen make this seem like mere pretext for tribal behavior. Liberals don’t like Confederate statues, and conservatives do, so you like them (or, perhaps, oppose opposition to them). I think you could have combated that impression while addressing the underlying cause of your grievance (which, again, I think is real and warrants remedy) by avoiding the venting and suggesting that the university display both unwillingness to be associated with the cause of slavery and also openness to modern political views by replacing the statue with one of a person connected to UNC whose efforts weren’t odious, but whom conservatives would view positively.

    I have to be honest; I attended Duke for one summer course, so I think I might be contractually obligated to suggest that no person with any such positive characteristics would deign to be associated with UNC. Rivalry (largely unearned on my part) aside, though, I imagine there are numerous examples who would suit the purpose, and I’d love to see more universities explicitly value the contributions of conservatives in a way which would help ease the obnoxiousness of being surrounded by liberalism so thick that dissent is assumed to be virtually nonexistent, and of no account, anyway. But a Confederate monument kept as a warning seems like it sends the message that one ought to be eager to cast aside the traditions of one’s people, that conservatism is often willing blindness to moral outrage. That doesn’t seem better for campus ideological diversity to me.

  5. Hey Kelsey, thanks for responding again.

    Privilege is an important idea that Progressives have been employing. For instance, I mention being not afraid of white supremacists despite the fact they would have historically killed me and my family, and maybe that’s because I’m white. Maybe I can afford to be unafraid of them, because of my privilege. Whereas black students who have to confront white supremacists don’t have the luxury of being unafraid, when the threat they represent is all too real from the past.

    And likewise, maybe you can afford to not be afraid of antifa and the ctrl-left because of your own, different privilege. You know that you aren’t going to find yourself being beaten in the streets for listening to Louder with Crowder. You can afford to not treat them seriously.

    For me, the ctrl-left is a constant threat I have to live with. There were over a dozen student speakers from various departments, all asking the statue be taken down. And I’m sure none of them have to worry about being dismissed from their positions over the remarks they made. I bet it didn’t even cross their minds. They gave statements to sympathetic audiences knowing they would face no consequences for it.

    And here I am, constantly checking google news results to make sure my name doesn’t come up anymore, posting this transcript hoping people will be able to see what I actually said and not the way the media will (and already have done) misrepresent me.

    If that made me sound angry or like I have a grudge, then it’s because I am angry and do have a grudge.

    I think the statue is an important warning about authoritarianism, definitely. There’s nothing more authoritarian than slavery. But it’s a more general warning. The South wasn’t a nation of inhuman orcs and trolls, the North weren’t the shining City of Gondor and the high elves. They were all just people, same as you and I. And they got so much wrong. What are we getting wrong?

    I do not oppose opposition to Confederate memorials. I completely understand why people of color would want the statues gone. Especially today, where white supremacists are using them as rally points, I think they are beginning to represent a public danger and should be removed from public lawns.

    I agree with your proposals for different statues. I think the best place for Silent Sam is probably a museum, where the lesson of our past racism can still be taught. In the place, a neutral monument simply honoring the loss of student life in the war can be placed (some students joined the Union as well, as it happens). The school already has monuments to slavery on the same quad, but some speakers suggested monuments representing, for instance, famous black poets of North Carolina. These were proposals other people made, and I think they sound reasonable.

    I could have presented those idea. Everyone else did. I felt like what I wanted to say was also important. Had I given my opinions on what to do about the statue, that’s probably what I would have said.

    The Duke/UNC rivalry is weird to me. In grad school, we’re almost the same university. Professors in my department have emails at both universities, have their labs there, and we have Duke students enrolled in some of our classes.

    If I could do it again, I would definitely have made my stance more clear.

  6. Meant to add this:

    I targeted students and the left, because those were the people there. There were two people in favor of the statue. The rest suggested taking it down, to uproarious applause.

    I wasn’t going to be talking to a group of the alt-right. It was going to be talking to a group of the kinds of people who do silent speech and do want speech codes.

    Hence my comments were about the danger of student activist groups on campus.

  7. I read this:
    It seems pretty fact-based to me. Does it seem to you to misrepresent you, as you say the media already has done?

    I am deeply suspicious of the media which portrays modern college campuses as hotbeds of fascist suppression of dissent. Check into how often speakers are disinvited if you want a sense for how thoroughly blown out of proportion this is. Worse, I hate the fact that this fear results in the actual suppression of disagreements. When people who disagree talk about their disagreeements, they have the option of learning about one another’s views and honing their own in ways which not only make them more accurate, but also less insulting and more empathetic.

    That’s most of what seemed to me to be missing from your speech. I thought it would really have benefitted from a read-through by a liberal who liked and respected you. That’s just the sort of dialogue I’d expect you to be afraid of soliciting. And I think voices like yours could be really helpful in pointing out the sorts of things which the left genuinely does which exacerbate the problem and which happen often enough to be worse than the cure.

    Hopefully the paper seems as fair to you as it does to me, and it’s representative of your actual treatment. That seems like our best hope for helping people see the hysteria about left-wing fascism for the exaggerated manipulation it seems to me to be, and promoting more positive dialogue.

  8. Hey Kelsey. The TarHeel did a great job. I was happy to see that one. ABC11 did a less good job. I contacted them telling them telling them my comments were being misrepresented, but they did not respond or issue a retraction (to my knowledge).

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