By John O. Sullivan
That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.
–Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World
This past weekend, a series of events in Charlottesville, Virginia resparked a national conversation about our race in America, symbology, and our collective history. This is a conversation that has stretched into this week.
It all started months ago, when the Charlottesville City Council voted to rename several parks named after Confederate generals and tear down a statue of Robert E. Lee. That action was stayed by the courts for 6 months when a citizen group sued to prevent the statue from being taken down
Fast forward to this weekend. Jason Kessler, a known White Nationalist, organized a rally entitled “Unite the Right,” which was to be held in Emancipation Park in Charlottesville this past Saturday. The night before, a group of White Nationalists carrying torches marched through the University of Virginia campus, and the march concluded by encircling a group of counter-protesters, at which point the first violence of the weekend erupted.
On Saturday, the day of the planned rally, protesters and counter protesters arrived in droves hours before the planned start of the rally. The so called “Unite The Right” rally never got off the ground however, as police intervened shortly before the scheduled start when violent clashes broke out. The “Unite The RIght” attendees reneged on a plan that would have largely kept them separated from the counter-protestors, and the police declared the event an “unlawful assembly” and dispersed the crowds.
These protests, which were originally about the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, drew a broad range of ultra-far right extremists, “from immigration foes to anti-Semitic bigots, neo-Confederates, Proud Boys, Patriot and militia types, outlaw bikers, swastika-wearing neo-Nazis, white nationalists and Ku Klux Klan members.”
The events, as well as the attendance list, throw a bright light onto remaining Confederate statues and memorials. They beg us to ask core, fundamental questions about ourselves and our society. The defenders of these monuments claim that their removal and/or destruction is tantamount to erasing history. That is simply not true. Humans have always built monuments to celebrate, honor, and venerate the people, things, and events that are most treasured and idolized in our society. The pyramids of Egypt were built to enshrine the pharos. The Sistine Chapel, the Great Mosque of Djenne, and Hagia Sophia were all built to honor God. The Statue of Liberty was built to celebrate the very idea of Freedom.
The memorials in question were also built to honor and celebrate. But the people and ideals they celebrate are not deserving of our veneration. The men and women that these monuments memorialize were traitors who fought to continue the forced bondage of blacks. The Confederates betrayed our nation and fought against it. After all, we do not memorialize Benedict Arnold.
We should not forget that the Civil War was, in fact, fought over slavery. Some 45% of Americans do not think slavery was the main reason for the Civil War.
Common non-slavery “explanations” for that war include “economics” and “states rights,” but make no mistake, the Civil War was about slavery. The war was fought over the right of the states to maintain slavery over the wishes of the Federal government. The war was fought due to the economic ramifications of abolishing slavery in the South. Slavery and human bondage was the root cause of the war.
It is no coincidence that these confederate statues and memorials were almost entirely constructed in two waves. The first coming at the turn of the 20th century, in the same era of the Plessy v. Ferguson (Separate but Equal) decision and the formation of the NAACP, and then the second wave in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Many argue (and I believe rightly so) that given the historical context of these statues, they symbolize not a celebration of states rights or benign history, but rather they are celebrations of the ideals of white supremacy.
The Spanish have not forgotten Francisco Franco. Nor have the Germans forgotten Hitler. It is possible to continue to remember even the worst parts of our history, to learn from it, without idolizing it. These statues and monuments memorialize people and ideas which have no place in our society. While I think their outright destruction of these fixtures, such as Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott has suggested is a step too far, neither does that mean they belong in prominent public places.\
After the events in Charlottesville, it is patently clear that these statues are rallying points for the worst elements of our society, they are touch-points for ideas that do not belong in America. The remaining statues should be moved to genuine and appropriate historical sites, museums, and confederate cemeteries. To smelt the statues down and recast them as other political figures only plays into the narrative of the far right. But to allow these monuments to stand where they are condones and endorses the views not only of those memorialized, but those who rally around them.
Image Courtesy of the Toronto Star