I’m not going to write about the tragic events in Charlottesville in this post. I think the VICE News video says it all. It should be obvious that in this particular march, the violence that occurred came overwhelmingly from the alt-right, many of whom came to the march armed with pepper spray and hidden assault weapons (see the end of the video), although I note for the record that a few protesters on the Left did as well. I am frankly mystified by President Trump’s reluctance to condemn the white nationalist marchers en masse and by his bizarre assertion that there were some people “protesting very quietly” at the torchlight march on the night before the rally (which has been debunked by Paul Blake of the BBC), but I doubt whether racism is his underlying motivation: after all, the marchers shouted Nazi slogans against the Jews, and the President’s own daughter and son-in-law are Jewish. Perhaps the man is morally timid, and reluctant to condemn even bad people who might vote for him. Or perhaps the President views racism as self-evidently absurd, requiring no further comment in the 21st century. Or perhaps he fears that by demonizing the 500 or so marchers who took part in the alt-right rally in Charlottesville, he will only succeed in making them look more appealing to alienated juvenile delinquents, thereby consolidating their base of support. I don’t know. In any case, this is not a post about Trump, whose White House seems to be facing a meltdown of its own making.
Instead, what I’d like to write about in this post is the question of what Americans should do with the 718 monuments and statues (709, according to the BBC) situated on public property throughout the country, mostly in the South, although there are also a few in former Union States, including Iowa, Kansas and Pennyslvania, and there’s even one in Massachusetts. The Southern Poverty Law Center has published a paper calling for their removal, and a summary of their responses to counter-arguments can be found on pages 38 to 39.
I’d like to begin by asking viewers how they feel about this video, showing a statue of a Confederate soldier being pulled down in Durham, North Carolina, on Monday (courtesy of World Viral Videos):
Watching the video, I had the sense of a genie being uncorked from a bottle. A dangerous one. And apparently I wasn’t the only one who felt that way about the incident.
Heroes or Iconoclasts?
Writing in the New York Post, Michael Goodwin describes his reaction to the tearing down of the statue of a Confederate soldier, erected “In memory of the boys who wore gray,” in Durham on Monday (The startling reality facing America in wake of Virginia white power rally, August 15, 2017):
On one sightseeing trip around Durham, NC, I saw the statue that was pulled down Monday, and was struck by its prominence. It had stood on a main street since 1924, unprotected and unmolested.
But Monday, the statue was pulled to the ground, kicked and spat on. The scene resembled the felling of Saddam Hussein statues after the liberation of Iraq — with one difference. Our Civil War ended more than 150 years ago.
Goodwin concludes his commentary with a somber question: “Have our divisions become so deep that the only way to settle them is with another Civil War?”
“You are changing history”
In a press conference on Monday, August 14th, President Trump rhetorically asked where it would all end:
“George Washington was a slave owner,” Trump said. “Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down — excuse me — are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? Good. Are we going to take down the statue? ’Cause he was a major slave owner. Are we going to take down his statue? So you know what? It’s fine. You are changing history; you’re changing culture.” (Quoted from No, President Trump, Washington’s slaves and Lee’s treason are not the same things, by Scott Martelle, Los Angeles Times August 16, 2017.)
However, many journalists have forcefully rejected the President’s “slippery slope” argument. In an article on Vox titled, The huge problem with comparing Lee and Davis to Washington and Jefferson (August 16, 2017), Matthew Yglesias argues that whereas the Founding Fathers at least did something that Americans can be proud of, the Confederates didn’t. There were no good parts to the Confederacy, so we shouldn’t commemorate it:
It would obviously be unreasonable to expect every celebrated historical figure to be without any kind of significant blemish. But the case against Confederate statuary is setting a much lower bar. It demands only that a celebrated historical figure have done something worth celebrating. Washington, Jefferson, and other mainstream American historical figures all clearly meet that test. Lee and Davis clearly flunk it.
A Los Angeles Times editorial (August 15, 2017) was even more scathing in its criticism of President Trump’s comments:
Washington was a slaveholder, to be sure, but that’s not what statues of him celebrate; they recognize him as the nation’s first president, a hero of the Revolutionary War. Lee, by contrast, left the U.S. Army to lead a rebel force that sought to dismantle the nation in a misguided and unsuccessful attempt to defend the slave system.
At first sight, the distinction these authors are making looks clear-cut, but on closer inspection, it loses its force. What do you say about President Andrew Jackson? While Jackson’s victory over British forces in the Battle of New Orleans is rightly celebrated by Americans, a strong case could be made that his bad deeds overshadow his good ones. The man not only made his fortune from slavery but also treated his slaves with extreme cruelty, even offering a public reward of “$10 for every 100 lashes a person will give” to an escaped slave of his, should they succeed in recapturing the slave. And it was Jackson who was responsible for the passing of the Indian Removal Act, which uprooted 46,000 Indians from five tribes and rounded them into concentration camps where many people starved to death, women were gang-raped, and some children were even forced to stand naked in the freezing cold. The survivors of these appalling brutalities were then forced to march west, in the infamous Trail of Tears. Twenty-five per cent didn’t make it.
In recent months, a group called Take ‘Em Down NOLA has campaigned to have Andrew Jackson’s statue removed from Jackson Square in New Orleans. Are they right? If not, why not? And if they are right, will statues of Jefferson be safe, 20 years from now, when he is already being described in a newspaper article as “a horrible man who owned 600 human beings, raped them, and literally worked them to death”? The author comments: “He should not have statues, or be on money, or even have a monument celebrating his positive contributions.”
Warts and all
Writing for American Thinker, R. B. Parrish remarks that he used not to care whether the Confederate memorials remained or were removed, but has changed his mind. A nation’s history is like a family album, and Americans cannot remove the photos of forebears who did things which we are now ashamed of without doing violence to their own history:
The Confederate statues are a remembrance of a part of our family saga. There were men who fought out of a sense of duty and who showed courage and others who did not. The same was true of the Union soldiers. The war, as wars generally do, brought out both greatness and venality. But we are the inheritors of both stories, and both the good and the bad. It is hoped we may learn something from it all, but with humility, we need to remember that we are no better or worse than those who came before us. We cannot claim that the past did not happen. Or that the pirate on the far limb of our family tree isn’t related to us.
All the pictures in our family album belong there, and it is deceitful for those who come after us if we pluck out some and leave only blank spaces in their place. We all sit at the same table.
If we are not to become black and white and Pole and Cossack and Greek again, then we must accept the common inheritance of our past. Removing statues from pedestals, crossing names out of textbooks (examine current schoolbooks on U.S. history, and you will discover how much has been omitted), denying the past, and magnifying errors will only ensure that we never gather together again as one.
Too many statues?
Some readers may grant the force of this argument, but reasonably ask whether Americans need to keep 700-odd Confederate statues around the country – especially when most of these monuments were built during the Jim Crow era and in response to the civil rights movement. Is 700 too many? Wouldn’t 70 be enough?
Should America simply relocate its Confederate statues?
Another option is to relocate the statues to a safe place where they can be kept. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has endorsed this option, calling for governing authorities in his state to remove Confederate statues, following the violence in Charlottesville, Va. “The recent events in Charlottesville demonstrate that monuments celebrating the leadership of the Confederacy have become flashpoints for hatred, division, and violence,” McAuliffe said. “Monuments should serve as unifiers, to inspire us collectively and venerate our greatest citizens.” He added: “I encourage Virginia’s localities and the General Assembly – which are vested with the legal authority – to take down these monuments and relocate them to museums or more appropriate settings.”
I should note, however, that if the museums in question are public museums, paid for by the taxpayer, then some citizens may well ask why these statues are being displayed in a public space, and acts of vandalism are likely to follow.
Or keep and critique?
Finally, in another article over at American Thinker, Bert Peterson has a different take. In an article titled, A way to bridge the divide over Robert E. Lee (August 16, 2017), he suggests keeping the statues, but attaching a plaque acknowledging the faults of the figures they honor, but explaining why these statues are still allowed to stand:
In this writer’s opinion, there is a better solution. Keep the statue. But with it, also include a plaque of Lee’s letter that appears above along with some comment – coming from the black community – as to why, notwithstanding the understandable offense to black Americans, the statue is still retained. “With malice toward none, and charity toward all,” let us strive to heal our divisions.
That strikes me as sensible, although the question that occurs to me is: who would be in charge of writing all these plaques?
A Plea for Civility
When I visited the United States in 1994-95, I was struck by how passionately its citizens believed in free speech. Here was a country that really lived out Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s aphorism, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (a remark falsely ascribed to Voltaire, though he may have said something similar).
In the past few years, however, there have been calls for the American government to clamp down on “hate speech,” and in recent days, even Piers Morgan, a commentator not known for his left-wing views, has tweeted that speech glorifying Nazism is unworthy of protection under America’s free speech laws. Charles Cooke explains why Morgan’s views are misguided, in an excellent article in National Review (There’s No ‘Nazi’ Exception to the First Amendment, August 16, 2017):
Under the doctrine laid out by a unanimous Supreme Court in the seminal Brandenburg v. Ohio decision, incitement to imminent lawless action may in some circumstances be prosecuted. But this rule is universal and narrow, and, crucially, is in no way akin to the sort of “hate speech” exceptions that obtain in every other country, and that so many Americans seem to believe exist here too. Under U.S. law it is legal for a speaker to say broadly that “all the Jews should be killed” or that “it is time for a revolution,” or that “slavery is good,” and it is not legal for a speaker to say to a crowd, “let’s all go and kill that guy wearing the yarmulke,” or “meet me in an hour at the armory and we’ll start our insurrection at the Post Office,” or “look at that black guy over there in the blue t-shirt, let’s chain him to my car.” Who is saying these things, however, does not matter in the slightest. Whether one likes it or not, Brandenburg applies as much to neo-Nazis as to the Amish, as consistently to Old Testament preachers as to gay rights activists, and as broadly to my mother as to David Duke. It applies in exactly the same way to good people, to bad people, and to those in between.
Over at Why Evolution Is True, Professor Jerry Coyne has also weighed in, with a post titled, Should there be Nazi or white supremacist speech bans? No! (August 15, 2017). As Coyne points out, “if you say that pro-Nazi speech or Holocaust denialism should be banned because it will lead to a revival of Nazi Germany, that’s simply not a credible view since the threat isn’t even remotely there, and, more important, what stifles the threat is free speech against Nazi speech.” Coyne’s post includes some telling quotes from a recent essay written by Glenn Greenwald for The Intercept, which defends the ACLU for upholding the free speech rights of neo-Nazis, while criticizing President Trump for his proposals to outlaw flag-burning. Coyne concludes with a video of a rousing speech by the late Christopher Hitchens, given at the University of Toronto’s Hart House Debating Club in November 2006, which I think is well worth watching:
A transcript of the speech can be found here.
So, what do you think America should do with its Confederate statues? Over to you.
UPDATE (h/t Rod Dreher at The American Conservative):
An African American CNN commentator, Angela Rye, said this on the air (starts at 4:30):
“The heart of the problem is the way many of us were taught American history. American history is not all glorious. I love [CNN analyst] John [Avalon] to death, I couldn’t disagree more about George Washington. George Washington was a slave owner. We need to call slave owners out for what they are. Whether we think they were protecting American freedom or not. He wasn’t protecting my freedom. I wasn’t someone – my ancestors weren’t deemed human beings to him. To me, I don’t care if it’s a George Washington statue or a Thomas Jefferson statue or a Robert E. Lee statue, they all need to come down… I’m calling out white supremacy for what it is. And sometimes, what it is, John, are blind spots. Sometimes what it is, is not acknowledging this country was built upon a very violent past that resulted in the death and the raping and the killing of my ancestors. I’m not going to allow us to say it’s okay for Robert E. Lee but not a George Washington. We need to call it what it is.”