Rich Lowry argued that it’s time to mothball the Confederate monuments. His arguments are sound. In principle, I even agree with him.
The monuments should go. Some of them simply should be trashed; others transmitted to museums, battlefields, and cemeteries. The heroism and losses of Confederate soldiers should be commemorated, but not in everyday public spaces where the monuments are flashpoints in poisonous racial contention, with white nationalists often mustering in their defense.
Removing the Confederate monuments makes sense, like removing a bag of sugar from an ant-infested kitchen cabinet makes sense. No sugar, no ants; no monuments, no nexus for protest and counter-protest.
But there’s a big problem with this idea.
The Civil War has been over for 152 years, but it is not done being re-litigated. I found this out the hard way back in 2015. I wrote a piece titled “It’s time for the Georgia legislature to stop honoring slavery.” The pushback was immediate and furious.
I live in the South, but I’m a northerner. I have no ancestral or cultural connection to this place. The people who do still bristle at the idea that the South’s secession and subsequent economic destruction was the fault of slavers trying to preserve the benighted institution of slavery. They have stories of ancestors who fought in the war, who suffered the after-effects, and who believe that the continuing call of the left for some kind of reparations to African Americans is really an attack on them and their families.
They see the removal of monuments as an attempt to purge their families from history–what John Davidson called a damnatio memoriae. My piece on Georgia is cut-and-dried. Stone Mountain, by Georgia law , was created to “be maintained and operated as a Confederate memorial.” Before the state took over Stone Mountain, it was used by the Venable family as a KKK meeting location.
Sam Venable owned Venable Brothers Contractors, the largest granite contractor in the south; as such he was the sole owner of Stone Mountain. On November 25, 1915, Venable was one of 40 men who participated in the “formal induction ceremony” of the revived Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, along with the speaker of the Georgia House, led by “Colonel” William J. Simmons.
Even knowing this terrible history, try bringing up the bas-relief carving on Stone Mountain’s face to most Georgians, or southerners in general.
The mountain was leased to the state by the Venable family, and finally sold in 1958. Sam Venable was a well known leader in the Ku Klux Klan, and it was his idea to have Gutzon Borglum—who famously sculpted the presidential faces on Mount Rushmore—carve the mountain to honor the Confederate leaders.
If even an obvious example like this causes massive, head-exploding pushback from many white southerners, then what would a national effort to remove many public battle monuments of Confederate leaders bring? It would be like adding gasoline to a house fire.
There’s also the very real slippery slope argument: if Borglum carved both Stone Mountain and Mount Rushmore, then shouldn’t Mount Rushmore be demolished also? Since there’s a frieze depicting and honoring Confederate war dead at Arlington National Cemetery (on the grounds of Robert E. Lee’s former estate), shouldn’t that be eliminated?
Federal law, 38 U.S. Code § 2306 (a) (3) granted Confederate soldiers buried in unmarked graves the right to “appropriate Government headstones or markers at the expense of the United States.” Should that law now be changed to remove headstones and disinter bodies buried in National Cemeteries?
Where does it end? Symbols of the Civil War adorn southern cities and towns like Roman ruins adorn Italy. It would take a massive and ultimately harmful effort to “sanitize” these symbols, and doing so would re-open many old and scabbed wounds afresh and cause them to bleed again. In this, Trump is correct.
…can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
…the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 17, 2017
History is as it is. Expunging it for the sake of one group’s offense that it happened is only discarding the lessons it should teach. We are not the Taliban, cleansing everything that even hints at violation of our strict religious dogma.
In June 2016, I likened Donald Trump’s siren song to racists to Godzilla rising from the sea. The monster was always there, it was simply dormant until some radioactive event awakened it.
This is a man who casually throws around terms like “the blacks love me,” then accuses the only black GOP candidate of being “pathological.” He speaks casually of Mexican rapists and murderers, then has a taco bowl at his Manhattan tower to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. He accuses an Indiana-born federal judge who prosecuted Mexican drug cartels of bias because the man is of Mexican heritage. This is the casual racism I heard growing up. This is the monster we thought was dormant and simply waiting for a generation to die.
We thought the Dylann Roofs of the world were aberrations. But instead of pursuing healing (which Gov. Nikki Haley and Charleston residents divinely did; I wrote about it with tears streaming from my eyes), the race-baiters dug until they found the monster. They went after the symbols of the Confederacy, cultural icons which are tied to the casual racism that was waiting to die.
And they stirred it back up and gave it new life.
Erick Erickson shared a similar opinion. “The leaders of the party, confronted by Todd Akin, abandoned ship for his stupid statements on rape and abortion. But the Party of Lincoln intends to circle the wagons around a racist. Damn them for that.”
Racism is here in all its ugliness. The violent racist fringe of both the right and the left must be prevented from taking more lives. This will require a proper use of government force. That means we should indeed use overwhelming shows of force to keep those groups from having another go at it. We should deny them ground on which to fight, and the weapons with which to fight.
We should treat them as terrorists, because at heart, they are terrorists.
However, when government, no matter how well-intentioned, strikes at the cultural and familial bonds of a rather large chunk of America, a group that’s been fighting a racist past and latent feelings of inferiority (look how well Trump did in the south), that action will be perceived differently by southerners than the rest of America.
The surest way to explode the “alt-right” into a large movement is to remove Confederate monuments en masse. Deny the “alt-right” access to those places, by all means. Restrict their ability to assemble large numbers of people–force them to rent an arena or other place, that’s what colleges do with speakers they don’t like. I’d rather suffer the ignominy of having potentially struck a glancing blow against an evil group’s First Amendment rights than the sure result of inflaming millions of otherwise peaceful people into joining that group’s terrible ranks.