Confederate monuments have no place in public

The recent tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which white supremacists and Neo-Nazis made a disturbing foray back into the public eye and took the life of an innocent protester, have naturally been the topic of much conversation over the ensuing couple of weeks. People want to understand how ideas this virulent and repulsive could still exist on such a large scale in 2017. Unfortunately, the discourse is not so simple as merely denouncing white nationalists (though to be fair, our president doesn’t seem to understand how simple that should be) and has instead become muddled with the more complicated and divisive issue of the continued existence of Confederate statues.
I should begin by saying that I do not believe the participants in the so-called “Unite the Right” rally actually cared very much about the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from Charlottesville, which was the supposed impetus for their actions.
This wasn’t a spontaneous demonstration made in defense of southern pride, it was a calculated decision by the white supremacists to further divide our country along partisan lines and attempt to give themselves some semblance of legitimacy. By attaching themselves to an issue on which they know they share views with many mainstream figures on the right (a recent Economist poll indicated that 84 percent of Republicans associate the statues with pride rather than racism), the supremacists hoped to incite outrage on the left that would seek to categorize the David Dukes and Paul Ryans of the world as a single nefarious entity.
We must be careful in not allowing this to happen and understanding the difference between conservative politics and radical right-wing extremism. Still, this does not mean that we should simply ignore the continued existence of Confederate statues, or be okay with the fact that so many Republicans still support them. I believe unequivocally that they should all be removed from the public square, and if they were consistent with their moral outrage, so would most conservatives.
Remember when Colin Kaepernick was called a traitor for exercising his Constitutional right as an American to kneel for the national anthem? If you listened to the loudest and angriest voices on the right, you would have thought that Kaepernick did something far more dire than protest silently at a sporting event. It was vitriol that should be reserved for a person taking up arms against our country.
Now close your eyes and think for a minute. I bet if you try hard enough, you can think of an obscure little chapter in American history where a rebellious faction actually turned on its government and fought a devastating war against it!
Why don’t we hit this point more often? The entire Confederacy fits the textbook definition of treason. They broke away from the Union. They elected their own president, adopted their own constitution. It may be true that the Southern states believed they were fulfilling the original vision of the United States, that they perceived the North to be the traitors, but history is written by the victors. And as much as it might displease the good old boys and Klansmen alike, the Confederacy lost the war. That means that if you continue to support and celebrate them, you are supporting and celebrating treason.
This is of course to mention nothing of the emotional trauma that the continued existence of Confederate statues has likely inflicted on millions of black Americans over the years. I cannot be the one to speak for a group of people of which I am not a part, and I have heard it argued that hitching one’s self-worth to a statue is setting oneself up for failure. But I would encourage any who think this way, any who maintain that the statues are really just about pride for one’s heritage, to use a little empathy and think about what they mean to somebody else. All art is subjective in what a person can take away from it, but the purpose of something, what it was designed to commemorate, is not up for interpretation.
These statues celebrate the lives of men who did not just take up arms against their countrymen, they did it for the explicit purpose (amongst other reasons) of protecting their right to enslave other human beings. Of course that should be upsetting and offensive to the ancestors of those enslaved. Furthermore, why is this action something to be venerated, even if the people who did it happen to be your familial or cultural ancestors?
A possible counterargument exists to the removal of the statues in that it is predicated on a somewhat slippery slope that could result in total disregarding of our own history. After all, most of the Founding Fathers owned slaves, and while there is yet to be as loud an outcry for the removal of statues of these men, the intellectual framework for doing so would be there if there is indeed a nationwide effort to remove all statues of the Confederacy in the coming months. To this I would say that it is the actions that are being celebrated by the existence of the statues that is of paramount importance; i.e., that we erected them to acknowledge the fact that the founders created the wonderful country that we all call home, not that they were all deeply flawed human beings who were moral products of their time. It is because of this argument that I believe the treason of the Confederacy should take precedence when arguing for their removal, as it is impossible to spin this action as having had a positive impact on the development of the United States or the furthering of human rights.
What those states did was unequivocally wrong. We don’t need to forget about the Confederacy or remove the names of those involved from the history books (indeed we must never forget the sins of the past to ensure that we do not repeat them). But we do not need to celebrate them either. Though it is probably a pipe dream, we can only hope that people on the right will be able to think about this issue logically, conclude that these statues do more harm than good, and avoid the divisive trap laid by the white supremacists to drive us apart. We’ve been through that before, and as we know, the result isn’t pretty.

Post Author: Justin Guglielmetti

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