Who would have thought that Robert E. Lee, dead and in his grave since 1870, would be making news today? The furor over efforts to remove monuments to him and other Confederate leaders proves Faulkner’s adage that “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.”
The controversy has stirred protests, lawsuits, vandalism and violence.The mix of contemporary identity politics and Civil War history is both riveting and risky.At the heart of the polarizing debate is a fair question: Should we continue to honor leaders who took up arms against the federal government to preserve a way of life built on slavery? The immediate, obvious response is no, but the question cuts so deeply and across so many fault lines there may not be an easy answer.
Twenty-five years ago I took a job at a small liberal arts college in the South. I will never forget talking to the mother of its new president. She was Southern, elderly and stunned me by speaking sorrowfully of “that terrible, terrible war” as if it had occurred just yesterday. The War Between the States, as she alluded to it, was dead and distant history to me, but not to her. That conversation was my first introduction to a region distant not just geographically but culturally from my own. Later that year a visiting professor from Germany remarked that he had found the one issue that could animate his students was the Civil War. They all wanted to refight it.
Did his students condone slavery and regard blacks as inferior? Were they all racists? I doubt it. I do think they had a romanticized view of the past. They were from a region of the country that had waged war and been defeated. Imbued with a consciousness of history, those students smarted from the loss more than a century later.
The War Between the States, as she alluded to it, was dead and distant history to me, but not to her.
We are in some key respects a binational country. Blacks and whites’ perspectives are shaped by different experiences of a common past. Negotiating the symbols of our shared history is fraught with danger. Emblems of brutal oppression to one group are perceived sentimentally by another. The symbols are the same, but the meanings attached to them are very different.In retrospect, probably most Americans can agree that, as Lee himself said, Confederate monuments should never have been erected. But dismantling them is a different story for many citizens. They hold no affection for the Confederacy but argue that dismantling monuments is erasing history, comparable to cutting out the photos of family members you dislike from family scrapbooks. Their answer to Americans who want tributes to the Confederacy taken down is: It is history. It happened.
Discarding—or sometimes smashing—the icons of an immoral past is what change agents do, whether Orthodox Christians, Protestant reformers, Muslim Islamists or secular revolutionaries. Today’s monument movers have the the confidence and dynamism, and in some cases the self-righteous zeal, that frequently goes with a moral cause. That cause is all the purer for being divorced from quotidian reality.
Emblems of brutal oppression to one group are perceived sentimentally by another.
The bitterness of symbolic battles lies in inverse proportion to their substance. Dismantling a Confederate monument will not do anything about curbing police brutality or reforming a criminal justice system riddled with racism or reducing bias in the workplace. It is an unproductive debate. Whatever satisfaction comes from purging Confederate monuments from public spaces will be fleeting, and possibly counterproductive if it stokes resentments among white Americans that, however specious, fuel racial bigotry.
Under pressure, local communities are making rapid changes. Let us hope they make decisions about historical monuments thoughtfully and on a case-by-case base. They may want to take down some; they may want to take down all. They may want to erect new monuments in the vicinity of offending old ones to commemorate the sufferings of slaves or to honor those who worked for racial justice. Those new memorials could offer a fuller picture of our history, without eliminating the relics of the past that some Americans want preserved.
New memorials could offer a fuller picture of our history, without eliminating the relics of the past that some Americans want preserved.
Such a solution might edge us away from a divisive debate blurring past and present. Hearing liberals today attack Robert E. Lee as a traitor is a surreal return to the politics of the 1860s. But the animosities of the Civil War persist; efforts to remove the vestiges of the Confederacy have fanned them.
In his recent trip to Colombia, Pope Francis addressed that country’s decades-long civil war and the need to build peace through personal encounters, one-on-one dialogue, forgiveness. We need our own such efforts at peace and reconciliation here at home. Without it, the ghosts of the Confederacy will still haunt us long after their images in bronze and marble are banished to museums.