Sunday, August 13, 2017


I rarely post about politics on this blog. I can't remain silent, though, about the still-unfolding events in Charlottesville, Virginia. That an anti-racist protestor, Heather Heyer, has been killed and dozens upon dozens injured over the past few days is appalling. And that two state police pilots, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates, also died in a helicopter crash yesterday just compounds the horror.

You can read remembrances of Heather Heyer here:

Heather Heyer, Charlottesville Victim, Is Recalled as 'a Strong Woman'

I realize that the protests are not really about a statue. They are about the resurgence of hate, and that resurgence has to be opposed wherever it manifests itself.

But I think that the focus of social justice movements on symbols—statues and the names of parks—is misguided. There's an article in Slate about the racist history of the establishment of the Charlottesville parks and the dedications of the statues which you can read here:

Tools of Displacement: How Charlottesville, Virginia’s Confederate statues helped decimate the city’s historically successful black communities.

There is also an eloquent article by Charlottesville mayor Michael Signer about why he opposes removing the statues that can be read here:

Why I voted no on removing my city’s Confederate statue

In that position he is supported by many community members. As Signer writes,
Numerous Charlottesville African-American residents who have lived through decades of suppression of their history oppose removal on the grounds that it would be yet another example of hiding their experience. For them, transforming the statues in place forces remembrance of the dominance of slavery and Jim Crow white supremacy.

Read more here:
I agree. Removing these symbols erases history, and enables the whitewashing (to coin a phrase) of centuries of official support of white supremacist ideology. Take down the statues, rename the parks, and the next generation will not have to confront that history. As a former resident of Charlottesville, I feel that leaving the statues and the parks in place but contextualizing them with informative public displays and counter-symbols would provide thoughtful teachers, civic leaders, artists and ordinary citizens with opportunities to openly explore, and perhaps some day come to terms, with the legacies of the past.

The second thing to say is that Robert E. Lee, whose statue is the focus of the protests, was a complex figure. He opposed Southern secession and by his own testimony did not offer his services to the Confederacy in order to defend slavery (after the war he stated that "So far from engaging in a war to perpetuate slavery, I am rejoiced that slavery is abolished"). He was in favor of state-funded education for black citizens, although he also opposed extending to black men the right to vote (of course, at this time white women also didn't have the right to vote). To view Lee simplistically as a monolithic symbol of white supremacy and hatred is a distortion.

The final thing to say is, that if you decide to make war on symbols from the past based on modern-day moral standards, it's not clear where you'd be able to stop. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, and George Washington were slaveowners; so, too, probably, was Alexander Hamilton. Abraham Lincoln married into a slave-owning family, and his attitudes towards racial equality were equivocal. That's a lot of monuments to tear down.

I think it's important not to kid ourselves: the fundamental motives of civic and institutional leaders who agree to remove monuments are not just a concern for justice but also a desire to eliminate sources of uncomfortable civic contention. Far better, I think, to leave the monuments of the past where they are and engage in dialogue, debate, and counter-symbolism instead of historical erasure.

Whether you agree or disagree, thanks for reading this.

Update 15 August 2017: In a press conference today Donald Trump made his own version of the argument I pose in the next-to-last paragraph: "I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?"

The first thing to say is that Trump's comments on the protests have been appalling, and are yet another demonstration, as if any were needed, of the moral and intellectual vacuity of the man who holds our highest office. And that Trump has adopted, even partially, any of my own reasoning about this question immediately makes me think I have to reevaluate my position.

In a nuanced and thoughtful article in the New York Times tonight by Jennifer Schuessler, historians consider Trump's question and respond to some of his other comments about the events in Charlottesville. One of the historians that Schuessler quotes is James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association. On the question of monuments, Schuessler writes:
"Mr. Grossman noted that most Confederate monuments were constructed in two periods: the 1890s, as Jim Crow was being established, and in the 1950s, during a period of mass Southern resistance to the civil rights movement.

"'We would not want to whitewash our history by pretending that Jim Crow and disenfranchisement or massive resistance to the civil rights movement never happened,' he said. 'That is the part of our history that these monuments testify to.'"
You can read the entire article here: Historians Question Trump’s Comments on Confederate Monuments.

Update 16 August 2017: Baltimore removed its Confederate monuments last night after the City Council voted for their removal on Monday. From the New York Times: Baltimore Removes Confederate Statues in Overnight Operation

No comments :

Post a Comment