The former Confederate states are filled with monuments to the Confederacy. Some commemorate those who died in military service; some commemorate particular battles; some commemorate individual officers of the Confederate military or politicians. Some of these monuments are simple plaques, obelisks or the like. Others are representations of generic or specific representatives of the Confederate military. Of course, there are also Confederate military cemeteries, some public, some private.
I don’t have a strong feeling as to whether they should go or stay, or whether they should be moved to locations with less prominence or traffic. We just finished a trip through the Virginia countryside. Monuments to the days of the Confederacy seem to be everywhere. In Onancock, for example, a central public park features a monument to a general who was a native son (actually, he wasn’t a general although the inscription calls him that). In Gloucester, we saw an obelisk dedicated to the residents of that town who had died in the war that has been in the center if the city’s unique historic district since the 1890s, and which was joined not long ago by another monument to a representative of a “Colored” unit that fought during the war. I don’t find any of this offensive, although some people do.
There is now a movement to move or destroy these monuments in many places. We saw what happened in Charlottesville following a city decision to move a monument to Robert E. Lee. We saw what happened in Durham, where a bunch of folks took it upon themselves to destroy a statue. We just saw what happened in Baltimore, where the four Confederate statutes where removed during the still of night by the city, without anyone being informed. (I must say, I have a different feeling about Confederate monuments in places like Baltimore, which were never a part of the Confederacy and where at least one of the monuments was not constructed until 1948.) And we saw what is happening in Alabama, where there is state legislation which makes it a crime to move or remove any monument that has been in place for at least 40 years.
We have heard all of the arguments on both sides. These monuments are offensive to African-Americans. They are not consistent with American principles. They salute enemies of the United States. Or: they are an important part of the heritage of the area, and one should not attempt to rewrite history. These are all good arguments. And, in an ideal world, decisions would be made, after appropriate discussion, etc., by local governing bodies. Some would decide one way, and some others. And everyone would accept the decisions.
But it’s a sensitive subject and, as we have now seen, can easily become a flashpoint for matters that extend for beyond the removal of a monument or statue. For this reason, I think the country should chill a bit on this subject. Save the discussion for a time when tempers are not so on edge.
Had the decision to move Robert E. Lee not been made, there most likely would have been no riot in Charlottesville last weekend. But it should be clear that these riots did not occur because residents of Charlottesville wanted the statue left in place. The rioting occurred because a bunch of ultra-right wingers decided to hold a major demonstration uniting all of the ultra-right groups they could. Those groups would include neo-Nazis, KKK, and all the others. And they came prepared to terrorize and do battle, and to use violence and intimidation to make their point. The fact that Charlottesville is home to a large liberal, university community made it the perfect place to insure that their message would be met with opposition and that major national news would be made.
When Hillary Clinton created the image of a “basket of deplorables”, she was thinking about the people who decided to demonstrate in Charlottesville. An assortment of racists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, “alt-rightists”, anti-immigrationists, and other dregs of society, who generally espouse, each in their own way, the concept of white supremacy (as a matter of political ideology, or religious doctrine, psuedo-science, or home team support, it really doesn’t matter) and racial separation. And, they appear to be Trump supporters and Trump voters and an important part of the Trump base.
These people have always been present in America, but usually a small presence, marginalized, and not a concern. But with the campaign and election of Donald Trump, things have changed. They now believe that they have (and in fact may have) a representative, or at least a friendly ear, in the White House, and believe that now is the time for them to come out of their various closets and increase their influence.
Unfortunately, Donald Trump has proven himself to be the ultimate “deplorable”, willing to criticize anyone who doesn’t love him, any political opponent, and any Muslim in words that usually belong only to teenage bullies. By equating KKK members and neo-Nazis on the one hand, with the disorganized anarchists who oppose them with equal violence on the other, Trump only divides the country. And dividing the country has become one of Trump’s few consistent policies. In doing this, he is leading right wingers and left-wing anarchists to attempt to provoke each other, and terrorize the country, more and more.
So we need to come to grips with the unfortunate fact that we have a president who is working to endanger our country internally. What can the rest of us to do to tamp down this problem? I think the rest of the country should go slowly in doing provocative acts at this time. That means going slow on removing Confederate monuments where the removal might cause conflict. And those who believe that Confederate monuments represent a treasonous and racist strain in American society, it means counting to ten, and letting the monuments remain for now.
I don’t think that is giving in. I think that is helping keep the peace.