Those of us who consider it disgraceful to have a giant statue of Robert E. Lee on his horse in a park in the middle of Charlottesville, and another of Stonewall Jackson for that matter, should try to understand those who think removing one of these statues is an outrage.
I don't claim to understand them, and certainly don't suggest they all think alike. But there are certain recurring themes if you listen to or read the words of those who think Lee should stay. They're worth listening to. They're human. They mean well. They're not crazy.
First, let's set aside the arguments we're not trying to understand.
Some of the arguments being passed around are not central to this attempt at understanding the other side. For example, the argument that moving the statue costs money, is not what I'm interested in here. I don't think cost concerns are driving most of the support for the statue. If we all agreed that removing the statue was important, we would find the money. Simply donating the statue to a museum or to some city where Lee actually lived would quite possibly produce a new owner willing to pay for the transport. Heck, donate it to the Trump Winery and they'd probably pick it up by next Thursday.
True, if the statue is simply moved to a different Charlottesville park, Charlottesville will have to pay, and that money could have gone to creating a new park with monuments to peace and civil rights, etc. Perhaps there are people for whom this really is the central argument. Perhaps they are also consistent in their frugality and put up the same struggle against billion dollar highways and trillion dollar militaries. Perhaps the announcements of how much good could be done for the poor with the money that could be spent to move a statue are being made by some people with a history of caring about the poor. We'll save trying to understand them for another time.
Also tangential here is the argument that removing a statue erases history. Surely few of these history fanatics protested when the U.S. military tore down the statue of Saddam Hussein. Wasn't he part of Iraqi history? Hadn't the CIA meant well and gone to great efforts in helping to put him in power? Hadn't a company in Virginia provided him with important materials for making chemical weapons? Good or bad, history shouldn't be torn down and erased!
Actually, nobody's saying that. Nobody's valuing any and all history. Few are admitting that ugly parts of history are history at all. People are valuing a particular bit of history. The question is: why? Surely history supporters don't believe that the 99.9% of Charlottesville history not represented in monumental statuary has been erased. Why must this bit of history be monumental?
There may be those whose historical concern is simply for the past 90 years or so of the statue being there in the park. Its existence there is the history they are concerned about, perhaps. Perhaps they don't want it changed simply because that's the way it's been. I have some sympathy for that perspective, but it has to be applied selectively. Should we keep a half-built frame of a hotel on the downtown mall because my kids have never known anything else? Was history destroyed by creating the downtown mall in the first place? What I'm interested in trying to understand is not why people want nothing to change. Nobody wants nothing to change. Rather, I want to understand why they don't want this particular thing to change.