Charlottesville the Place Missed Charlottesville the Event

An example from Georgia of something Charlottesville, Va., does not have.

James W. Loewen’s wonderful book Lies Across America has been published in a revised 20th anniversary edition, containing a chapter called “Public History After Charlottesville.” In this usage, “Charlottesville” is an event, not a place. Specifically, it’s a fascist rally that happened here in 2017.

Loewen chronicles the dramatic surge immediately after and ever since that event in the reworking of the public landscape by governments around the United States. Statues have been toppling like bowling pins. New monuments have been going up. Markers have been sprouting all over the place to explain existing monuments and what’s wrong with them.

Loewen documents a major shift in public attitudes about the U.S. Civil War, which he credits not only to “Charlottesville,” but also to a mass shooting in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, and to Black Lives Matter. I would add also some credit to the work of people like James Loewen.

Loewen favors removing monuments that glorify horrible things, but putting up historical markers to indicate what had been there, when it had been erected and why, and when it had been removed and why. This is not the same as removing monuments to all people who ever did horrible things, if the clear purpose of the monument is to glorify other non-horrible things. After all, every actual person has done horrible things.

Loewen also favors putting up new monuments to people who have been excluded from public memorialization. But he worries about parallel sets of monuments being maintained or erected based on identity: monuments to white racists and black anti-racists, but very few monuments to white anti-racists or memorials to racist atrocities or memorials to widespread wrongs or to the movements against them.

Loewen applauds the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which of course has nothing to do with ending war (this is the United States, after all), but which has created a monument to be provided to each of 800 U.S. counties where a lynching took place — on condition that each county has taken appropriate steps to confront the truth. (Hey, Albemarle, Va., here’s a free monument for you to earn!)

The major public attitude shift regarding the U.S. Civil War is of course not a shift to believing that any major public policy change shouldn’t be preceded by slaughtering large numbers of people. That would be crazy. Rather, it is a shift to admitting that the motivations of one side of that particular war were reprehensible.

Thus we have the push for removing or contextualizing racist war monuments, without anyone having yet anywhere identified a non-racist war monument or explained what such a thing could be.

Loewen says that the riot in Charlottesville on August 11-12, 2017, was “ostensibly to protest the city’s decision to take down statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.” Unfortunately, the city had made no such decision. The Charlottesville City Council had never even voted on taking down the Jackson statue, and had finally voted 3-to-2, after repeated failure, to move the Lee statue to a less-central park. The mayor, one of the 2 nay votes, didn’t come around to supporting the moving of the Lee statue until immediately after the Nazi rally.

Today, the Lee and Jackson statues still stand in their original locations, along with the generic Confederate, along with Lewis-Clark-Sacajawea, and a monument glorifying the war on Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia, and at the University of Virginia monuments to World War I, plaques celebrating numerous wars, and a monument celebrating and depicting genocide. UVa is putting up a memorial to enslaved people who built the university, very close to its monument to genocide. In Charlottesville (at Albemarle County’s Court House) there is now an historical marker about a lynching. There is also a new historical marker honoring those who desegregated a school.

But no war monuments (of the offensive or the supposedly inoffensive kind) in Charlottesville have been toppled or moved or contextualized or hidden or replaced. No comparably large and prominent monuments have been erected to anything at all other than war or genocide.

It’s terrific to see the word “Charlottesville” being associated with a positive trend. It would be nice for that trend to reach Charlottesville too.

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