Good Riddance to Robert E. Lee

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, the city of Charlottesville, Va., city council has voted to remove an imposing statue of Robert E. Lee (and the horse he never rode in on) from Lee Park, and to rename and redesign the park.

The statue of this non-Charlottesvillian had been put up in a whites-only park during the 1920s at the whim of an extremely wealthy and racist individual. So, for a representative government to vote, following a very public deliberative process with voluminous and diverse input from city residents is — if nothing else — a step toward democracy.

I think it’s much more as well. There are two issues at stake here, neither of them dead issues from the past. One is race. The other is war.

Following the vote of City Council, two Republican candidates for governor Corey Stewart and Denver Riggleman declared their outrage. “You cannot revise history. Only tyrants attempt to erase history. This is tantamount to denouncing your own heritage. I will do whatever I need to, both now and as governor, to stop this historical vandalism. We must fight to protect Virginia’s heritage,” said Stewart. “This continued assault from Democrats on Virginia’s history and heritage is unacceptable. As governor, I will protect the monuments of our heritage, but not just of the Civil War, mind you. . . . Not only are they standing in conflict with a number of Virginia’s laws, but they are spitting in the face of veterans of every conflict — no reminder of any sacrifice by any veteran of any conflict should be torn down by the liberal thought police,” said Riggleman.

Now, Charlottesville has been here for centuries. It has very few public monuments, virtually all of them to war makers. There’s George Rogers Clark on horseback setting off to participate in genocide. There are Lewis and Clark exploring, with Sacagawea kneeling beside them like a dog. There are the giant equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee and also Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, plus the traditional generic Confederate soldier. There’s the monument to murdering 6 million Southeast Asians in the Vietnam War. There are a couple of statues at UVA, one of Thomas Jefferson, one of a pilot who died in a war. And that’s about it. So, virtually all of Charlottesville’s history, good and bad and indifferent, is missing.

Where are all the great academics and artists and civil rights activists and environmentalists and performers and poets and suffragettes and abolitionists and athletes? Where, for that matter, is Queen Charlotte herself (long rumored, accurately or not, to have had African ancestry)? Where is the history of the native Americans who lived here without wrecking the earth’s climate? Where is the history of education, of industry, of slavery, of segregation, of advocacy for peace, of sister-city relationships, of welcoming refugees? Where are women, children, doctors, nurses, business people, celebrities, the homeless? Where are either the police or the protesters? Where are fire fighters? Where are street musicians? Where’s the Dave Matthews Band? Where’s Julian Bond? Where’s Edgar Allan Poe? Where’s William Faulkner? Where’s Georgia O’Keefe? One could go on forever.

Claims of “erasing history” are ludicrous. Choosing to glorify and memorialize some little bits of history is all that is ever done when monuments are added, removed, or swapped out for others — or when they’re left standing. Most of history will always remain unmemorialized in our public spaces. Adding new memorials while leaving Lee and Jackson in place would still amount to supporting what Lee and Jackson monuments communicate. And the decision to leave Jackson there does just that. It communicates primarily two things: racism and war. Apart from the artistry of the sculptures, apart from the personalities of the dead soldiers, these are statements of racism and war. And it matters.

A country that can make someone like Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III its attorney general has an ongoing struggle with racism. Symbols that have stood for racism for decades, symbols of a war fought for the right to expand slavery, must be set aside if we are to move forward.

A country that empowers people like Steve Bannon has a problem with the limitation of history to wars. Bannon claims that history goes through cycles, each one opened by a worse war than the one before, with a new one just around the corner. (And if history won’t oblige, Bannon hopes to do his bit to facilitate the supposedly inevitable.)

Obligatory tangent for partisan readers: the leading expander of militarism during the past eight years, needless to say, has been a gentleman named Barack Obama.

Most of Charlottesville’s history has not been war. There is nothing inevitable or natural or glorious about war. The vast majority of U.S. wars have no Charlottesville memorials. The entirety of local and U.S. efforts for peace have no public recognition in Charlottesville. Some are proposing that redesigned parks include some indication of aspirations and struggle for peace. That, I think, would be progress.

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