Let's Not Trash History with Robert E. Lee

Maybe this isn't a good idea
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania souvenir shops do brisk business selling a Confederate flag t-shirt that bears the slogan, "If this flag offends you, you need a history lesson." It's hard to say which is worse, the implicit racism or the woeful ignorance of civics that equates traitorous rebellion with American patriotism. Yet, even as monuments to the Confederacy topple in the wake of the recent tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia, I am troubled by the potential danger to the historical record. There's not a damn thing redeemable about the Confederate States of America, but what is lost if we obliterate its memory in favor of historical amnesia? Wouldn't it be better to repurpose these monuments rather than trash them?

The study of history must be the servant of evidence, not fashion. Let me remind you that when a statue of Abraham Lincoln appeared along Richmond, Virginia's Riverfront Canal Walk in 2003, it was routinely defaced and unrepentant protestors paraded with placards proclaiming, "Lincoln killed my ancestors." Back then, many of the same voices now demanding we tear down Confederate statues demanded protection for Old Abe. The Lincoln defamers were just as wrong as today's Confederate flag wavers, but liberals can't have it both ways. If we view history entirely through a lens of what is safe or deemed a community standard, Lincoln would have come down. And there's the matter of Richmond's famed Monument Avenue devoted to such Confederate icons as Robert E. Lee, Jeb Stuart, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson. In 1996, one honoring black tennis star Arthur Ashe joined them. Guess how many people wanted to blast that one from its pedestal.

Only naïve (and stupid) people believe that history is one continuous and glorious march from darkness to enlightenment. History unfolds through conflict and we are all better served when we present those tensions rather than replacing one historical monologue with another. Today's monument smashers are too uncomfortably akin to yesterday's book burners for my taste. Luckily, there are intelligent ways around this conundrum.

The first lies with repudiating both conservative and liberal censors. It's unfathomable that anyone today would pretend that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, that bondsmen were simply "workers," or that those who led the Confederacy were the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers. Moreover, it's unsustainable in a nation that in 2020 will become a minority-majority nation in its birthrate. Conservatives can either get on board with an honest reappraisal of American history, or it will be the history books—not Lincoln—that kills their ancestors. But liberals need to do some soul searching of their own. They act with equal stupidity when they wish to remove anything that upsets their delicate sensibilities. Worse, they fuel conservative causes when they ask that Woodrow Wilson's name be removed from all things Princeton because he was a racist, that they not be forced to learn about Andy Jackson because of his deplorable behavior toward Native Americans, or that history should be sanitized to conform to today's politically correct values. A major purpose of history is to show how we got to a point where we find it unsettling that white people routinely owned slaves, degraded women, mistreated workers, and held a host of other unsavory values. We should learn about this, but we cannot hold those from the past to the same values.

National Historical Battlefields offer another way to do history. When I visited Gettysburg as a kid, it was all guns, guts, and glory in what was interpreted as little more than a very bloody family spat: brother against brother. The word "slavery" appeared nowhere. That all changed after 2005, when Congress gave battlefields new marching orders: present all sides of the conflict and all interested parties, or lose funding. There's still much room for improvement, but now multi-perspective discussions hold forth at places such as Gettysburg.

We should do the same with Confederate monuments. Richmond's Monument Avenue could become a laboratory in which visitors are informed that the pro-Confederacy statues arose between the years 1890 and 1913, when Reconstruction had collapsed and Jim Crow reigned supreme. They should leave with at least a rudimentary understanding of what this means—just as they should understand the importance of the civil rights movement in making sure Ashe got to swing his racket in defiance of racism.

Any exceptions? Yes. Confederate flags and monuments should have no presence on public properties that serve the entire public. There are three Confederate monuments on the state capital grounds in Austin, Texas, for instance; these should be relocated to a museum where other aspects of the war are discussed. Can we even imagine placing swastikas on government property? How about signs that say, "Death to white people?" It's indefensible to color the general public in monochromatic racial, cultural, or religious hues. It is, by the way, why we don't have prayer in public schools or crèches on town greens. And it's why we shouldn't have sanitized history books. Like personal therapy, national healing begins in dialogue, not a lecture.

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