Cambrian: Opinion

Remember our mistakes, but don’t put them up on a pedestal

A monument to Robert E. Lee in Lee Park, Charlottseville, Virginia, as seen in 2006.
A monument to Robert E. Lee in Lee Park, Charlottseville, Virginia, as seen in 2006.

You might think the controversy over Confederate monuments puts me in a difficult position. As a history buff, wouldn’t I want to protect historical monuments — even those that pay tribute to those I disagree with?

Let’s stop right there. I’ve got no difficulty at all in stating my position on this one, and that position rests firmly on two words in the sentence above.

“Pay tribute.”

There’s a big difference between acknowledging history and celebrating it. George Santayana famously stated that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is a warning to those who seek to cover up their mistakes, to pretend they haven’t committed hurtful acts against their fellow human beings.

But it’s a quantum leap from “never forget” to “wow, wasn’t that cool!?”

Should we erect monuments to Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson, to Ted Bundy and Timothy McVeigh, simply because they’re a part of “our” history? Should we celebrate acts of barbarism, brutality and man’s inhumanity to man? Because you can’t get much more brutal and inhuman than slavery, which (despite what states’ rights advocates may tell you) lay at the heart of the Confederacy’s decision to secede from the Union.

Slavery in the Old South involved treating a human being as something else — property.

And whipping him to death if he tried to run away.

Or whipping her to death if she resisted when you tried to rape her.

That’s what these Confederate monuments represent. They have zero to do with “culture” or “Southern pride,” Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Dukes of Hazzard or Roll Tide. Celebrate those things all you want. Just don’t wrap them in a Confederate battle flag or erect monuments in honor of those who fought beneath it.

You won’t find a statue of Benedict Arnold in the United States. Why? Because he was a traitor to his country. So were Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and Nathan Bedford Forrest. These men were not only traitors to their country, but to human decency — as was Germany’s Adolf Hitler … and there aren’t any statues to him in that country, either.

Yet there are 10 monuments to Davis, nine to Lee and six to Jackson on public land in this country. Three more pay tribute to Forrest, who not only served as a general for the Confederacy but also helped found the KKK after the war was over.

Why? Because for some reason, too many of us have allowed ourselves to equate their deeds with “Southern pride.”

In seven decades, Germany and Japan have remade themselves as vital economic and cultural centers, yet you don’t see the Japanese paying tribute to Tojo or Hirohito, while the Germans made it illegal to display the swastika, make a straight-armed salute or deny the Holocaust. Neither country basks in the symbols of failed despotism; on the contrary, each takes pride in modern accomplishments that have nothing to do with their former shame.

The South, too, has plenty to be proud of that has nothing to do with losing a shameless, bloody war 150 years ago. Vibrant urban centers such as Atlanta and Charlotte, a series of college football national champions, Disney World, great food, “Southern hospitality,” the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Everglades. … The South doesn’t need the symbols of the Confederacy to be impressive, so why do some who live there still cling to them?

In doing so, they mistake shame for pride and taint their achievements with a cesspool of archaic bigotry.

So, what do we do about it?

I don’t believe in private citizens forcibly tearing down monuments, no matter how odious they may be — not because history is somehow being “ripped apart” (to use the president’s phrase), but because I don’t believe people should take the law into their own hands. Besides, do we really want to make a bunch of statues into martyrs?

Should we instead try to recognize that this ugly side of our nation’s history should never have been put up on a pedastal in the first place — figuratively or literally? That we should bring the force of conscience to bear in speaking out for their lawful removal?

Shouldn’t we divorce Southern pride from the shame of betrayal and slavery? Wouldn’t that, indeed, be true freedom?

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