A History Lesson

I like to think of myself as a student of history, albeit an amateur one. It's a subject that has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. I am always working through at least one book about some historical topic (with my current selection being Simon Baker's Ancient Rome), and my daily commute is often undertaken to the sounds of a podcast like Dan Carlin's "Hardcore History."

When it comes to American history in particular, I have always been most enamored with the Civil War. Two of my favorite history books cover this era: James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom and Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals.  My family would take regular trips to Gettysburg when I was a kid, and wandering around the battlefield looking at the monuments and learning about the events that happened there is a favorite childhood memory that I've relived multiple times as an adult.

I consider the Civil War, both the events leading up to it and the repercussions that we still feel today, to be the most unique and intriguing aspect of our nation's 241-year history. And I feel that it is of the utmost importance that we remember why it happened and how it shaped the America of 2017.

I also believe it is well past time that Confederate monuments like the one that sparked last weekend's white supremacist violence in Charlottesville must come down.

Before I delve more deeply into why I feel so strongly about this, I want to first reinforce what I am not saying. I am not advocating that we stop teaching students about the Civil War, the Confederacy, or slavery. I am not suggesting that we strip places like the Gettysburg battlefield of their monuments. I am not calling for a ban on private citizens displaying the Confederate flag or CSA iconography. Am I am certainly not indicating that taking down some statues is going to "end racism" or something equally ridiculous.

What I am saying is that having monuments to the Confederacy in city parks and town squares sends an unacceptable message to Americans of color: these people fought to keep those like you from being free, and we value them for it.

If you want a real history lesson around these statues, you need to look at when and why they were erected. Look at the chart below, compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The data shows that one thing is abundantly clear: the motivation behind the vast majority of this Confederate recognition was to send a signal to the African American community. Look at the huge spike at the beginning of the 20th century, the height of the Jim Crow era. Notice all of the schools that were named after Confederate figures in the immediate aftermath of school desegregation. Every time the black community made a push for equal rights, the result was more Confederate generals and politicians standing in public parks and on courthouse grounds.

Put yourself in the shoes of a child. You have to go to school every day, and the school is named after someone who is most notable for terrorizing, imprisoning, or murdering people who look like you. Every day you have to walk past a picture or statue of the school's namesake, a person who, were they alive today, would not hesitate to harm you or your family. How would that make you feel? What would it say about how your government and your community view you?

Jewish kids in Germany don't have to experience that sort of insult. There is not an Adolf Hitler public school in Berlin, and there are no statues of Erwin Rommel in the Munich city center. If you suggested such a thing to someone from Germany, you would be lucky to just receive harsh words in return. And if you followed up by implying that the Germans, of all people, don't have a firm understanding of their history because they lack such reminders, well, let's just say it's not a conversation I'd be looking forward to having.

And yet every day in America, millions of black children must spend every day walking past a "Stonewall" Jackson monument or attending Robert E. Lee Elementary School, all in the name of "remembering our history." It's shameful.

Of course, our president doesn't agree. He went on yet another tweet-storm this morning, saying how "sad" it was to see the "beautiful" statues torn down. He followed up by claiming that statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would be next. After all, they owned slaves too!

If there's one thing Trump loves, it's false equivalency. But this argument isn't a Trump original; rather, it's a well-known white supremacist talking point. It's also one of the number of ridiculous arguments Trump's lawyer forwarded recently. That e-mail claimed that "there is literally no difference" between Washington and Lee, which is both an insult to our country and yet another horrible misuse of the word "literally."

No one is claiming that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or any of the founding fathers were without flaws. Washington made a shady deal to put the nation's capitol in a place where his personal land holdings would benefit. Jefferson was an adulterer. Both men owned slaves.

Here's the difference. Washington and Jefferson are beloved figures in American history not because of those stains on their character, but despite them. Washington isn't seem as a hero because he owned slaves but because he led the military during our war for independence and set the ground rules for the American presidency. Jefferson isn't on statues across the nation because he owned slaves but because he wrote the Declaration of Independence and was a crucial part of the diplomatic end of the Revolutionary War. We celebrate these men because, while they were deeply flawed, they also were critical to the establishment and stability of our country.

Contrast them to men like Lee or Jefferson Davis. Now you could make a plausible argument that these men were no more flawed on a personal level than Washington or Jefferson. I'm not saying I would agree, but I respect that an argument could be made. But while those two founding fathers are celebrated for their roles in the creation of the United States, Lee and Davis are famous for their insurrection against that very same country. They tried to break apart the country that Washington and Jefferson are praised for founding, and they did so to protect the institution of slavery. (And don't even get me started on the whole "the Civil War wasn't about slavery" nonsense. That's a whole different article).

That's what these Confederate generals and leaders are known for, and that's what these statues glorify. Was Lee a phenomenal general, both before and during the Civil War? Absolutely. But would his name and likeness be plastered all over the southern half of the country if he had decided to remain on the sidelines? I find it highly unlikely. The people who put up those statues don't care that he was a master tactician; they care that he fought for the Confederacy.

Despite what the president and his ilk claim, those of us who want to see these statues removed are not hoping to "change history" by doing so. To the contrary, what we are looking to change is the present and the future. By removing these reminders of a darker time in America's past, we want to send a clear message: never again will we use the ghosts of the past to degrade the Americans of today.

As for the statues, if I may paraphrase a certain fictional (and Nazi-hating) archeologist: they belong in a museum!