The events of the last 5 days have been some of the most extraordinary in recent times. It all started Saturday. American Nazis gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the decision taken by the city to remove its statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Anti-racist groups descended on the planned site of the white supremacist demonstration in counter-protest. Some minor violence ensued—scuffles involving pushing, shoving, elbowing, etc. were reported.
At 1:42 p.m. a speeding car slammed into the counter-protestors, killing 32-year old activist Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. That is when the event went from being just another story about the removal of Confederate monuments to a raging debate over race, history, and American values that has consumed the nation and brought the Trump administration to another point of crisis.
Every man, woman, and child in the civilized world knows of Trump’s statements equating the aims and actions of the Nazis with those who protested against them. The story continues to dominate headlines in every newspaper on the planet. But Trump’s position on this matter sheds no light on what led to violence and murder in Charlottesville. Getting at what caused the tragedy can only be done by examining the circumstances surrounding it—that is, to hone in on the terroristic rage that killed a young woman exercising her constitutional right to non-violent protest you must understand Charlottesville as a flashpoint in a much larger social conflict.
Why must you understand Charlottesville? Why is it worth paying attention to the debate that it has set off and taking a position in it? Why should you care at all about Confederate monuments?
A social atmosphere is developing in America the like of which has not been seen since the 1960s. Specific lines are being drawn on the issue of race, and people are being forced to stand on one side or the other. It is becoming increasingly difficult to make and sustain vague, generalized, sentimental statements on these matters. To utter commonplace, catch-all phrases such as “not everything is about race” or “talking about race only leads to more division” will no longer do. Nor will changing the subject when the solution that you know is right happens to be the one proposed by your ideological opponents.
One of the lines of cleavage highlighted by Charlottesville is the battle over Confederate symbols. At the center of the debate over whether these symbols ought to be removed from public lands and other entities lays one question: is it right to go on with the veneration of the Confederate cause?
Here is it necessary to inject a bit of history.
The Confederate cause was not the mere preservation of slavery in the South; it was the extension of it throughout North America. Secession was driven by men who rejected the compromises that had been made on slavery and insisted on its spread without restriction to the new territories.
The Charlottesville incident offers a good example of the fundamentals involved in this debate. Robert E. Lee was in no way an obvious villain. He was no Simon Legree, the archetype of the cruel, depraved, rapacious slave owner popularized in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Lee thought slavery an abomination and secession unconstitutional. By all accounts he was the most courteous, generous, and punctilious spirit in the whole of Virginia. And I do not doubt the historical reports that he wrestled for some days with the decision on which side to join. But that doesn’t change the fact that he and others who thought like him and were in their way perfect gentlemen led armies which aimed to keep alive a system of subjugation, torture, rape, and unceasing brutalization. That is the principle in contention: are you for honoring this cause or are you against it?
American Nazis answer in the affirmative. They would have all Jews exterminated and all people of color degraded, enslaved, and murdered at will by whites. The Confederacy and what it stood for was a kind of golden age from their point of view, and they see the removal of a statue celebrating one of that short-lived nation’s heroes as an affront to all they hold dear.
It is worth neither my effort nor your time to demonstrate the barbaric absurdities of this belief. It is better to turn our attention to the more troubling fact that non-violent, non-racist mainstream conservatives also protest the removal of Confederate tributes. Such persons do not defend the purpose and values of the Confederacy directly, and I doubt that most of them would want a return to slavery. But they create a space for racism to be trafficked through the backdoor rather than up front and over the counter. They do it, I suspect, out of a feeling that if leftists are for it they must be against it. And this has led them into some pretty remarkable and rather stupid ways of reasoning.
Some avoid answering the question are you for or against honoring the Confederate cause by raising the specter of removing all statues of prominent Americans involved in slavery. But there is a world of difference between honoring the American Founders who owned slaves and honoring Confederate politicians and generals who fought the deadliest war in American history for the sole purpose of increasing the political strength of and expanding the geographic space controlled by Slave Power.
Another way they have avoided the question is to talk of Southern heritage. But no serious argument can be made for putting Confederate monuments and battle flags at the center of Southern culture. The American South has much to be proud of. In literature, language, and music, it has produced the most American originals. Jazz, blues, gospel, country-western, rock and roll—all have their roots there. From Edgar Allan Poe to Richard Wright, the South has been the birthplace or home of some of the country’s greatest literary luminaries. The Confederate cause and the leaders associated with it are best left as subjects of history, not objects of veneration and public symbols of honor and moral rectitude.
To remain a sane and thoughtful person in this time of organized confusion and madness requires an intellectual commitment to the gathering of facts and the carrying out of honest analysis. You must be willing to examine your own beliefs and assumptions and you must beware of the range of tricks and conjurations that aim to spur indignation rather than reason. To come to a sound conclusion in debates such as the one instigated by Charlottesville you should do your utmost to discern the central question in contention. Do not allow yourself to be distracted by false naivety, ahistorical claims, misdirection, obscurity through tedium, and other rhetorical booby-traps designed to disrupt clear thinking.
It is important to understand Charlottesville—intelligently, fairly, and honestly.
About Christopher Reid Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.