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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  • Ol’ Hippy

    In a nation hell bent on war and celebration of wars fought, we need now, somehow, a way to transition towards a lasting peace. i.e. Next the the Vietnam memorial a memorial for those killed in peace marches or all the people killed in SE Asia due to US action. Inconvenient truths so to speak. I’m glad to see that others too are sick of imperialist wars and want a transition to peace. It’s time to start.

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  • diogenes

    It would be more useful and instructive, instead of focusing on attacking symbols of the past and blotting them out, for America to become better informed about the past. For instance, the slave trade proper was centered on ship owners living in and operating out of New England and Manhattan. The slave markets in Charleston and New Orleans were RETAIL operations; the slave market on Wall Street was WHOLESALE. Many New England and New York City hereditary fortunes that survive and are powerful to this day were founded on this trade. And the financial economy of the entire South was in the hands of Wall Street from before 1810 (this is well understood by historians, whose works are even more blotted out of contemporary knowledge than Robert E. Lee’s statue will be). The entire export trade of the South was controlled by New York City merchants and shippers and the import trade of the South was also completely under their control. And right up until 1861 Wall Street bankers wrote mortgages on slave bodies — a financial service without which the Southern economy could not have operated. (After the Civil War, Wall Street control of the south’s economy continued, in the form of control of local retail credit. This too, is well attested by historians hardly any Americans have ever read. And that oblivion is not an accident.) The spectacle of “liberals” getting their panties in a knot about Jefferson’s mulatto mistress or some statue of Robert E. Lee is a ludicrous charade, yes, but it is also a smoke-screen that conceals and prevents an awareness of the key fact, that the same interests and forces that profited off the ante-bellum slave economy are still in control of America’s economy, which they have transformed into a wage-slave rent-slave mortgage-slave plantation.

    • Shelly Lynn

      you are correct. I was a history major and so much the history books don’t tell you

      • diogenes

        Thank you. You must have read beyond what the text books say to be familiar with some of these facts. Very few people, for instance, have any idea of the CENTRALITY of Wall Street to the South’s slave economy. And that ignorance is not, of course, an accident. It’s just one more “magic bullet” from the same oligarchic pop-gun. Or should we say “Poppy” gun?

        I’m also correct about “race” being used by the servants of the consolidated wealthy who have usurped and subverted our country and government to serve their own greed — used to divide and conquer the rest of us and to enslave us with debt and their monopoly-control over our access to livelihood and shelter. Instead of fighting about statues, we need to understand this history and UNITE to put an end to their reign of murderous hereditary greed.

  • Shelly Lynn

    You are so wrong. Charlottesville and UVA both contributed to the Civil war more so than any other college town. It was the main hospital for the confederate army with over 1,000 unknown confederates buried in the Confederate graveyard at UVA. And my dad was a Vietnam vet who was forced to fight in a war just like many Civil War soldiers were. The Lee statue is not going anywhere . In a court it will be protected as a historical marker. If you don’t like it in Central VA please leave. No one is forcing you to live here.

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  • James Richard

    Where are all these statues you want? Go finance one if it means that much to you. Otherwise,…..