Understanding Robert E. Lee Supporters

Those of us who consider it disgraceful to have a giant statue of Robert E. Lee on his horse in a park in the middle of Charlottesville, and another of Stonewall Jackson for that matter, should try to understand those who think removing one of these statues is an outrage.

I don’t claim to understand them, and certainly don’t suggest they all think alike. But there are certain recurring themes if you listen to or read the words of those who think Lee should stay. They’re worth listening to. They’re human. They mean well. They’re not crazy.

First, let’s set aside the arguments we’re not trying to understand.

Some of the arguments being passed around are not central to this attempt at understanding the other side. For example, the argument that moving the statue costs money, is not what I’m interested in here. I don’t think cost concerns are driving most of the support for the statue. If we all agreed that removing the statue was important, we would find the money. Simply donating the statue to a museum or to some city where Lee actually lived would quite possibly produce a new owner willing to pay for the transport. Heck, donate it to the Trump Winery and they’d probably pick it up by next Thursday.[1]

True, if the statue is simply moved to a different Charlottesville park, Charlottesville will have to pay, and that money could have gone to creating a new park with monuments to peace and civil rights, etc. Perhaps there are  people for whom this really is the central argument. Perhaps they are also consistent in their frugality and put up the same struggle against billion dollar highways and trillion dollar militaries. Perhaps the announcements of how much good could be done for the poor with the money that could be spent to move a statue are being made by some people with a history of caring about the poor. We’ll save trying to understand them for another time.

Also tangential here is the argument that removing a statue erases history. Surely few of these history fanatics protested when the U.S. military tore down the statue of Saddam Hussein. Wasn’t he part of Iraqi history? Hadn’t the CIA meant well and gone to great efforts in helping to put him in power? Hadn’t a company in Virginia provided him with important materials for making chemical weapons? Good or bad, history shouldn’t be torn down and erased!

Actually, nobody’s saying that. Nobody’s valuing any and all history. Few are admitting that ugly parts of history are history at all. People are valuing a particular bit of history. The question is: why? Surely history supporters don’t believe that the 99.9% of Charlottesville history not represented in monumental statuary has been erased. Why must this bit of history be monumental?

There may be those whose historical concern is simply for the past 90 years or so of the statue being there in the park. Its existence there is the history they are concerned about, perhaps. Perhaps they don’t want it changed simply because that’s the way it’s been. I have some sympathy for that perspective, but it has to be applied selectively. Should we keep a half-built frame of a hotel on the downtown mall because my kids have never known anything else? Was history destroyed by creating the downtown mall in the first place? What I’m interested in trying to understand is not why people want nothing to change. Nobody wants nothing to change. Rather, I want to understand why they don’t want this particular thing to change.

Here’s what I think we should try to understand.

Supporters of the Lee statue whom I’ve spoken with or read or been yelled at by think of themselves as “white.” This is important to them. They belong to the white race or the white ethnicity or the white group of people. They don’t — or at least some of them don’t — think of this as a cruel thing. They see many other groups of people engaged in what some 40 years ago was intentionally described by its participants as “identity politics.” They see Black History Month and wonder why they cannot have a White History Month. They see affirmative action. They read about calls for reparations. They believe that if other groups are going to identify themselves by superficial visible features, they ought to be allowed to do so too.

On Thursday Jason Kessler, a blogger seeking to remove City Councilman Wes Bellamy from office, described the Robert E. Lee statue as being “of ethnic significance to southern whites.” No doubt, he thinks, and no doubt he’s right, that if there were a statue in Charlottesville of a non-white person or a member of some historically oppressed minority group, a proposal to remove it would be met with cries of outrage at the violation of something of value to a particular group — any group other than “whites.”

One might ask Mr. Kessler to consider the significance of the fact that there actually are no statues of non-white people in Charlottesville, unless you count Sacagawea kneeling like a dog beside Lewis and Clark. Or you might ask how his condemnations of political correctness fit with his denunciation of Wes Bellamy for old comments hateful toward gays and women. But what I’m asking you to ask, instead, is whether you can sense where Kessler or the people who read his blog may be coming from.

They denounce “the double standards” that they perceive all around them. Whether you think those standards don’t exist, or think they’re justified, it is clear that a lot of people do think they exist and are convinced they are not justified.

One of my professors when I was at UVA many years ago penned some thoughts that were widely cited a couple of months ago as having been a prediction of Donald Trump. This professor, Richard Rorty, asked why struggling white people seemed to be the one group liberal academics didn’t care about. Why is there no trailer park studies department, he asked. Everyone thought that was funny, then and now. But an anything else studies department — any race, ethnicity, or other identity, except white — is very serious and solemn. Surely ending bigotry of all sorts is a good thing, he seemed to say, but meanwhile a handful of billionaires are gathering up most of the wealth of this country and the world, while most everybody else is struggling, and somehow it’s acceptable to make fun of accents or teeth as long as it’s white people you’re mocking. So long as liberals focus on identity politics to the exclusion of policies that benefit everyone, the door will be open to a white supremacist strongman offering solutions, credible or otherwise. Thus opined Rorty long ago.

Kessler may see a bit more injustice out there than actually exists. He thinks that radical Islamic, mentally disturbed U.S. veterans are neglected until they engage in shooting sprees because of fear of political correctness. I highly doubt it. I’ve never heard of many mentally disturbed veterans who weren’t neglected. A tiny percentage have any interest in radical Islam, and it is exclusively those, who seem to end up on Kessler’s blog. But his point seems to be that there are non-white people who do horrible things, and that it is frowned on to make cruel generalizations about them — in a way that it is not always frowned on to make cruel generalizations about white people.

You can point to counter-trends. Numerous studies that show up only in the social media feeds of people who’ve read other similar studies have found that the U.S. media much prefers to cover killings by Muslims of whites than killings of Muslims by whites, and that the term “terrorist” is almost exclusively reserved for Muslims. But those are not the trends that some people are paying attention to. Instead they’re noticing that critiques of racism are permitted to make generalizations about white people, that stand-up comedians are permitted to crack jokes about white people, and that identifying as a white person can put you into a historical storyline as part of the tribe that created, not only lots of fun and useful technology, but also environmental and military destruction and oppression on a brand new scale.

Once you’re looking at the world this way, and your news sources are too, and your friends are too, you’re likely to hear about things that show up on Kessler’s blog that none of my acquaintances have ever heard of, such as the idea that U.S. colleges are generally teaching and promoting something called “white genocide.” Believers in white genocide have found a single professor who claimed to support it and then claimed he was joking. I don’t claim to know the truth of that matter and don’t consider it acceptable as a joke or otherwise. But the guy wouldn’t have had to claim he was joking if it was accepted standard practice. Nonetheless, if you believed your identity was tied up with the white race, and you believed people were trying to destroy it, you might have a negative reaction to giving Robert E. Lee the boot, I think, whether or not you considered black people inferior or favored slavery or thought wars were justifiable or anything of the sort.

Here’s how Kessler thinks white people are treated, in his own words:

“SJWs [apparently this stands for “social justice warriors”] always say that all white people have ‘privilege’, a magical and immaterial substance that belittles our hardships and dismisses all of our achievements. Everything we’ve ever achieved is portrayed as just a byproduct of our skin color. Yet, somehow with all this ‘privilege’ it is white America that is suffering the most from epidemic levels of depression, prescription drug abuse, heroin abuse and suicide. It is white Americans whose birthrates are precipitously declining while the hispanic population skyrockets due to illegal immigration. By comparison blacks have a higher rate of happiness. They are taught to be confident. All of the schoolbooks, entertainment and revisionist history portray them as plucky underdogs who earn everything over enormous obstacles. The whites are the only ones who are inherently evil and racist. Our great societies, inventions and military achievements are portrayed as ill-gotten and undeservedly won on the backs of others. With so much negative propaganda twisting their minds no wonder white people have so little ethnic identity, so much self-hatred and are so willing lay down and take it when anti-white bullies like Al Sharpton or Wes Bellamy want to shake them down.”

So, when people in Lee Park tell me that a statue of a soldier on a horse fighting a war on the side of slavery and put there in the 1920s in a whites-only park is not racist and not pro-war, what they are saying, I think, is that they themselves are not racist or pro-war, that those are not their motivations, that they have something else in mind, such as sticking up for the mistreated white ethnicity. What they mean by “defend history” is not so much “ignore the realities of war” or “forget what the Civil War was started over” but rather “defend this symbol of white people because we’re people too, we count too, we ought to get some damn respect once in a while just like People of Color and other glorified groups that beat the odds and get credit for ordinary lives as if they were heroes.”



All right. That’s my limited attempt to begin to understand supporters of the Lee statue, or at least one aspect of their support. Some have declared that taking down any war statue insults all veterans. Some are in fact quite openly racist. Some see the statue of a guy engaged in fighting against the United States as a matter of sacred U.S. patriotism. There are as many combinations of motivations as there are people supporting the statue. My point in looking a bit into one of their motivations is that it is understandable. Nobody likes unfairness. Nobody likes double standards. Nobody likes disrespect. Perhaps politicians feel that way too, or perhaps they just exploit others who do, or perhaps a little of both. But we should continue trying to understand what people we disagree with care about, and to let them know that we understand it, or that we’re trying to.

Then, and only then, can we ask them to try to understand us. And only then can we properly explain ourselves, through grasping who it is they currently think we are. I don’t fully grasp this, I admit. I’m not much of a Marxist and am unsure why Kessler constantly refers to opponents of the statue as Marxists. Certainly Marx was a Union partisan, but nobody’s asking for a General Grant statue, not that I’ve heard. It seems to me that a lot of what Kessler means by “Marxist” is “un-American,” bitterly opposed to the U.S. Constitution, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington and all that is sacred.

But which parts? If I applaud the separation of church and state, the limited executive, the power of impeachment, the popular vote, and limited federal power, but am not a fan of the Supreme Court, the Senate, slavery, winner-take-all elections without ranked choice voting, or the lack of protections for the environment, am I a Marxist or not? I suspect it comes down to this: am I labeling the Founders as fundamentally evil or basically good? In fact, I’m not doing either of those things, and I’m not doing either of them for the white race either. I can try to explain.

When I joined in a chant of “White supremacy’s got to go” recently in Lee Park, a white man demanded of me: “Well, what are you?” To him I looked white. But I identify as human. That doesn’t mean that I pretend to live in a post-racial world where I neither suffer the lack of affirmative action nor benefit from the very real privileges of looking “white” and having had parents and grandparents who benefitted from college funding and bank loans and all kinds of government programs that were denied to non-whites. Rather, it means that I think of myself as a fellow member in the group called humans. That’s the group I root for. That’s the group I hope survives the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the warming of the climate. That’s the group I want to see overcome hunger and disease and all forms of suffering and inconvenience. And it includes every single person who calls themselves white and every single person who does not.

So, I don’t feel the white guilt that Kessler thinks people are trying to impose on him. I don’t feel it because I don’t identify with George Washington any more than I identify with the men and women he enslaved or the soldiers he whipped or the deserters he killed or the native people he slaughtered. I don’t identify with him any less than with those other people either. I don’t deny all of his merits because of all of his faults, either.

On the other hand, I don’t get to feel white pride. I feel human guilt and pride as a human, and that includes a great deal. “I am large,” wrote Walt Whitman, as much a Charlottesville resident and influence as Robert E. Lee. “I contain multitudes.”

If someone were to put up a monument in Charlottesville that white people found offensive, I would object vigorously to that monument, because white people are people, like any other people. I would demand that that monument be taken down.

Instead, we happen to have a monument that many of us humans, and people who profess other identities, including African American, find offensive. So, I object vigorously to this monument. We should not engage in what many perceive as hurtful hate-speech because others deem it to be of “ethnic significance.” Pain outweighs moderate appreciation, not because of who feels is, but because it is more powerful.

If someone were to make a monument of some old hateful tweet from Wes Bellamy — and my understanding is that he would be the last to suggest such a thing — it wouldn’t matter how many people thought it was nice. It would matter how many people thought it was painfully cruel.

A statue that symbolizes racism and war to a great many of us has an enormously negative value. To respond that it has “ethnic significance to southern whites” as if it were a traditional soup recipe misses the point.

The United States has a very divisive history, dating perhaps from Mr. Jefferson’s two-party system, through the Civil War, and right on into identity politics. While Kessler claims African Americans are happier, and that Latinos are not happier but somehow winning through immigration, no U.S. groups record the levels of happiness found in Scandinavia, where, Marxistly or otherwise, there is no affirmative action, no reparations, no targeted benefits, and no labor unions out for the interests of their members alone, but rather public programs that benefit everyone equally and thus gain widespread support. When college and healthcare and retirement are free for everyone, few resent them or the taxes paid to receive them. When taxes fund wars and billionaires and some piddly handouts to particular groups, even the biggest fans of wars and billionaires will tend to view taxes as the primary enemy. If Marx ever figured that out, I’m unaware of it.

I’m willing to concede that supporters of the statue are not all pushing racism or war. But are they willing to try to understand the perspective of those whose parents recall being kept out of Lee Park because they were not white, or to consider the viewpoint of those who understand the war to have been fought for the expansion of slavery, or to take into account what many of us feel heroic war statues do for the promotion of yet more wars?

If seeing black people praised in a movie like Hidden Figures is difficult for someone who identifies as white, what does being excluded from a park for being black feel like? What does losing your arm feel like? What does losing half your town and all your loved ones feel like?

The question of whether the Washington Redskins should be renamed is not a question of whether the quarterback is a jerk or the team has a glorious history, but whether the name offends millions of us, as it does. The question of whether to send General Lee off on the horse he never rode in on is not a question about the people whom the statue doesn’t deeply disturb, but about all of us whom it does deeply disturb.

As someone who objects as much to the war element of the statue as to the race question, and who objects to the dominance of war monuments, to the virtual exclusion of anything else, on the Charlottesville landscape, I think we all have to try to imagine the viewpoint of some other people as well. Ninety-six percent of humanity lives outside the United States. Have we asked Charlottesville’s Sister Cities what they think of Charlottesville’s war statues?

The United States dominates the war business, the sale of weapons to other nations, the sale of weapons to poor nations, the sale of weapons to the Middle East, the deployment of troops abroad, spending on its own military, and the number of wars engaged in. It is not a secret in much of the world that the United States is (as Martin Luther King Jr. put it) the greatest purveyor of violence on earth. The United States has the most widespread imperial presence, has been the most prolific over-thrower of governments, and from 1945 to 2017 has been the killer of the most people through war. If we were to ask people in the Philippines or Korea or Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq or Haiti or Yemen or Libya or so many other countries whether they think U.S. cities should have more or fewer war monuments, what do we think they would say? Is it none of their business? Perhaps, but typically they are bombed in the name of something called democracy.


[1] Of course, we might end up footing the bill through federal or state instead of local taxes, if the Trump Winery used the National Guard to move the thing, but according to the Charlottesville Police that wouldn’t bother us as much — why else explain to us that having a mine-resistant armored vehicle is OK because it was “free”?

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  • NOS

    Albert Pike: 33rd degree mason (Morals and Dogmas) and founder of the KKK has a statue on Capitol Hill!!!!

    McCain and colleagues don’t understand why some people hate the statue of Albert Pike near the foot of Capitol Hill either!

    Despite the fact that the KKK is one of the most rightfully vilified
    organizations in the world, there is a statue in Washington DC dedicated
    to Albert Pike. The statue stands on a pedestal near the foot of
    Capitol Hill, between the Department of Labor building and the Municipal
    Building, between 3rd and 4th Streets, on D Street, NW.

    Pike was also an affluent Freemason, and many Freemasons have
    vehemently denied that Pike had anything to do with the KKK. However,
    research published by Walter L. Fleming in 1905 shows definitively that
    Pike was in fact the original founder of the KKK and a 33rd degree Mason.

  • Russell Myers

    Others must have mentioned this before, but George Washington owned over 300 slaves and quite a number of other presidents owned them as well. Lincoln made clear statements that indicated he regarded whites as superior.

    I believe that the genocide against the Indians and slavery
    are the original sins of this country, and I see no reason to honor
    those who supported, condoned, or participated in either.

    So, why shouldn’t ALL their statues be removed? Why not change the name of the US capital and that of the state of Washington and rename all schools, cities, etc., that are named in honor of slaveholding presidents? Why not be consistent? I would support that.

    But, of course, it will never happen. It is much easier, especially on the part of northerners (I am one), to single out figures from the Confederacy as the villains–after all, they lost the war. Hypocrisy.

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  • artguerrilla

    dog almighty, swan song, you are fucking boor…
    on a priority list of shit wrong in the country, stupid lee’s statue is approximately 342, 323, 838 th on the list… why are you starting at the bottom of the list ? ? ? *how* many columns have you wasted on this nothingburger ? ? ? get the fuck over yourself and your butthurt offense AT EVERYTHING…
    I am so sick of snowflakes, I want them all to melt…

  • sionnach liath

    What a lot of claptrap. The issue with Lee was state’s rights plain and simple. Whatever the motives of the supporters of the statue when it was put up in the 1920s I can’t say. But for Lee, his decision to join the South was a matter of state’s rights. That was still the philosophy at UVA when I matriculated there in the 1950s. I am so terribly disappointed to see the swamp of liberal despond it has become since then. By the way, if my recollection is correct – and I do not have available the source of the cite – Lee freed his family slaves, but Grant did not. I also note that Lincoln has been quoted that if he could have saved the union without freeing the slaves, he would not have acted to eliminate slavery.

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  • David, quit being a whiny little bitch. Is this all you have to spend all your time on? The SJW schtick is so Obama era.

  • cityspeak

    This was an insightful article. I also agree that we should try to understand all points of views as it also helps define and understand our own beliefs and actions better.
    I also think that by ignoring the “others views” we keep finding ourselves bewildered by outcomes (Brexit, Trump’s win, etc.)

    Think our “saving Vietnam from the evil Chinese Communist” while the Vietnamese saw us as another colonizer and scoffed at fighting the Chinese as in their history they had been fighting the Chinese for hundreds of years.

    Knowing the other side “has many benefits” and ignoring the opposition has many dangers.

  • elmysterio

    a statue of a soldier on a horse fighting a war on the side of slavery

    The idea that the American civil war was a war about abolishing slavery is revisionist history. It was a war of secession, not a civil war as the South was not trying to control Washington, but rather, secede from the union. As for the matter of slavery, all of Lincoln’s statements prove that he was neither for the blacks nor against slavery. Yet he has been turned into a civil rights hero, and a war of northern aggression, whose purpose Lincoln stated over and over was “to preserve the union” (the empire), has been converted into a war to free the slaves.

    As for the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln said it was “a practical war measure” that would help in defeating the South and would convince Europe, which was considering recognizing the Confederacy, that Washington was motivated by “something more than ambition.” The proclamation only freed slaves in the Confederacy, not in the Union. As Lincoln’s Secretary of State put it: “we emancipated slaves where we cannot reach them and hold them in bondage where we can set them free.”

    A nonsensical myth has been created that Southerners made blacks into slaves because Southerners are racist. The fact of the matter is that slaves were brought to the new world as a labor force for large scale agriculture. The first slaves were whites sentenced to slavery under European penal codes. Encyclopedia Virginia reports that “convict laborers could be purchased for a lower price than indentured white or enslaved African laborers, and because they already existed outside society’s rules, they could be more easily exploited.”

    White slavery also took the form of indentured servants in which whites served under contract as slaves for a limited time. Native Indians were enslaved. But whites and native Indians proved to be unsatisfactory labor forces for large scale agriculture. The whites had no resistance to malaria and yellow fever. It was discovered that some Africans did, and Africans were also accustomed to hot climates. Favored by superior survivability, Africans became the labor force of choice.

    Slaves were more prominent in the Southern colonies than in the north, because the land in the South was more suitable for large scale agriculture. By the time of the American Revolution, the South was specialized in agriculture, and slavery was an inherited institution that long pre-dated both the United States and the Confederate States of America. The percentage of slave owners in the population was very small, because slavery was associated with large land holdings that produced export crops.

    The motive behind slavery was to have a labor force in order to exploit the land. Those with large land holdings wanted labor and did not care about its color. Trial and error revealed that some Africans had superior survivability to malaria, and thus Africans became the labor force of choice. There was no free labor market. The expanding frontier offered poor whites land of their own, which they preferred to wages as agricultural workers.

    A racist explanation of slavery and the Confederacy satisfies some agendas, but it is ahistorical.

    See Here

    • diogenes

      Southerners didn’t make negroes slaves. The slave trade was based in New England, principally Massachusetts & Connecticut, and in Manhattan. And ALL the business of the South, including mortgages on slaves, cotton & other exports, and imports of staple goods, were in the total control of Wall Street bankers by 1810.

      Today slavery in America is almost universal for the 99% and takes of the form, especially of shelter-slavery (whether mortgage slavery or rent-serfdom) and wage slavery, where human labor is turned into a market commodity in a market controlled by the 1% and wages are progressively reduced by inflation and rises prices of necessities — notably shelter and food. Whether this form of slavery is worse than “Southern” chattel slavery is not worth discussion. Like chattel slavery, it needs to be abolished. But it won’t be until the slaves realize their slavery.

    • Army of Addicts

      Yes, but what satisfies your agenda? lol

      • elmysterio

        My agenda is one of “historical accuracy”… as best as one can anyways.

  • MyWikiDisQus

    Dear SJW fan boys, you’re still slaves. The title of “human chattel” simply transferred from the plantation owners to the government in Washington, DC. Enjoy the unearned entitlements while they last.

  • Tom Paine

    The South had a right to secede, the powers of the Union were on loan from the states Lee was one of the best generals in history and defender of real and legitimate states rights. Statue is totally legit a great man in US history.
    Please note my argument is NOT race based.

    • No. I respect your opinion but you are wrong! The Southern states did not have a legal right to secede. That was the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Texas v. White. Chief Justice Salmon Chase wrote that opinion on behalf of the U.S. Supreme Court and determined that the Union is “complete, perpetual, indissoluble and final.” Indissoluble means inseparable. Perpetual – that means forever. Each state forfeits their right to be an independent sovereign nation when they choose to be ratified as states with the USA. Finally, the court concluded that a state could not secede “except through revolution or through consent of the states.”

      So, those are the only two ways a state can secede – by revolution or by “consent of the states.” If done by consent of the states, “Revolution” as Justice Saloman noted is an illegal and unconstitutional means for a state to secede (if you don’t believe me just try to mount an armed revolt against the USA and you will find that it will most likely earn you a lengthy prison sentence). The only way to legally secede from the Union is to establish a Constitutional Convention pursuant to Article V of the Constitution. It requires 2/3 of the states to establish a Constitutional Convention and during the Convention 3/4 of the states to approve any amendments or changes to the Constitution desired by the requisite majority of states. Please note that an Article V Convention has never been established at any time in history because the super majorities required to both convene a Convention and approve the Convention’s agenda are too high a hurdle to overcome,

      Therefore, the secession of the Southern states starting in 1860 was unlawful because the seceding states did not get the consent of a two-thirds majority of states to establish an Article V Constitutional Convention.

      Similarly, although, the CalExit movement has recently been gaining popularity in California it is, for all practical purposes, impossible for California to secede by any lawful means for the same reason why the Southern states’ attempt at secession was illegal – there is no way California could achieve consent from 38 states which is the requisite number of state votes that would be needed in favor of California’s secession.

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  • animalogic

    A very poor article. All about Lee, yet no mention of the man or the General. Not an expert, but I believe he was a great general (by any standard) & an honourable man. But, those issues seem to be of no account to this writer when weighing in the balance Lee’s right – or not – to public memory.

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  • AU student body

    you got a mighty purty mouth boy……
    ever been out boatin ‘n bow huntin with Burt Reynolds ?

  • Silverado

    Lincoln sacrificed how many hundreds of thousands of Americans to supposedly end slavery while not one other country in the entire world launched a civil war nor did they kill the number Lincoln did to end slavery? He was war criminal who would have rightly been hung as such had the South won that war. It was about the consolidation of Big govt and not one thing to do with ending slavery that the civil war was fought and Lincoln waged. Sherman’s burning of Atlanta and many other southern towns and cities comes immediately to mind. Does that sound like something some kind of “war hero” would do and in our own country against other Americans no less?? Or is that the sign of a war criminal? Lincoln would have been right at home with today’s criminal and warmongering neocons run and controlled by crooked Hillary Clinton who are almost as detestable as Lincoln is/was. Especially for those that know the real history of the civil war, which if you went to school in the modern age of say right before WWII to present day, they didn’t bother teaching you and causally omitted all mention of it from the curriculum. And YOU thought the civil war was about ending slavery…

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