“This week, it is Robert E. Lee,” President Trump said in a statement today about the statue in Charlottesville that led to protests there. “Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop? George Washington was a slave owner. How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? OK good. Are we going to take down his statue? Because he was a major slave owner….You’re changing history.”
So, let’s think through the points Trump raised. I’m going to ask some questions and offer some thoughts on them, but remember, I’m not an expert. I’m an average Christian young woman who likes to promote gracious conversations on difficult topics. So let’s have at it, because I’m convinced that yelling and being angry won’t actually change anything, but engaging with ideas in a thoughtful way can and has.
Part One: What Are Statues For?
Most of the conversation about Charlottesville have focused on the violence and the hate groups, and rightly so. But a friend from college asked what I thought about the issue itself, stripped of everything that happened afterward: should Lee’s statue have been removed?
I listed Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee as my two favorite historical figures in eighth grade, mainly because even then I liked complexity. (Also possibly because I liked making people raise their eyebrows in surprise. It’s a problem.) Those two figures, the sides they represent, the conflict that follows…all very complex.
But, the thing is: statues are not complex. Statues say, “We celebrate this person and their actions.” They don’t have context, and they can’t convey nuance in a helpful dialogue. All they do is represent our values in metal and stone. That’s what we understand them to be as a culture.
I understand why people decided to remove Lee’s statue: because he gave marching orders to a group that would rather leave the Union than be told they had to free their slaves.
I see you there, Civil War buffs—yes, there are many things to consider, like economics and states’ rights and lots of fine print about motive and who shot first, but Lee and the Confederate flag are now indelibly associated with what they fought for and against, and I think that’s fair.
Part Two: Are We Changing History? If So, Is That Bad?
Trump and many others say that removing Lee’s statue is a denial of history, peer pressure by the left to be politically correct. Okay. I get that. Maybe that’s part of what’s going on, and it’s fine to dislike a culture that is easily offended.
But I think there’s a double-standard at play. Think about this: who have we decided, in America, is worthy of honor? Whose faces are on our currency, in our textbooks, mounted on plaques and busts and statues around our country?
A lot of white slaveholders…and very few men and women of color. We didn’t have to take down their statues to change history, because we never put them up.
I know that I’m now living in a time where this is the open-minded and “cool” opinion to have. If you’re skeptical, I get that. Just hear me out.
History is not objective. Never has been. We create it by what we put in, what we leave out, and the language we use, like a cinematographer creating mood and meaning through the light and angle of film shots. History changes, and when it does, that doesn’t mean it’s a shift from something inherently true to something false. It’s usually just that a different system, bias, or value is arranging and presenting the facts.
We’ve changed a lot of history, and things like Black History Month are a marginalized group trying to write important figures and events back in. In removing Lee’s statue, people are trying to stop the glorification of the Confederacy and what it was like, just like protests against Columbus Day are meant to challenge whether we should see ol’ Christopher as an explorer or exploiter. No matter what side you take, this is the natural process of recording history. You have to make value judgments along the way.
Here’s where I disagree with Trump that Washington could be next. I’m not suggesting we take Washington off the quarter, partly because his public achievements deserve celebration…and partly because we still associate him with those things and not the slaves he kept. To most of us, Washington means freedom and revolution and the Constitution. I think it’s important to note in books and classes that his rhetoric didn’t line up with his actions, but to us, Washington still stands for the ideals of justice and equality.
In contrast, Lee had solid personal character, but his public actions, the ones he’s most known for, aren’t worth celebrating, and he is deeply associated with oppression and evil.
In a simplistic way, Trump’s off-hand question, “What do you think of Thomas Jefferson?” is actually relevant to whether or not we should use Jefferson as a symbol of our country. When it comes to memorials and other symbols, perception matters. If it’s not the only thing, it’s the main thing—what most people think of when they see a symbol determines its meaning.* That’s why the cross no longer means “an instrument of Roman torture” but “a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ” for example.
Part Three: Who Decides to Take Down Statues?
If representatives of a city or state decide, by listening to their constituents, that they want to make a value statement by replacing Lee Park with Emancipation Park, then that’s the exercise of democracy. If another group wants to peacefully protest, that’s also democracy. What actually happened at the protest was not democracy—it was hate and lawlessness. Mobs yanking down or demolishing Confederate monuments and statues are also examples of lawlessness. Both are examples of the occasional price sinful people demand from America for allowing freedom of expression and assembly.
But beyond the technical, tricky questions: “Emancipation.” That’s what the park in Charlottesville is now called. I don’t care what party you claim or who you voted for…isn’t that beautiful? That what we choose to celebrate is a moment of turning from evil and toward justice and freedom?
It was a long turning. Actually, it’s not over yet. Which is why what we celebrate and memorialize matters so much. That’s what will take the next generation from where we’ve been to where we’re going.
I love General Lee. His story is beautiful to me because it is hard, and I will memorialize him with my words, here and other places, because he was a good man facing an impossible choice, and because I can’t say with certainty what I would have done in his place.
But he chose the wrong side. No, the Civil War and its causes were not simple, and most of the North was just as racist as their brothers to the south. Still, when we evaluate the relative good or bad of large groups, we have to make a judgment somewhere. Based on my reading through the prophets and the way God judges the nations, including his own chosen people, I think the degree that they move toward justice and righteousness seems like a good criteria, and by defending the institution of slavery, the Confederacy did not do that.
Our actions have consequences. Lee, deciding whether to accept command of the Confederate army when he felt slavery was “a moral and political evil” and secession “anarchy,” understood that—felt that—more than most of us ever will. History’s judgment of Lee will go in and out, up and down, imperfectly deciding what to say about him. We’re trying to create meaning, trying to aim our country in the right direction, trying to say true things to our children.
Maybe Charlottesville got it wrong, but I don’t think so.
In the end, it’s not possible to separate the removal of Lee’s statue from the KKK and violence that followed. Academically, they’re two separate questions. Racism and hatred are pure evil and should always be denounced and decried, whereas I could make a case either way for whether Lee should continue to preside over a park named after him.
But they’re not entirely separate in practice. Symbols have deep emotional meaning and often lead to actions.
Simple things often get accused of being oversimplification, but I’m going to risk it here.
When asked what you think about the public display of symbols of the Confederacy, think about this: what do you want to celebrate?
*Stuffy Sociological Footnote for the Dedicated Reader: Another example: people were furious when an image floated around the Internet showing a can with “Share a Coke with ISIS.” Turns out, that can was available in Egypt the year before the terrorist group became well known, where Isis is a common female name. In Egypt, Isis meant one thing. In America, ISIS meant another. It takes time and distance for us to get rid of those associations. If America lasts another few centuries, maybe then racism will be disassociated from Lee. Maybe. But I don’t think so, because the association has nowhere else to go. We are drawn towards symbols and representative figureheads as a society, whether it’s team logos and mascots or the flag and the president. Slavery was such a defining event that it has to be symbolized somehow. The Confederate flag and leaders have absorbed that association, just like the swastika and Hitler absorbed theirs. It’s arguable that Hitler deserved it more, but the effect is still the same.