There is bit of controversy about the removal of statues honoring the confederacy. Is it southern heritage or an homage to slavery installed during the Reconstruction and civil rights era? Is it a slippery slope, with Maryland removing Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney’s bust because he authored the hated Dred Scott decision? He wrote some other decisions, too, in his 30 years as chief justice.
There is a sound argument that this isn’t, or at least need not be, a slippery slope. We can distinguish people who are “honored” for their acts of racism versus those who have statues for accomplishment, but who were also flawed people.
Then again, they destroyed a statue of Christopher Columbus. Genocidal rapist or “discoverer” of America, which itself is problematic colonization? And rather than leave the question to a deliberative body to decide, some guys just smashed it in the dark of night. Will our capital be located in the District of Tubman?
The problem with the sound argument against the slippery slope is that it relies on a thoughtful analysis. Mobs are singularly ill-suited to thoughtfulness. If one applies chaos theory to the past, nobody looks very good. Not slaveowners Washington and rapist Jefferson.
Some contend that it’s the people’s country, so let the people decide. Then again, the people did decide when the statues were erected in the first place, when places were named and these were the named chosen. Now there are new people, and they want to choose something else? But do they? It’s not as if the mob is taking a vote, or reflects the public at large. Does America want to eradicate the past, and if so, who and how much of it?
Perhaps the most problematic of the confederates is Robert E. Lee. Sure, he led the confederate army, but he did others things as well. He was commandant of West Point and had a barracks named after him. Should his name be removed? After the Civil War, he was president of a university in Lexington, Virginia, which has born the name Washington and Lee since 1870. Should his name be disappeared everywhere?
It’s true that the retired Confederate general played an important role in our university’s history. But if the Washington and Lee community is not more willing to critically evaluate one of our patron saints — and modify how we celebrate him — we only legitimize the “causes” of white supremacists who latch onto statues of men like Lee because they symbolize the subjugation of black people.
There are two levels of problems reflected here. The first is the problem of honoring a man who is intimately tied to a racist war. The second is whether failure to eradicate his existence makes one “complicit” in his cause. This is a belief of “white privilege,” that the failure to disavow, or do so strenuously enough, things that are deemed wrongful today means you are complicit in their evil. If you’re not against them, you’re for them.
But Robert E. Lee?
In his short tenure, Lee nearly reinvented the place. He championed the sciences, joined the Lexington Law School to the college, introduced what would become our hallmark honor system and established some of America’s first collegiate journalism and business classes, and he turned down more profitable jobs to do so. He worked to ensure that Northern and Southern students studied together and pledged to devote his “remaining energies to training young men to do their duty in life.”
But this is the same Lee who led the Confederate army against the Union to preserve the status quo of slavery in our nation’s bloodiest war. Lee is often defended as a product of his time, but at least one other Virginian, George Henry Thomas, became a notable Union general. Later, as a college president, Lee was also mostly unwilling to discipline students involved in attempted lynchings and kidnappings of black women who lived nearby.
Touring our campus, though, you wouldn’t even guess that Lee was on the losing side of the Civil War.
Most students, even those admitted to Washington and Lee, are aware of the outcome of the Civil War, fortunately, so it’s unlikely anyone would be misled.
Over the years, much of this has found its way into our culture, for better or worse. Will there never be a remake of the Dukes of Hazard? Should Al Jolson be heard to sing about a steamship?
Who decides? On what basis? And how does one stop the beloved mob once they get up a head of steam?