creative commons license
The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia
Source: creative commons license

With violence erupting in the streets of Charlottesville this weekend, one important fact is indisputable: the vast majority of protesters trying to save the statue of Robert E. Lee are not history buffs, but white supremacists. Converging on the statue carrying shields and waving Confederate flags, the marchers chanted phrases like, “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us,” and other neo-Nazi slogans, according to the New York Times.

If there was ever any doubt about the psychological significance of Confederate monuments—or, for that matter, public memorials in general—the events in Charlottesville make it clear. Statistically, many of those so vehemently opposed to removal of the Lee statue probably lack even rudimentary knowledge of Civil War history. (Half Americans questioned, for example, don’t even know when the war took place, and less than one in five understand what the Emancipation Proclamation did.) Nevertheless, because of conflict over removal of the statue, one person is dead and at least 34 are wounded.

Symbols, and public displays in particular, can have enormous significance, because ideas represented by public displays are presumptively valid. That is, if the government maintains a monument to something or someone, the memorial in question must stand for an idea that deserves recognition, a concept that at some level is acceptable or even righteous. This is why public parks in the United States aren't graced with statues of Mussolini or Hitler, nor will you find busts of Stalin or Mao outside our courthouses.

For well over a century, however, symbols of the Confederacy have been prominent throughout the American South, from rebel flags to statues of Lee, Jefferson Davis, and others. There are several reasons for this, but perhaps most significant is the fact that for many years the federal government made no effort to prevent it, so southern communities were allowed to glorify the lost cause of the Confederacy as they wished. In fact, after 1877, when federal troops were removed from the South in a political bargain that launched the Jim Crow era, white supremacists were given unfettered control in the South.

It would have been understandable, of course, if southern communities had merely erected monuments to acknowledge the names of the thousands of young men who had fought and died for the Confederacy, but many went much further, building monuments and statues honoring Confederate leaders. Thus, for well over a century, Lee, Davis and others have been portrayed not as traitors, but heroes, while Confederate flags and monuments honoring the leaders of the rebellion have been defended as acknowledging "heritage.”

Today, however, it’s clear what those displays symbolize. White supremacists march to defend the statue of Lee in Charlottesville because it represents official public validation of the racism that they espouse. Its removal would be a drastic blow to their psyches and the unseemly views that they hold dear, for it would finally concede to the world that the fundamental idea that Lee defended—racial superiority—has at last been rejected even in the state that he called home. (Predictably, some will claim that Lee and the Confederacy fought for states' rights, not slavery, but this is a shallow assertion. Not even the marchers in Charlottesville claim to be motivated by concern for states' rights.) 

If nothing else, the events in Charlottesville highlight the fact that there is increased awareness in contemporary America that memorials glorifying the Confederacy are indefensible. Beyond that, however, the emotion-driven violence should give us pause to consider the importance of thinking about how public displays can not only unite us, but divide us as well. 

This is why, for example, attempts to erect Ten Commandments monuments should be seen as very much political, not harmless attempts to acknowledge America's "religious heritage" as defenders claim. (Sound familiar?) Most of us wouldn't think twice about a Ten Commandments display at a church, but a Decalogue on public property conveys a different message entirely, a sense of psychological and political validation for those who happen to see the Commandments as representing their religious views. Government endorsement of the Decalogue allows them to see their religious views as having special cultural status. Implicit in this, of course, is the conclusion that other religious beliefs hold second-class status.

To deny the psychological and political importance of public displays is to overlook a vital aspect of life in our complex, pluralistic modern society. When the government erects or maintains a monument, it implicitly endorses the ideas behind it. As such, to avoid division and conflict, it would be wise to carefully consider governmental display of any symbols. Works of art and other visual representations have their place, but in governmental venues they should be used with caution. Restraint not only avoids conflict, it also encourages citizens to shape their opinions based on rational and critical thinking instead of emotion. 

Follow David Niose on Twitter: @ahadave

Photo by Cville dog, creative commons license

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