Every now and then, I jog past a statue of Robert E. Lee. It sits at the edge of a public park named for him in Dallas’s Turtle Creek neighborhood. It is the subject of controversy from time to time, but my thoughts have remained the same: the statue and the name should remain, not because they represent a history and heritage worth celebrating, but because they represent the history and heritage we have. It is not uplifting or inspiring, but haunting. And that is the point.
Lee’s cause is an everlasting stain on this country’s history. It is not to be romanticized, but it must be remembered. Our rejection of it does not erase its existence or change the fact that we must deal with its aftermath. What one should see in a statue of Lee is a ghost: a remainder from a past we cannot banish. It is important to remember that we live in a country built by strife and bloodshed, as well as hope and prosperity. That is the value of a Lee monument in a society that has largely rejected him: to remember he existed, remember his mistakes, and preserve that memory to avoid repeating it. Having it in a public space can be a reminder that this sordid history is still with us, no matter how we try to bury it.
All this is to say that if you find yourself defending a statue of Lee because you see him as a hero, chanting “You will not replace us” or the variant “Jews will not replace us” as a counter-argument a proposal to remove a statue of him, you have missed the point entirely.
A Movement Without Masks
A great many good people have expressed consternation over the fact that today’s white nationalists, Confederate sympathizers and neo-Nazis no longer wear hoods and conceal themselves with online anonymity but walk the streets with their faces exposed, for the world to see. I myself support this decision on their part, for the same reason I support their right to take their monosyllabic revanchism public and act out their folksy mob envy with torch-lit marches and self-parodying racist-interpretive dance in public spaces: it aids in the avoidance and identification of miscreants, lunatics, and morons.
The third camp seems to boast the largest numbers within both the Charlottesville mob and the larger alt-right movement, whose detachment from reality is encapsulated in the person of Peter Cvjetanovic, a demonstrator who was identified Friday night shrieking on the quad at the University of Virginia, bearing a tiki torch that the local Party City must have assumed was going to be used in a “Survivor”-themed frat party. Cvjetanovic had his likeness shared across the Internet and was quickly subject to public shaming. He found this experience disheartening, telling journalists: “I’m not the angry racist they see in that photo.”
One’s mode of self-expression can be a curious thing. But it’s difficult to understand how a man who professes not to be an angry racist could end up photographed angrily shouting racist things—unless one is familiar with the brackish swirl of cringe-inducing non-humor and provocative antics produced on a regular basis by the gaggle of batty culture warriors known as the alt-right, which until recently has done us the kindness of holding to its traditions of idiocy and bad taste online rather than in public.
Peter Cvjetanovic and his brethren presented themselves to the world with no masks, virtual or otherwise, and made themselves the faces of a moment of fear and turmoil. They are forever attached in our collective memory to an unspeakable act of domestic terrorism. They took their sentiments public in the real world, which is their right, and they are suffering consequences, which are entirely deserved. In the online world, the damage is virtual: ideas and words have no repercussions, and you can never be tied to real-world outcomes. Confederate and Nazi echoes can be written off as edgy and ironic, ridiculous, not real, because the past in which they occurred is distant and walled off by the screen.
In the real world, racism was and is real and its adherents have long been responsible for tremendous evil, as was the case in Charlottesville. And in the real world, the past never leaves us. Cvjetanovic and Co. are learning, far later than they should have, why there are some figures from our history we do not embrace, some aspects of our culture we choose to reject, and some ghosts that will always haunt us. They are learning it the hardest way possible: by resurrecting one of those ghosts and taking up its mantle for generations hence. It is a fate reserved for those who do not learn the lessons of history.
Lessons From Robert E. Lee
Which brings us back to Robert E. Lee and his commemorations. You will not find me among those who sing the praises of General Lee and his supposed gallantry, but the many tributes to him across this country can, in the proper context, teach us something valuable.
Let’s say we grant that Robert E. Lee was, in some respects and by the standards of his time, a decent man. The cause to which he lent his sword still indisputably represented a step back for humanity and, had it succeeded, would have gone on to perpetuate great evil in his name. The example begs the question: what could make a decent man serve a terrible cause?
This is precisely why it is important for everyday people, most of whom try to be decent as well, to remember Lee—not as a hero, but as a man who devoted himself to the wrong ideals and, whatever sort of individual he may have been, found himself on the wrong side of one of the most decisive and morally laden moments in history. Instead of tearing down the monuments that stand in his name, we should build more right next to them and remind ourselves not only of the man but also of the trail of suffering and dead his decision to fight for the Confederacy left in its wake. Accompany his statues with displays that affirm the great service his defeat did to this country, and pay tribute to the progress made possible by it and the people who overcame the challenges he left behind.
These lessons shouldn’t be confined to museums. We have to make people confront it in their daily lives. That, after all, is where the past still confronts us and where our takeaways from his life’s story have their impact. The white-nationalist mobs who see Lee as a hero of Western civilization are proof themselves that the true lesson of Lee and his legacy still needs to be taught—evidently, some of us aren’t getting it.