David Swanson: Understanding Robert E. Lee supporters
By David Swanson
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.
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.”
Understanding us, too
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.
 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”?