I was accosted at the office this week by one of my wife’s employees. “Hank,” as I’ll call him, is a sixty-something good ol’ boy with a mane of white hair and a shock of moustache that, in older times, might have earned him the honorific title “Colonel.” I could see he had his dander up.
“What do you think about everything going on down there in Charlottesville?” he asked. The besieged city was just an hour and ten minutes away, so events felt close to home.
I could tell Hank already knew the answer he wanted to hear, but I instead said, “Well, there’s no easy answer—”
“Leave them alone!” he bellowed, cutting me off. “That’s the easy answer. There’d never have been any protests down there in the first place if the city council hadn’t decided to take those monuments down. Just leave them alone! Everything would be fine!”
To Hank, there was no “other side” to the story, plain and simple. The reasons why the council wanted to move the monuments in the first place didn’t matter. Local control of the city’s own monuments didn’t matter. The symbolic meanings of the statue didn’t matter—other than the meaning Hank, as a native son of Virginia, understood and embraced.
This has, unfortunately, been the tenor of much of the discussion we’ve seen about Confederate monuments over the past week: lots of exclamation points, lots of CAPITAL LETTERS, lots of shouting, lots of 140-character zings on Twitter and Facebook (and a lot of corresponding “unfriending”). Misinformation and disinformation muddy the waters, and lack of context and historical literacy cloud the air.
As an alternative, I want to call your attention to the most recent issue of Civil War Times. The cover story, which now seems prescient in its urgency, addresses the topic of Confederate monumentation brilliantly. Fifteen historians offer their thoughts on the topic, which combine to create a really thought-provoking conversation. It’s a worthwhile read, and I highly encourage you to check it out.
Over the past few months—and especially over the last few days—we’ve received a dozens of emails here at Emerging Civil War about that same topic. “Why have not folks like you stepped forward in a positive and articulate manner to address these issues of Civil War historical memorials, that have been part and parcel of such history almost since the end of the War?” one reader asked last month as a typical example.
But that same writer illustrated the exact reason why we’ve not really touched on the topic. His email used the term “professional leftist wackos” to refer to people who advocate monument removal and/or relocation.
In other words, the name-calling started before a conversation could even begin.
That’s no context for any kind of meaningful conversation.
The vitriol comes from both extremes, too. The “Left” and “Right” toss bombs back and forth at each other with equal vigor. I, personally, have been called everything from a “libtard” to a “right-wing nutjob sympathizer.” I’m one of the few people on this blog who has written about the relationship between Confederate heritage and race (see here, here, here, and here, for example), and I think I tend to walk a pretty middle path, and yet both sides have accused me of being in the other camp.
It’s little wonder that most historians I know don’t want to walk any path in that conversation. It can be a road to nowhere. “It’s lose-lose,” one colleague said. No one wants the headaches.
But as the national discussion has erupted first into violence and then into tragedy, many of us have felt a professional obligation to speak up even if the conversation proves to be difficult. The extremes have been controlling the discourse, shouting in shrill, angry voices that shut-down dialogue because they don’t like to listen to points of view they disagree with—which is too bad, because there are meaningful, productive conversations to be had about history and heritage and our long, complicated relationship with race, and there’s a large percentage of the population in the middle of the two extremes interested in having those conversations.
I applaud Civil War Times for tackling the conversation head on, with particular kudos to editor Dana Shoaf for his leadership. We’ll be hearing more from Dana on this very topic here at ECW in the following days.
I also want to call attention to the work of historian Sean Michael Chick, situated in the heart of New Orleans, one of the hottest beds of monument controversy lately. Sean has been using these months of controversy to move the conversation forward in a constructive way. Take a look at his work at New Orleans Defender.
But I think a forum like Emerging Civil War is particularly suited to these sorts of complex, wide-ranging discussions because we have space and we have immediacy. Most importantly, we have some fantastic historians who have a wide variety of opinions. “Remember,” one of my colleagues reminded me, “not all of us support their removal and not all of us think they should have been allowed to be put up in the first place.”
There is a lot to be learned from a discussion that reflects such wide-ranging opinions.
Over the next few days, several of my colleagues and I will offer our thoughts on current events. I have asked them to frame their thoughts around the following question:
As the conversation about Confederate monuments continues, what bit of insight would you like to share that might better illuminate the discussion?
The thoughts we’ll offer are expressly our own as individual historians and do not represent the views of anybody’s employers, nor do they represent ECW’s, which is serving as a forum for this discussion in the spirit of its educational mission. The nature of ECW’s collaborative environment prohibits an official stand precisely because of our diverse individual opinions.
As you read the varying perspectives, please be respectful with any responses you might offer, especially if you disagree. We are trying to promote civil dialogue, which has been hard to come by during much of this week. Please do not add to the problem.
Follow us here at Emerging Civil War throughout the day and throughout the weekend for more from some of my colleagues as we try to offer our on this this monumental discussion.