By Brett Yates
I’m aware that nearly everyone is probably tired of hearing about Confederate statues by now. But before I finally move on from the Unite the Right fallout and restore this column to its regularly scheduled programming, I want—for one very particular reason—to go back to Trump’s Charlottesville response last month, when he reported that he was crushed “to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments” and wailed that “the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!”
Naturally, I’m on the side of taking down the Confederate memorials, for reasons that should be too obvious to necessitate explanation. Like Trump’s earlier statement, in which he blamed “many sides” for the violence in Charlottesville, his later tweet was understood as a subtle thumbs-up to the segment of his base comprised of genocidal maniacs: though he couldn’t endorse their racism directly, the equivocal and multidirectional nature of his condemnation reassured his worst supporters that he still stood on their side of the culture war. This is to say that his professed love of Civil War statuary—an artistic, apolitical appreciation—was not taken to be in earnest. Liberal or conservative, no one really believed that Trump, that aficionado of private property, suddenly was concerned about the modest public spaces of the South.
Yet even if Trump’s concerns were voiced in bad faith, do they deserve some genuine consideration? I’m not qualified to comment on the sculptural artistry that produced the Confederate statues that have come down in recent weeks (though I suspect it’s not quite so peerless as Trump suggests); however, I’m capable of recognizing, for instance, that New Orleans’s Lee Circle—a prominent rotary in the city’s Central Business District, where pedestrian and automobile traffic swirls around a 60-foot column that, until this spring, served as a podium for a massive bronze Robert E. Lee—is aesthetically incoherent without a statue at its center. It’s become a visually dysfunctional public space. Should we care?
When discussing Confederate monuments, I always mention that I think it’s incredibly important that the statues not only be removed but also be replaced by new ones: we must choose new heroes instead of asserting a world where heroes don’t exist. The liberals with whom I have these conversations don’t exactly take issue with this proposal, but their agreement isn’t especially impassioned. It’s no surprise that the Left’s focus is on pulling the statues down as quickly as possible; racial justice is the important goal—cities can sort out what to do about their public spaces later on. But in times of strained municipal budgets, public art (invaluable as I believe it is) will always be a tough sell, and it seems possible that, once the furor over the removed statuary dies down, city councils will forget about the unadorned parks that once contained it. That’s one reason why I believe that, from the outset, progressives should advocate a repeal-and-replace plan.
When Confederate memorials are dismantled, the voids they leave behind allow conservatives to assemble another bad-faith argument: that liberals are “erasing history”—as though the monuments were erected not to sanctify white supremacists but simply to tell the story of the South, neutrally, for educational purposes. As we know, America’s Confederate monuments were actually financed with an explicitly political agenda. Whenever blacks pushed for civil rights, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson began, suddenly, to appear in playgrounds and outside courthouses to remind everyone who controlled the cities of the South; pompous dedication ceremonies rallied the segregationists, shoring up their commitment to racial oppression. The nostalgic Lost Cause mythology of the Confederacy is in fact a serious impediment to the broad recognition of historical realities, yet in the absence of an alternate figure to take Lee’s place in Charlottesville, Trump and his allies were able, half-plausibly, to lament that “history” was being “torn apart” by the politically correct ethos of the modern era.
Trump, however, didn’t only allude to the destruction of “history”; he also described the destruction of “culture,” and this part was correct in a sense. The removal of Confederate monuments isn’t an attempt to erase Southern history; it’s an attempt to rewire Southern culture, which contains deeply toxic elements that truly must be eradicated. But to propose nothing in the stead of its toxic Confederate mythos is troubling. No one actually learns history from statues, but statues do imply a shared story, factual or not: they suggest a kind of social consensus, a collective idea of what a town is about.
I’m not arguing that perpetual bitterness over a failed secession whose goal was to preserve the brutal dehumanization of black people was ever a healthy basis for a regional identity, but I do think we’re misguided if we believe that, once the rubble of the Confederate generals has been swept away, our job is done. A racial hierarchy has organized Southern life since America’s first cotton field was planted; liberals rightly seek to upend this social order, but for many of them, the deracinated individualism of the 21st century makes sense and comes easily—their cities are privatized dreams of the future, and they have no natural need of the mythologized past required by Southerners to contextualize a system of injustice that, for them, forms the crux of everyday life.
Can we learn to tell a different story? The liberal meritocracy has no past and no culture, so it has no statues. Its green spaces are not decorated public parks but the oddly blank zen gardens of corporate campuses. This will never work in Charlottesville or New Orleans. But there is a bright spot: in Portsmouth, Virginia, a grassroots campaign to replace a Confederate monument with a statue of city native Missy Elliott has gained steam. A monument to a rapper likely won’t console the United Daughters of the Confederacy, but—who knows?—their kids might come to like it.