Photo: Me in my 18th century costume for when I do “everyday reenactments,” part of my effort to better understand America today through understanding American history.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A few weeks ago I wrote on why I oppose the removal of Confederate statues. This is my follow up essay in the wake of that, dealing with some critiques I received on my Facebook feed and in email. It’s also a response to the recent protest at UVA in which Thomas Jefferson’s statue was shrouded and a sign was mounted atop it reading, “TJ is a racist and rapist” along with a list of demands made to the university designed to right perceived racial wrongs.
The Scourge of Presentism and the rise of Mob Rule
Let’s start with some facts.
- My daughter is a fourth-year at the University of Virginia (UVA).
- Thomas Jefferson created UVA, one of three achievements above all others that he most prided himself on.
- When UVA was founded, just as it was for slaves, free black men, and poor white men, my daughter could never have attended because of that whole “being a woman” thing.
- Therefore Thomas Jefferson is a rogue, a sexist, a scoundrel, and a pariah.
Oh wait, that last one isn’t a fact. Rather, it’s a slander.
It’s also the kind of muddle-headed thinking currently issuing from some UVA students, some UVA faculty, some Charlottesville organizer-residents and protesters, along with some equally misguided folks at Washington & Lee, vocal antifa (anti-fascists), and issue-sympathizers, all of whom, on past figures and history, are ridiculously and ineffectively protesting the past.
And, I might add, as Americans they’re free to openly protest, assemble, speak and write about the past — or anything — as a direct result of the work of Jefferson and his white, privileged, male contemporaries who ultimately gave every one of us, no matter how marginalized, the revolutionary Bill of Rights enshrined in US law that we enjoy today.
So talk about a blind spot!
Flaws in the Counter-Protests
Further, the whole approach, and many of the aims, of the anti-statue/anti-history protesters (for lack of more succinct terms), and those with an otherwise understandable antifa consciousness, hints at the rise of a dangerous mob rule emerging in America.
Anti-statue protesters and their spokespersons are behaving as if they’re bringing forth some sparkling example of enlightenment about America’s deep dark past for the rest of us to finally face, like it’s some well-concealed secret or something and all us rubes are, like, the last to know.
The recent reaction protests, including this week’s egregious shrouding of a UVA Thomas Jefferson statue by UVA #blm, some follow-on writings reflecting on Charlottesville and upping the demands on society to reckon with our racism, as well as tweets and Facebook posts, too-often presume that contemporary American society-at-large is too dim-witted, intransigent, or secretly racist to comprehend what the protesters allege is the unforgivable shame inherent in a great many so-called racist heroes of the past — from the American colonial era through to the Civil War era and even beyond.
Protesters dispute that these figures even are heroes because when the protesters, like St. Peter at the pearly gates, weigh up historic figures’ merits and flaws, the flaws, mostly in slaveholding but also in sexism, outweigh any contribution or merit, thus legitimizing the imperative to blot the historic figures out of the public square, human memory, and the American story.
And all of this is done by extracting the figures from history and their historic time and putting them on trial in our time and based on our standards. This is presentism.
The protesters imply, through their aim to dismantle, that those of us opposed to removing statues and/or changing names, those of us who don’t want our history torn down, are abetting a lingering abuse baked into the physical presence of the statues either because of when or by whom they were erected, or simply because of the figure in question. Opponents of such removal are, by extension, tacitly supporting racism.
Anti-statue protesters suggest in the hidden text of their aims that blacks, women, and others are incapable of realizing a dispassionate stance while viewing or encountering statuary and other symbols, markers, writings, and depictions of our shared historic past. Instead, they argue, blacks and women will “have their feelings hurt” viewing such markers. This view in particular reveals a not-so-covert paternalism in the protesters of which they themselves seem curiously unaware.
Some have suggested that the pro-history faction are “apologists,” “racists,” and tantamount to the horrifying white nationalists if we don’t get with the protesters’ aggressive programs of immediately “dismantling white supremacy” in every imagined regard — whatever that would be and however that would be achieved in a nation of 350 million people across a massive land mass divided by myriad sub cultures.
I’ve been called these names and accused of these things in recent weeks and lambasted for arguing for historic context as if such an aim is a failing rather than a meaningful and sincere desire to advance a corrective and bring more voices into the American historical record.
Facebook posts by Charlottesville counter-protesters also claim that they deserve pervasive cover from all critique on the basis that the only legitimate view of the tragic events in Charlottesville this summer can come from eyewitnesses, from those who were there. Additionally, they argue that even the slightest critique of Charlottesville anti-hate protesters amounts to advancing a “false equivalency” with white nationalists.
Yet as a result of protesters’ passions increasingly running amok, this largely (but not exclusively) white, privileged, young and inexperienced, intellectually shortsighted, and clearly self-righteous faction continues seeking to tear down statues and strip history from the public realm, deeming history fit only for self-selected — and often paying, and thus exclusionary — museum audiences.
This in a time when cuts to culture have already damaged our understanding of ourselves.
Also as a result of protesters’ unchecked emotionalism, they recently went into Charlottesville City Council and defiled democracy by failing to behave in accordance with true democratic norms, including established participation and oppositional norms for the context they were in.
They injured their own cause there.
And with the Jefferson shroud, they’re looking increasingly silly now.
Lobotomizing the Public Square
The Charlottesville and beyond “#Love” movement is turning into a kind of mob rule around the nebulous notion of “feelings.”
What’s next? Maybe they’ll propose putting up a Gold Star statue in Lee and Jefferson and Washington’s spaces to commemorate a notion of equality which, decontextualized from all reference points, devolves into pablum meaninglessness.
The protester’ aims (and there are both identifiable and amorphous groups in this regard) suggest that they believe such a ripping apart of the American fabric — smashing it — will be the magic wand that will redeem it all, correct the past, finally “tell the truth” that we’re all allegedly in denial about, and, in so doing, I guess, fix all that is wrong in American society today. The presumption being that tearing everything down and renaming it all will make it safe tomorrow to drive while black or go to court while black or walk down the street in a hoodie while black.
Good luck with that!
You might call it the “band-aid for a gaping wound,” approach to societal reconciliation.
You could also call it laziness since working for policy changes in substantive areas is much slower, harder, and complex work than throwing temper tantrums in council chambers or around statues or issuing demands that betray the demanders’ own lack of understanding about their broader society, other stakeholders, and the realm of the possible.
You could also call it a form of backhanded bullying disguised as loving righteousness.
You’d also be within the bounds of acceptability to regard it as fueled by vengeance and revenge — the desire to take away from others and tear down things that they hold dear — rather than the ideal of love proclaimed by the counter-protest cadre.
The anti-statue protesters see plowing over these alleged “symbols of hate” — statues, buildings/colleges/city names, street signs, etc. — as the cure-all to everything from life’s natural unfairness to the inequality seeded into the American system from its origins. It’s a stance that’s got “safe space” written all over it and there will be no end to its aim to make the public realm sanitized of any “triggers.”
It’s my belief, however, that it is they who are not only too reactionary and insular to see the forest for the trees, but also that, due to their blind spots and ultimately a-historical take on things, that they’re hypocritical to an astonishing (but forgivable) degree given our modern societal collusion in widespread abuses of the poor, other cultures, and our environment.
Sadly, their stream of acting out has taken hold of the conversation, leading to all kinds of silliness that almost everyone from the media to politicians to institutions is caving in on for fear of falling down on the wrong side of the “loony Left’s” speech, thought, and cultural control — their political correctness.
And I say all this as one who is myself routinely called a “loony Lefty” for my environmental views, my writings on society and economy, and my almost exclusive voting record on the Democratic side, none of which have made America the “safe space” I’d like if I was queen of the planet. But it does mean I am critiquing from within, that I support equality, and am otherwise a natural ally here.
So if you’ve read this far rest assured that you’re not reading the work of a contemporary American conservative with a capital “C” here; you know, a member of the GOP, a group I regard as even more cracked today than the “loony Left.”
Where the hell is the center?
Boy oh boy do we need to slow down here, invite some adults into the room, and recalibrate this conversation.
A Little Perspective
So let’s jump in. And while we’re doing so let’s keep a couple more slightly abbreviated historical facts in mind.
- Black Africans independently started the “modern” slave trade centuries before the Atlantic slave trade. Later they sold their own people to make a buck and to get stuff from the Portuguese. This doesn’t excuse, absolve, or endorse the later Atlantic slave trade involving the British colonies and later America. But it does help contextualize it in its own time and illustrates the entropy behind centuries of slave trading (to say nothing of the centuries before that).
- Both enslaved African Americans and all free black and white Americans were either “born into” this slavery paradigm by the 17th century and through to Emancipation, or were brought into it by coming here either by or against their wills. Understanding the legal, economic, and complex moral questions at stake here is key to any meaningful and nuanced conversation on our deeply troubled past and is key to understanding ourselves in the present. And we need some freaking nuance!
- Some free American blacks owned black slaves. Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote, “It is a very sad aspect of African-American history that slavery sometimes could be a colorblind affair.” Again, this doesn’t legitimize or minimize race-based and hereditary American slavery. But it shows that the history is more complex than too many 21st century minds would like to admit.
- In the modern world, prior to the American Revolution, there were no real, widespread, or influential state-level societies run by ordinary people. There were only monarchies like the French, aristocratic and oligarchical rule like the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or theocracies like Tibet or the Papal States. This made our revolution truly revolutionary in intent and promise…albeit sadly truncated in realization at the time. It is worth keeping this in mind in any critique of founding figures. The initial freedoms were absolutely unprecedented in all of state-level human history, and those freedoms have only expanded to include more of us over time.
- Long-time race and politics writer Gene Demby, in an essay for NPR titled, “The Ugly, Fascinating History Of The Word ‘Racism’,” explains that the word “racism” wasn’t even invented until the early 20th century by Richard Henry Pratt in his effort to “save” Native Americans…from themselves! Racism in this sense oddly often meant the opposite of how we use it today. Demby writes, “Over a century after he was first recorded using the word, we still ask that question — is she or isn’t she racist? — in situations where no clear answer would ever present itself. We argue about the composition of the accused’s soul and the fundamental goodness or badness therein. But those are things we can’t possibly know. And as we litigate that question, other more meaningful questions become obscured.” This has been particularly striking as Robert E. Lee has been reduced to a cartoon by the far Left, and now, as predicted, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are on the chopping block, too.
- While there were indeed abolitionists in both the 18th and 19th centuries, very few regarded blacks as truly equal, and even fewer wanted free blacks to remain in America. The notion of the noble North and the savage South is just simply WRONG. Like the American Colonization Society, most whites wanted blacks shipped back to Africa or to get out and go to Canada. The ideal of whites accepting a racially integrated and diversely celebrated population was, almost to a person, unheard of even through the whole of 19th century America, including in the North, and including by those whom we would deem as “non-racists” today. For example, in an 1858 debate with political opponent Stephen Douglas, lawyer Abraham Lincoln said, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.” There were exceptions to this view, with committed abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison arguing passionately that, “Wherever there is a human being, I see God-given rights inherent in that being, whatever may be the sex or complexion.” But such examples are rare, small, and were considered radical in their time. Almost all whites had no real interest in “mingling” with blacks even when they regarded blacks as entitled to freedom and rights. In actuality, many people of the South, because of deeper and, to our modern ears, surprisingly meaningful relations with their enslaved blacks (and then their formerly enslaved blacks), often had more natural sympathy and understanding with blacks. Among other recollections of affection, in her first hand account, A Girl’s Life in Virginia Before the War, former slaveowner Letitia M. Burwell of Avenel Plantation writes, “My mother and grandmother were almost always talking over the wants of the negroes, — what medicine should be sent, whom they should visit, who needed new shoes, clothes, or blankets, — the principal object of their lives seeming to be in providing these comforts. The carriage was often ordered for them to ride around to the cabins to distribute light-bread, tea, and other necessaries among the sick. And besides employing the best doctor, my grandmother always saw that they received the best nursing and attention.” With these things in mind it becomes difficult to simplistically dismiss the complexity of our racially scarred past with petulant demands and superficial solutions.
- Every single American today, including blacks, is the unasked-for and unexpected beneficiary of America’s slaveholding past. Our nation would not be our nation without the unpaid and too-long unacknowledged work of the enslaved population and their significant cultural, culinary, moral, artistic, intellectual, and spiritual contributions. American enslavement (and all subsequent black American history) is an important, tragic, pathos-laden story from all angles, including for whites, and it must be properly told, properly understood, and properly “accepted” in its proper context for us to properly learn and grow from it.
- Every one of us today also enjoys unprecedented wealth and privilege because of our effective slaveholding PRESENT — that is to say our “out of sight out of mind” outsourced wage slaves and actual slaves who produce the vast majority of our excessive and largely unnecessary goods in Asia and elsewhere. Work on international fair labor is an unceasing issue that the now too-easily reviled neo-Liberals have been at for a century. And then there’s the little matter of our disproportionately incarcerated black male population which is being exploited in effective slavery in our for-profit jails. We are not having anything even approaching the kind of national conversation that such a broad, present-day crime against humanity by our society, and hence by each one of us, demands. It is truly an example of “if you don’t understand history you are doomed to repeat it.” We don’t. And we are. And that means you and me, too.
- The Civil War, and ALL its figures, is a more complicated story than any statues protester has thus far been willing to publicly admit, damaging rather than helping our understanding of ourselves, and burning bridges where they imagine themselves to be building them.
- Presentism is a scourge. Presentism is the misguided tendency to judge the past in all of its particulars by the standards of the present, expecting past figures and past models to comport with present ones and, when they fail to do so, to actively seek to punish the past for these perceived wrongs. It is the approach of the intellectually weak and the intellectually immature. It is the approach of these protesters and it produces LESS not MORE compassion in our society, and it results in MORE not LESS alienation. If we cannot have compassion for the past, and see the past ON ITS OWN — not our — TERMS, we cannot nurture meaningful compassion for ourselves, our own times, and our own manifest and unaddressed flaws, like the modern slavery referenced above, the rape of nature, the exploitation of animals, and our persistent inequality and inhumanity within our society.
Where Do We Go From Here?
When the Charlottesville counter-protesters showed up at the white nationalist rally in August they did so in what can be likened to the saying, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
Of course they wanted to “fight back” against hate, albeit “fighting” being a bit of an ironic stance.
But eyewitnesses on the peace side that day make clear that peaceful intent, and peacefully-organized groups, were not the only counter-protesters in attendance.
Witness Deborah Porras writes, “A group of about 5 anti-fascists tried to persuade some of us clergy to join them in taking on the White Supremacists by fighting with them, not simply standing our ground in peace. We explained our role and belief in non-violence and ensured they also stayed off premises if they intended to participate in violence. They explained their desire to fight on behalf of all those who cannot, to draw the fight and violence to themselves and take on the White Supremacists and Nazis head on if they had to.”
And this is why I always found the Charlottesville counter-protest counter-productive, even before it happened. It made the assumption that the only way to counter-protest was in person, face-to-face. It made the assumption that all counter-protesters would have the same ethics, intent, and calm.
Let’s face it, even if a so-called “safe zone” is proscribed, in a chaotic environment it can’t actually be ensured.
It wasn’t ensured in Charlottesville by the peaceful, by the cops, by the violent white nationalists, and even by some counter-protesters who let loose. This is the risk.
It doesn’t really matter in the end that it was the neo-Nazi who plowed into the crowd murdering Heather Heyer and injuring many more. Nor that other incidents of wanton violence were committed by neo-Nazis. That they were at fault. They’ll get their punishment.
What matters is the result — people were killed and maimed and intimidated in part because of WHERE counter-protesters chose to take the “peace” and the “fight against hate.”
That is not blame. But it is an examination of effective strategy, a strategy that on Charlottesville I find severely wanting.
A counter-protest could have happened in any number of creative, loving, educational, vibrant, public, and obvious ways without going toe-to-toe with neo-Nazis who had announced in advance that they were coming with weapons and ready to rumble.
Loving people cannot even control those on the “same side” who are not peaceful — some antifa — and have no real intention of remaining so. Or others whose emotions unexpectedly boil over. There is a manifest danger here which, while going head-to-head is certainly a choice, isn’t the only effective one available in the protest toolbox.
As protests and counter-protests loom in Richmond, this would be wise to consider.
To chose an alt-venue does not imply backing down, running and hiding, or avoidance. What it is is smart, strategic, and even brilliant.
A bunch of loser neo-Nazis stealing history to abuse it would like nothing better than to call up a backdrop of “loony lefties” from Central Casting from which to continue this public fight over the proxy figures of history, distracting us all again from the real issues in race and gender relations in our society that we should be discussing and the concrete policies that might truly help to dismantle lingering racist and sexist practices.
And every time the lefties comply in taking on a group that polls show have only single digit support among Americans they succeed in endangering themselves and others; succeed in giving a spotlight to neo-Nazis that would in no way be so prominent if they were instead ignored; and succeed in alienating many of the very folks most inclined to be allies but who, like me, are increasingly turned off to the outsized radicalism of vague feelings-based assertions about, and demands on, history and the historic record, or on vehemently fighting a “hate” that has minor support in the US at best!
It just isn’t smart! It’s a distraction. There are more important fights to take on.
Seeking Wisdom and Perspective
Long before the hideous and degraded President Grump argued that Washington and Jefferson would be next, I argued it. Months before. I said, “Watch; if you begin with Lee and Jackson you end with Washington and Jefferson. It is a straight line to assaulting all of our history and learning nothing from it.”
And right on cue, here we are. And it’s pissing me off.
I’ll never stop believing that #BlackLivesMatter. Nor will I ever stop supporting institutional correctives in today’s world, like affirmative action, fair hiring, housing, and voting practices, fair public service access, equality in school funding, and the more prominent inclusion at historic sites and public institutions of our tragic and inspiring stories of the lives of blacks in the American story, from the ordinary person to the extraordinary figures, among other advised changes.
I visit historic places on a weekly basis, and am deeply engaged with Virginia’s history in particular. I love stepping into “living history” so that I can feel, taste, smell, try, work, and play in the mode of the time, increasing my sympathy with history as a part of learning about myself and my society.
And I love how much deeper that experience has become since houses, battlefields, museums, and public squares have made a concerted effort to highlight and develop the stories of our black American brothers and sisters.
But the social justice left must also face that, like me, 60% of all Americans don’t want statues removed. A little over 50% of blacks want them removed, but few of these are involved in a concerted effort to see them removed.
The problem is that, in attacking statues directly, and vehemently attacking historic figures, many people, like myself, are losing our patience. By using ill-thought out tactics aimed at destroying things that we hold dear, fans of history and supporters of public statue placement are being alienated by, and not drawn closer to, the push for societal advancement.
This is a huge gamble. And this is where a lack of understanding of ALL stakeholders, and unwise but loud and splashy choices, are undermining the ultimate racial reconciliation aims of the anti-statue/anti-history cause.
Our fight with one another isn’t over the past. Our need is not to put the past over our knees and spank it and tell it who’s boss.
It’s also not with the loud but essentially irrelevant white nationalists.
Our purpose as Americans is to realize the promise built into the founding documents, a promise reserved at the origin of our nation mostly for those writing the documents, at least in terms of the most meaningful political (institutional) participation.
That’s tough for blacks, poor whites, women, gays, and some religious sects to contend with. It is a sucky thing to know about our past. But there it is. It’s not the same now. What are we going to learn from it? Who are we going to become?
Our purpose is to understand the past, come to deeply know its figures, look at, examine, consider, and challenge where we were, how far we’ve come, and where we’re going. And it’s to see our own faults and seek to improve.
Direct action, protest, and activist engagement has its place and its purpose, a multi-pronged purpose that is part of a wider aim in relation to institutional (policy) and legal gains, that latter of which are not achieved by protest signs alone, but by cogent and actionable policy.
Shocking actions can gain attention — like calling TJ a racist and a rapist. But if they ultimately turn off so many who feel attacked, intimidated, and falsely accused as racists under the pervasive rubric of “white privilege” that we no longer can be bothered to listen, or to care, then that is not what I would call a successful racial reconciliation campaign. And I am continually hearing at historic sites dozens and dozens of people who are upset with and turned off to the #Charlottesville protest crowd even while they support equality and social progress.
It might be worth it to put some externally-focused peace and love in those peace and love marches and some externally-focused unity and togetherness into those unity and togetherness spiels. The anger and intimidation are wearing thin.
History isn’t the enemy. It actually is the answer.
And white nationalists don’t own our shared past, nor key historic figures. Don’t be baited by them!
Counter-protest outreach is not merely about staying in touch with your own peeps, and in your own comfort zone. It’s also about trying to understand others — including past others, historic others — and being determined to learn from them and hence avoid their mistakes.
At this point, as angry as I am about the Jefferson shrouding, and the W & L English department ironic attacks on their own founders — General Lee and President George Washington — I hold out some hope that this conversation can be expanded, deepened, and nurtured into something at once more meaningful and more productive, where both history and the present are at the heart of our encounters with one another with an aim for societal growth and true racial progress.
But I don’t think I can take any more misguided and immature assaults on our national story designed for shallow shock and awe or aiming to assuage feelings.
If majority rules then this should be the end of the statues and history debate when it comes to the public square and shared institutions. But obviously considerations are more complex than that, demanding that less popular views get an airing and are included in the shape of things.
That I welcome.
But all the silliness can drape itself in a shroud and hang its head in shame.
Give up the destructive presentism. Stop trying to achieve unhealthy mob rule.
Bring your thoughtful critiques to the table, then open a dialog.
— Lindsay Curren, Ordinary American