Charlottesville and the Misuse of History

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tags: racism, Charlottesville, Trump



Steve Gillon is the Scholar-in-Residence at The History Channel and Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma. 

People still have strong feelings about what took place in Charlottesville last week and how the president responded to it. HuffPost, and other media outlets, have provided extensive coverage of the tragic event and its aftermath. I would like to make a few observations about President Trump’s misuse and misunderstanding of history. 

Among his key talking points: If the nation removes Stonewall Jackson then Thomas Jefferson and George Washington will be next to go; the monuments honor Confederate heroes and nothing else; and taking down the statues represents censorship and an attempt by leftwing radicals to rewrite American history. 

He is wrong on every point.

First, while there may be a few people calling for the removal of statues of Washington and Jefferson because they owned slaves, it has nothing to do with the current debate over the symbols of the Confederacy. Stonewall Jackson, General Lee, Jefferson Davis, etc. were traitors. They took up arms against the constitution. We have so many heroes who have fought to defeat foreign enemies and to protect the Republic, why use public space to honor people who committed treason? While there are many non-military Americans who deserve monuments, why not swap out statues of Confederate leaders with those of the genuine heroes whose courage and bravery earned them the Medal of Honor? 

Second, no one is trying to change history or to sanitize the past. Just the opposite: The history of the Confederacy and those who fought for the South belong in history books and in historical museums. But that’s it. They should not occupy public space, unless they are being used for educational purposes or part of the “American Battlefield Protection Program” run by the National Park Service.

Third, this is not, as some have suggested, a question of censorship. The question is whether we use public space to honor these people. Private groups and citizens can band together, purchase land, and build all the Confederate monuments they want. 

Fourth, many of these monuments were constructed at the beginning of the 20th-century when white supremacists regained control of southern governments after Reconstruction. They were part of an effort to rewrite history by claiming they were part of a noble cause and those who fought were heroes. (This is also when many Southerners started claiming (falsely), and continue to claim (falsely), that the war was not about slavery but about states’ rights.) There was also a burst of monument building during the 1950s when many white southerners felt threatened by the emerging civil rights movement. These monuments are not just memorials to Confederate icons, they are symbols of Jim Crow and a celebration of white supremacy.

Fifth, the tragic events in Charlottesville were only the latest flash point in a crisis of white identity. The vast majority of those who invaded Charlottesville were white men. There is a reason they are so angry. The past five decades have not been kind to heterosexual white men. The moral hierarchy that had existed for centuries has come tumbling down. White men now must compete against African Americans in the workplace, women demand equal treatment in the workplace and at home, and the LGBT community has challenged their definition of manhood and gender roles. In addition, technological innovation and globalization have destroyed the jobs they once depended on for a living. Perhaps the greatest threat has come from the massive waves of migrants, both legal and illegal, who have flooded our shores. The threat is two-fold: Economically, immigrants depress wages for non-college educated whites; culturally they threaten the notion of a “common culture” – a culture largely created by white men. The anxiety that these white men feel is real and understandable. The way they express it, however, is not.

Finally, this is not, as Trump and his allies would like to believe, a fight between “the people” and the elites. It is so much more than that. It’s about what we stand for as a nation and what it means to be an American. America is founded on an ideal that was born on a warm June day in 1776 when Thomas Jefferson, sitting in his rented room on Market Street in Philadelphia, penned the immortal words in the Declaration of Independence which stated that “All men are created equal” and that they were endowed with the inalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” America is a work in progress and the battle in C’ville is part of our struggle to live up to Jefferson’s noble but unattainable goal.




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