Divided We Stumble: Facing Our Past With Empathy

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Last week was Donald Trump’s week. It was the week of Charlottesville, the violent demonstrations there — the death of Heather Heyer — and the clashes that saw the emergence, out in the open, of neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

It’s not as if nothing else was happening in the great wide world (and about to happen in the sky). Policemen lost their lives, children were murdered and Stephen Bannon left the White House — stories that could have sustained the news cycle all by themselves, but did not.

It was Trump’s three-pronged response to the events in Charlottesville which dominated the news and continue to do so. On Saturday, he equivocated and talked about “hatred, violence and bigotry on many sides.” Then, on Monday, under extreme pressure, he condemned neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

On Tuesday, in impromptu fashion and Twitter-type language, he once again blamed both “sides” and argued for equivalency. But he did something else, too. In arguing for equivalency — and surrendering much of his presidential moral authority at a moment that called for calm and inspiration — Trump also argued for the cause of maintaining the iconic symbols of the vanquished and vanished Confederate States of America, mainly statues of generals and military leaders.

“These people were to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” he said. “This week it was Robert E. Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself where does it stop? You are changing history and culture.”

It’s quite possible that, by lighting up the debate over Confederate statues, the president was trying to avoid the heat and outrage of his apparent refusal to deal with white supremacy, racism and neo-Nazism.

Yet Trump may have also inadvertently made this the week when we begin the debate about how Americans should think about the Confederacy and its icons.

A start had been made after the June 2015 murders in Charleston, South Carolina. But, now, four statues were pulled down in the night by the city of Baltimore, a battle reenactment was cancelled in Manassas and Duke University removed its campus statue of Robert E. Lee. Chief Justice Roger Taney, who wrote the notorious Dred Scott decision that, among other things, denied the rights of citizenship to African Americans, came down not only in Baltimore but in Annapolis.

“Let’s pull them all down!” has been a frequent outcry among demonstrators on the left.

Should these statues be removed from public places of honor?

We think so, but not in a mad rush to judgment, in a reactionary way. Not without considering what it is we’re doing and why.

What do African Americans see when they see a statue in a park of a lone Confederate soldier, rifle in a hand. Do they see a racist, a soldier in the army of an illegal state, a symbol of slavery? What do most white people see, if they note it at all? What do Southerners see when they behold the C.S.A. battle flag?

The singular thing about the Confederacy is what it stands for: It was created as a separate country, seceding from the United States of America, and that was treason. Regardless of so-called states’ rights, the underlying political reason was the preservation of slavery, which was a moral evil, imbued with racism, whether you owned a slave or not.

If states, cities, counties or towns move or take down statues of Confederates, they should give the reason why — loudly and with conviction.

Here in the nation’s capital, there stands but one lone statue of a mediocre Confederate general: Albert Pike, a favorite of the Masons, near Judiciary Square of all places. It needs to go and simply be moved to private Masonic land somewhere. But we should know why.

A debate over race, the Confederacy and these statues is an opportunity which few want to take, because it will be painful for all, if truth and honesty are factors in the debate.

Such a national debate would not be the debate conducted in the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan had a huge national (not just Southern) membership, and many of the Confederate statues were erected, or in the 1930s when Nazis, not neo-Nazis, were very much a part of the political landscape of Depression and fascist-era times.

We are divided now, but not irreplaceably so. Let us be selective as well as impassioned, show empathy as well as firmness in our choices. Let’s all of us try to see beyond the hated symbols and swastikas and fury, and reach out.

Let’s begin.

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