NEW YORK – They may call themselves “white nationalists,” but the adjective nullifies the noun. In Charlottesville, Virginia, few of them hoisted American flags. They marched under banners the United States took up arms to fight. Their stated cause was preserving a statue of a man who committed treason against our country: Robert E. Lee.
Confederate flags, statuary and memorials have defenders who wish to have nothing to do with neo-Nazis or white supremacists. They say that they mean to honor the valor of Confederate soldiers rather than the cause for which they bled. Or they say that we should have visible and uncensored reminders of our history. If Lee statues go, they ask, will Monticello be next? Mount Vernon?
Our national mythos has come to celebrate President Thomas Jefferson less than it once did: His reputation has suffered, as it should have, as we have reckoned with slavery. We remember Jefferson the slave master; but we also remember the Declaration of Independence, the University of Virginia, a role in our national history that is not reducible to his slaveholding. Jefferson Davis, on the other hand, to this day has a highway with his name on it in Virginia because, and only because, he tried to found a nation with slavery as its cornerstone.
It was not necessary to have a vicious character to fight for the Confederacy in 1861, though one is required to root for it today. Good people — otherwise good people — did. The time and place mitigates their guilt. But only somewhat. Ulysses Grant acknowledged that Lee had fought “long and valiantly,” but in the same breath noted that he “had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.” To judge such choices with mercy is not to honor those choices.
Those who defend Lee statues and worse often say they are motivated by “heritage not hate.” There is no reason to doubt them. But the meaning of a public symbol is not a private possession. They may tell themselves that the statue should stay to honor Lee’s (allegedly) conciliatory behavior after the war. Can they really tell black people who interpret it differently — who look at that statue, erected in the same period as “The Birth of a Nation” and the second Ku Klux Klan, and see a public display of contempt for their dignity and rights — that their reaction is absurd? The marching racists were vile and stupid. But they weren’t crazy to treat the statue as a vestige of white supremacy.
There are, as always, prudential considerations. Removing memorials will cost city governments money. The Charlottesville experience could be read either to suggest that Confederate statues must be taken down to keep white supremacists from having a rallying point, or that trying to take them down gives them one.
But our deliberations should not dwell too long on these cretins. The South has and deserves its pride, but it ought not center it on the most shameful moment in its history. The statues and the flags should come down. They will come down, as Southerners of all races come to see that this cause, too, is better off lost.
Bloomberg View columnist Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review.