Confederate Monuments Are a Result of Historical Revisionism

robert e. lee
Robert E. Lee (Wikipedia)

After white supremacist Dylan Roof executed nine black people during a Bible study session at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, it was discovered that he had a website with links to Confederate sites and a photo of him proudly holding a Confederate battle flag.

South Carolina’s Republican Governor Nikki Haley responded by calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from a flagpole on the state’s Capitol grounds. “We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer,” she said. “The fact that people are choosing to use it as a sign of hate is something we cannot stand.”

The flag had been erected in 1961, officially as part of the state’s Civil War centennial celebration, but really as a symbol of Southern opposition to the growing African-American civil rights movement.

On June 23 Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump weighed in on the topic by saying that the flag should be taken down and put in a museum. This was before Steve Bannon took charge of Trump’s election campaign.

On July 9 Gov. Haley signed legislation authorizing the removal of the flag and the following day a large crowd applauded as it was taken down.

Governor Haley’s success in getting the Confederate flag removed encouraged others across the U.S. to call for the removal of Confederate memorials in their communities, including people in states as far away as Arizona.

The growth and success of these local initiatives angered right-wing extremists. Earlier this year they responded to a decision by the Charlottesville, Virginia, city council to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a municipal park, by organizing a Unite the Right protest rally to be held in Charlottesville August 11-12.

The U.S. Department of Homeland (DHS) security notified local law enforcement officials on August 9 that the protest would likely result in violence. They warned that white supremacists and anti-fascist “Antifa” extremists had clashed twice before in Charlottesville over the removal of Lee’s statue, at a white nationalist rally on May 13 and a Ku Klux Klan gathering July 7.

On the night of the 11th a procession of far-right protesters that included white supremacists, white nationalists, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, and right-wing militia members marched through the city’s University of Virginia campus. They chanted Nazi and white supremacist slogans while carrying lit tiki torches and briefly scuffled with counterprotestors before the state police broke it up.

Things got much worse at the next day’s protest. There were more protestors on both sides and the far-right protestors included people carrying Confederate flags and wearing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” caps and giving the Nazi salute while shouting, “Hail Trump!” The police failed to prevent violence from breaking out, a local state of emergency was declared, and the situation became deadly when a far-right protestor named James Alex Fields Jr. purposely drove a car into a crowd of counterprotestors, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring at least 19 others. (A police helicopter also crashed on route to scene, killing two state troopers.)

President Trump didn’t say anything publicly about the events in Charlottesville on the first night of the right-wing protest. But he responded to the second day’s violence by telling the country that he condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” His speech was widely criticized for failing to explicitly condemn white supremacists and Nazis, and his repetition of the phrase “many sides” created an inference that he put them on the same moral plane as the counterprotestors.

He responded to the criticism by defending himself in a speech on August 15 wherein he said that he’d already condemned neo-Nazis, but not all of the right-wing protestors in Charlotte had been neo-Nazis or white nationalists. “You also had some very fine people on both sides,” he said.

Trump also seemed to defend the right-wing protestors by sympathizing with their reason for organizing the march – the city’s plan to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee.

“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” he said. “So, this week, it’s Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”

At a rally he held in Phoenix, Arizona, a week later he repeated this excuse, telling the crowd that, “They’re trying to take away our culture. They’re trying to take away our history.”

A subsequent national poll found that 54 percent of Americans agreed with Trump that Confederate monuments “should remain in all public spaces,” while 27 percent said they should be removed, and another 19 percent said they didn’t know. (Unfortunately, the poll failed to identify whether or not the respondents lived in former Confederate states.)

A closer look, however, shows that Trump’s argument isn’t based upon facts. For example, after the South was defeated in the Civil War, Robert E. Lee was against monuments to the Confederacy. When he was invited to the Gettysburg battlefield in 1869 to help place granite monuments to mark the positions that had been held by Confederate units during the battle, he declined. “It is wisest, morever,” he wrote, “not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”

A comprehensive report, issued in 2016 by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) shows that many Confederate monuments aren’t really historical markers, but attempts by neo-Confederate groups, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and United Daughters of the Confederacy, to help promote the Lost Cause, a longstanding historical revisionism campaign designed to portray the Confederacy as a benign entity. Proponents of this myth claim that the old South had a superior culture and the Civil War wasn’t about slavery but about states’ rights. In other words, there was a moral equivalency to the causes for which the North and the South fought the war. The Confederacy just happened to have lost the war. Civil War historian Edward H. Bonekemper III has called the Lost Cause, “the most successful propaganda campaign in American history.”

I presume that some of the people who want Confederate monuments maintained simply feel that we shouldn’t be tampering with history. But in 1967 the United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN) changed the word nigger to Negro in 143 geographical place names. And after World War Two, the new German government outlawed the public use of Nazi symbols. Were those changes wrong?

I’m not saying that all Confederate monuments should be removed, just the ones that primarily serve to glorify the memory of the Confederacy. General Lee, in fact, advocated for just one type of Confederate memorial. “All I think that can now be done, is to aid our noble & generous women in their efforts to protect the graves & mark the last resting places of those who have fallen,” he wrote in 1866.

The graves of Confederate soldiers should, of course, be maintained. So should historically oriented Confederate monuments at Civil War battlefields. But even these concessions may have been frowned upon by most of the Union soldiers that survived the Civil War. In 1869 former Union soldier William T. Collins wrote an eloquent policy statement for distribution by the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the largest Union Army veterans organization. His purpose was to explain why the GAR was opposed to allowing the graves of Confederate soldiers in public military cemeteries to be decorated on Memorial Day.

We strew flowers therefore on the graves of our comrades, and prevent their being strewn in the national cemeteries at the same time, on graves of such rebel dead as may be buried therein, not because we cherish any feelings of hate, or desire to triumph over individual foes, but because we seek to mark in this distinction and manner the feelings with which the nation regards freedom and slavery, loyalty and treason, Republican principles and those of a slave-holding oligarchy.

We are ready to forgive – we hold no malice – but we will never consent by public national tribute to obliterate the wide gulf that lies between the objects, motives, and principles for which we fought and our comrades died, and those for which the rebel armies banded together, and for which their dead now lie in numerous graves.

They were brave, and we know it – none can better appreciate that fact than those who fought against them. But mere courage never ennobled treason. It cannot turn slavery into liberty, nor make despotic intentions desirable and to-be-applauded virtues. Our refusal to decorate rebel graves marks not hatred of their occupants or friends, but our undying hostility to the ideas for which they fought and died. To do less than keep this distinction fresh in the national mind is to undermine the republic itself. – William T. Collins

I don’t propose that we should resume the practice of preventing the graves of Confederate soldiers from being decorated. But reconciliation must be based upon honesty, not the falsehoods embodied in the Lost Cause. Former Confederate Col. John S. Mosby felt this way when he wrote a letter in 1907 in which he complained that proponents of the Lost Cause mythology were distorting history by downplaying slavery as the cause of the Civil War.

What other country on Earth, I ask you, would allow memorials on public properties to a traitorous rebellion that cost the lives of more than 360,00 loyal soldiers, and wounded at least 280,000 more? A dare say none. The hundreds of Confederate monuments that exist today, especially those dedicated to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, are a testament to the effectiveness of the propaganda that promoted the historical revisionism of the Lost Cause.

The removal of monuments that glorify the Confederacy doesn’t create a slippery slope that endangers all of American history. It’s easy to tell the difference between a monument to the Confederacy from one that isn’t. Nor will their removal solve the daily problems of Americans, including the black people who still suffer in poverty due, in part, to the legacy of slavery. But sometimes there are more important things than money, and cultural symbols matter. The truth is that the removal of Confederate monuments from public places isn’t an attempt to “take away” our history, it’s a way to begin to dismantle the historical revisionism that led to their creation. It’s a way to restore the truth – something that Donald Trump often ignores when it’s convenient for him.

Updates

On June 4, 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report showing that more than 1,700 monuments, place names and other symbols honoring the Confederacy remain in public spaces.

On October 2, 2018, U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen announced at a news conference in Charlottesville, VA, that four members of a militant white supremacist group from California had been arrested on charges they traveled to Charlottesville last year to incite a riot and attack counter-protesters.

Donald Trump’s 2017 Phoenix Rally

dumb trump
(Jeff Burgess)

The biggest difference between President Donald Trump’s August 22 rally at the Phoenix Convention Center and the campaign rally he held there in the summer of 2015 was the number of anti-Trump protestors outside of the building.

I am proud to say that I participated in both protests, but was disappointed by the small size of the one at Trump’s 2015 rally. Looking back, I attribute it to a mistaken presumption that Trump had no realistic chance to win the 2016 presidential election. Also, the outdoor temperature that day was 106°F. The outdoor temperature at the recent rally was the same, but this time it didn’t stop thousands of people from showing up to voice their displeasure.

But even though we were there to protest, our overall spirit was joyful because of the camaraderie we felt from being with so many other Americans who also believed that Donald Trump’s presidency has been an unprecedented disaster for our country. There was almost a fun, carnival atmosphere, with lots of clever signs, inspiring music, and potent chants, like “Walk of Shame” directed at the people filing into the convention center to hear Trump speak. I especially enjoyed the guy who wandered through the crowd with a small amplifier slung over his shoulder broadcasting a recording of Trump saying, “Grab them by the pussy,” in an infinite loop. The giant inflatable figures of Trump and Joe Arpaio, wearing a KKK outfit and prison garb respectively, were pretty good too – and had obviously taken a lot of work to make.

trump phoenix protest 2017
Trump protest signs, Phoenix Convention Center, August 22, 2017 (Jeff Burgess)

The diversity among the anti-Trump protestors was a stark contrast to his supporters on the other side of the police line across the street. They were almost entirely white people – more than 99%. But the Trump protestors seemed to encompass almost every demographic in the U.S. The were, of course, many Latinos because of Trump’s support for Arpaio. I found the Native American protestors especially effective because they reminded everyone they have been subjected to oppression longer than any other group in America.

The news media made a lot out of the fact that a handful of troublemakers provoked the Phoenix police into unleashing tear gas and flash bang grenades on all of the remaining protestors near the end of the event. Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams defended her officers actions, but many of the people who were still protesting peacefully said the police overreacted and gave them no warnings.

I didn’t see what happened. I was in a nearby restaurant having an ice-cold beer by then because I couldn’t take the heat any longer – having been outside for more than an hour and a half. (It is difficult to describe how quickly the Sonoran Desert’s summer heat can debilitate you.) But I can say that 100% of the protestors I encountered were peaceful, and that’s the most important thing to remember about the protest.

Among the tiny minority in the crowd that weren’t joyful were four young white people, one with a very long hillbilly beard, that trailed each other through the crowd dressed in faux combat clothes, wearing armored vests and carrying AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifles across their chests. I wondered why they were carrying what I presumed to be loaded weapons, and I overheard other people wondering the same thing. The four of them had completely neutral expressions on their faces and didn’t look directly at anybody as they passed through. Who did they think they might have to shoot?

There was also a very small group of people dressed from head to foot in black, wearing helmets, dark sunglasses, and bandanas to hide their faces. They were standing still, at attention, in an ominously tight formation, and the rest of us looked upon them with suspicion and gave them space. I presumed they were an Antifa group. But if they were, I think it was odd that their black and red flag looked like the flag used by Ukrainian fascists.

Almost all of the Trump supporters across the street were in a line to enter the convention center. Some of them yelled back at us and gave us the finger as they slowly passed by on their way into the building, but most of them just watched us, seemingly surprised at the size and enthusiasm of our protest.

donald trump supporters
Trump supporters, Phoenix Convention Center, August 22, 2017 (Jeff Burgess)

But there was also a very small group of pro-Trump demonstrators gathered on the corner. They had some hateful signs and one fellow had a very loud electrically amplified megaphone. He used it to almost unceasingly shout insults at anti-Trump protestors. Some of the things he said were so awfully racist that people, including myself, gasped and asked the person next to them if he’d really just said what it sounded like he’d said. I noticed that one of the black policemen keeping the different protestors separated dropped his head and shook it in response to one of the guy’s most racist rants. I wondered what, exactly, that policeman was thinking.

I think that the police behaved well and performed their duties objectively – at least during the time I was at the protest. I had several polite and friendly discussions with officers on the edges of the crowd, where they seemed to like to stay. I’m sure, however, that there will be some investigations into their conduct at the end of the event. I hope there will be an independent one that answers all of the questions about what happened.

In the meantime, my only criticism of the police is that I think they should have tried to do more than simply keep the two sides apart. I know they had a difficult job, but why, for example, did they seem to be ignoring the people dressed like wannabe militia walking through the crowd with AR-15s? Why didn’t they seem concerned about the Antifa squad that appeared poised for mayhem? And why didn’t one of them go over and talk to the guy who was literally trying to incite a race riot by screaming horrible things through his megaphone?

I realize there were First Amendment and Second Amendment issues involved, but I can’t help but wonder if the protest would have stayed peaceful if the police had been a bit more proactive. I’m not saying they should have made any preemptive arrests or told anybody to shut up. But it seems to me they could have at least tried to initiate some communication with all of the protestors to try and reduce the tension.

Updates

In November 2017 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona sued the Phoenix Police Department in order to collect public records regarding its use of force on protesters during President Trump’s August rally.

On November 30, 2017, the Phoenix police released several videos of the police taking action against protestors at the end of rally.

On January 29, 2018, the Phoenix Police Department released a report wherein they admitted they failed to provide adequate warning to peaceful protesters before they abruptly released “pepper balls,” which released a gaseous irritant, deployed pepper spray, tear gas, and fired foam batons into the crowd.

Red Squirrels Are Annoying And Mean

Trump the red squirrelRed squirrels can be annoying because they’re so noisy – chattering loudly at anything they don’t like from their perches in the trees. But they can also be greedy, mean and stupid.

I recently visited Michigan and stayed with a friend at his family’s cabin on a lake. At least once a day we enjoyed the beautiful scenery by sitting quietly in Adirondack chairs on the cabin’s lawn. The local chipmunks came up to us to beg for food the first time I sat in one of the chairs, and my friend explained that he often threw handfuls of sunflower seeds to them.

I told him I was a bit confused because there was a small live animal trap near the chairs, and I presumed he was using it to catch troublesome chipmunks. He told me the trap wasn’t for chipmunks, but for red squirrels. They caused a lot of trouble, he said, so he was trying to trap all the local ones. The spaces between the wires on the trap’s cage, he pointed out, were big enough for chipmunks to escape through them, but they were too small for red squirrels to fit through. He said he took the squirrels that he caught several miles away to release them, and they didn’t come back. He added that many of his neighbors on the lake were doing the same thing.

The next day I saw firsthand why he didn’t like the red squirrels. I was sitting in one of the chairs by myself and several chipmunks approached me from different directions. I yelled to my friend about what was happening. He came out from the cabin’s screened patio with a handful of sunflower seeds, threw them onto a nearby bare spot on the ground, and went back inside. The chipmunks immediately ran to the seeds and began stuffing them in their cheek pouches as fast as they could. There were a lot of arguments among the chipmunks about who got the seeds. They chased each other around a lot, while stopping just long enough to pick up another seed or two. One or two of them appeared to be dominant, but all them got at least one chance to grab some seeds.

Then a red squirrel showed up. First, he sat in the tree above the bare spot and yelled at the chipmunks. It was obvious that he was telling them that all of the seeds were his. They ignored him until he ran down the tree and began to chase them. But the way he chased them was different from the way the chipmunks chased each other. He didn’t want to just argue about who got the most seeds, he was trying to hurt the chipmunks. He would charge onto the bare spot and all of the chipmunks would scatter. He’d pick one out and chase it with his teeth bared for a relatively long distance before giving up and returning to the seeds. Then he’d discover the other chipmunks had been busy gathering more seeds while he’d been away, and he’d pick out another chipmunk and chase it while the other chipmunks immediately returned to the bare spot to get more seeds. It appeared that the chipmunks understood they could get more seeds if they took turns keeping the squirrel busy.

In the end, the red squirrel was so busy trying to bully the chipmunks that he got very few seeds.

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