By: Caleb Herrin
The Confederate Statue debate has yet to reach its peak, but its rising intensity raises the question: are there areas where conservatives and progressives can find middle ground? To reach a collective social agreement, we must first lay out the arguments of both sides for analysis.
Arguably the most difficult political question in the wake of conflict is what to do with the losing side. This problem is exacerbated in civil wars by the fact that “the enemy” is still part of the country, so any chance of coexistence relies on reconciliation. This is an issue Americans have struggled with since Reconstruction, when the wounds of the Civil War were still fresh.
Time and successive civil rights movements have solved a number of these problems, the current debate centers around memorials to Confederate figures that are seen by many as an affront to the African-American community but are vehemently defended by others, particularly southern whites, as part of American history – their heritage. So can the mere remembrance of white Southern culture and its past sins coexist with the African-American community and the northern States? We posit that the only way to find peace is through a compromise that recognizes historical and modern institutional racism while leaving intact the heritage of southern whites.
We frame this debate in terms of progressive and conservative arguments.
There are African-American conservatives who are against removing Confederate statues, such as Condoleezza Rice, who said, “When you start wiping out your history, sanitizing your history to make you feel better, it’s a bad thing.” On the other hand, there are many white people whose ancestors owned slaves, but are calling for removal of the statues.
This is why it is imperative that this is framed as an ideological rather than racial debate. There are many white and black people who may not align with the majority opinion of their own race. We do not claim to represent (and indeed would likely misrepresent) the opinions of the white community or the black community as such an endeavor reduces ethnicities to monolithic blocks with singular opinions rather than diverse groups with hosts of ideas.
The progressive opinion is effectively summarized by a writer from Slate, Jamelle Bouie, stating, “Yes, Jefferson was a slaveholder, Washington was a slaveholder. But the reason we memorialize them is not because of their slaveholding. We memorialize them because one wrote the Declaration of Independence, and one led the Continental Armies and basically formed the model for the presidency…..These statues (referencing Confederate statues) were explicitly raised as symbols of Jim Crow and of white supremacy… And the notion that there is a slippery slope is dumb.”
To add to that, the vast majority of Confederate statues were erected long after the war by groups that sought to glorify the memory of the Confederacy. The interpretation of the statues may have changed in some people’s minds today, but that does not erase what these statues stood for when they were raised. Regardless of the modern interpretation, these statues will always represent the Confederate goal: the right to subjugate an entire race of people for economic profit. That cannot be erased by simply claiming a new interpretation of the statues.
The conservative rebuttal stems from Edmund Burke’s prophecy, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” While Bouie is right in the cause of why the statues were originally there, conservatives argue that the statues still provide intrinsic value despite having a morally poor and racist initial purpose. Those statues are constant reminders not of the glories of the south, but of past sins against another race, and serve as prominent reminders not to go down that path again. The statues of Confederate leaders have been idealized not because of the great men they were, but because they represent the relatives and ancestors of many poor, white southerners who fought and died. Destroying the statues negates the existence of many southerners’ ancestors.
In addition, conservatives argue that the removal of statues is a slippery slope towards eradicating the memory of our founders. They say that the progressive masses do not actually follow the thinking of Bouie, but instead resort to a ‘group anger’ that may only be manifested by tearing down institutions that they equate with racism. Thus, removing the statues will not be enough, and soon everything else will come crumbling apart as they try to enact change through destruction. Furthermore, white supremacy can still exist in society even after the statues are gone. Bouie and other liberal elites may recognize the dangers of bringing the founding fathers into the debate, but the progressive masses will not.
Where can conservatives and progressives come together and compromise? We can start by increasing funding for education about the Civil War and the sins of slavery in both schools and communities around the United States. Then, we move the statues to museums across the South with other Confederate memorabilia. This provides a proper place to preserve and come to terms with our ugly past without honoring it as we do the founding fathers. We are not destroying anyone’s heritage, but rather conserving it in the context of a history lesson. What both sides already agree on is that these changes would be best carried out at the state level.
There is no total victory in civil wars – both sides must make concessions if they want to work towards rebuilding the nation.
Contributors: Michael Rummel