Why People Defend Confederate Statues
The Confederate States of America (CSA) is rightly considered to be a nation that valued racist white supremacy and acted in traitorous ways to the Union. It does not change the fact that the southern half of the country was under the CSA’s rule for years on end, and to this day, many Southerners claim heritage from those who fought for the CSA. To them, what we deride as venerations of racist ideology, is not so much that, as much as a simple Southern pride and pride for their ancestors irrespective of the darker aspects of their ideology. The debate around Confederate statues and plaques are not about whether the statues depict leaders from a time where they valued white supremacy. That is a given. The debate should be, whether removing those statues now, will have a positive impact on southern culture. To make that judgement, we first need to understand why so many Americans value keeping Confederate monuments.
Southerners are not blind to what their ancestors followed. American elementary and high schools teach them as much about the CSA. Yet, Southerners are not significantly more racist than their northern counterparts. Racism is not a motivator for keeping the statues, and therefore, the South will not get any more racist by removing the statues. No, the key reason why people still venerate Confederate monuments is to foster a sense of “southern-ness” as a distinct culture in America. It is worth noting, that for many, the Confederate flag and statues are also a way to venerate ancestors, irrespective of whether they fought for the CSA, or whether it is for respect for those that flew the Confederate flag bravely at the Battle of the Bulge (1945). As such, it makes sense that a majority of white working-class Americans (71 per cent) say the Confederate flag is more a symbol of Southern pride than racism. It follows that Confederate statues are representative of that same idea. And those 29 per cent that do say that the Confederate flag is representative of racism, do not view that racism as a good thing. The fact is Confederate monuments have shifted in what they represent. They no longer represent racism. Are there people that misappropriate the current meaning of Confederate statues for racist purposes? Some people do. However, that is like saying that some people misappropriate the usage of kitchen knives, to kill people. It is the exception, not the rule. To say that the South broadly is racist and that Confederate statues are the manifestation of that racism is fallacious at best.
While we have established that Southerners today are not racist, what about the statues themselves? It is understandable that a statue of Jefferson Davis, or Stonewall Jackson, or Robert E. Lee, all of whom who defended slavery, is considered controversial. We must still remember that all three of these people, and other Confederate soldiers venerated, were historical figures. Back in the 19th century, the world was a different place. Slavery was commonplace and accepted all across the world, not just in America, but also in Africa, Europe, Asia, and South America. People had different and at times, ill-conceived values back in the day. Given that, America inherited slavery, and yet managed to create a just Constitution in spite of it. The Union was simply the exception to the rule of slavery, not the rule itself. What this means is that the vast majority of people across the world, many of whom we consider heroes, would have supported slavery.
We cannot apply present values to figures of the past (the technical term is presentism). Our society has progressed very far, and to judge historical figures solely on current norms and values is unfair. For that reason, mainstream historians consider presentism to be fallacious. In the context of CSA figures, this means that we should not judge them in a vacuum. We ought to judge them in the context of their time. Is it unnatural that a nation would have supported slavery in the 19th century? We can consider it wrong and immoral now, but it certainly was not unnatural at the time. Even Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. The strongest argument, therefore, in favour taking down Confederate statues is not that they supported slavery (even if we can universally condemn slavery today), but that the Confederacy acted traitorously against the Union.
The argument that the reason we should take down Confederate statues is because of the CSA’s treachery against the Union is a strong and fair one. What those who support Confederate statues would say in response, is, that is exactly why we should keep Confederate statues up today. Without being mutually exclusive, for a subset of people, Confederate statues represent Southern pride, yet for another set of people, Confederate statues serve as a reminder of a difficult past. Confederate statues truly show that even in America, a country founded on fundamentally just moral precepts, humanity is capable of evil. Condoleezza Rice, former black Secretary of State says this well.
“I’m a firm believer in ‘keep your history before you.’ And so I don’t actually want to rename things that were named for slave owners. I want us to have to look at the names and recognize what they did, and be able to tell our kids what they did and for them to have a sense of their own history.” — Condoleezza Rice
To remove Confederate statues and venerations is to quote Rice again, “sanitizing your history”. Why is this? History is to be judged as right or wrong. This is because we induce knowledge of the present and future, on the rights and wrongs of the past. However, by removing history (for example through removing statues), you also remove the inherent value statements put on history. Removing Confederate statues from the public eye is simply a way to forget and obscure history, not to learn from it to become better people in the future. There is no more wrongness to history when history is gone in the first place. If nothing else, removing Confederate statues is a tacit form of historical revisionism.
Let’s go back to the idea of presentism. While presentism is certainly reason to judge history on context, it also provides a powerful slippery slope argument. One can deride a slippery slope argument is fallacious, only up until the slippery slope actually comes to pass. In 2017, when President Trump asked whether George Washington or Thomas Jefferson statues would be taken down, because they were slave owners, not unlike those in the CSA, he was laughed at. Everyone thought that President Trump was joking. It may have been a joke, until that actually happened a few days ago when a Thomas Jefferson statue was taken down. A statue of a Founding Father. This shows us a crucial fact. When the justification for taking down a statue, boils down to the idea that the person supported or was ambivalent to slavery, it sets an unreachable precedent. Remembering, that most people were not abolitionists in the 19th century, under the precedent set by protesters these days, you could make a case for nearly everyone’s statue to be taken down. Even that of a Founding Father. That is why presentism is fallacious. Historical figures simply cannot be judged by the same criteria we use to judge people today, lest we deride basically every historical figure as deficient and evil. There is no limiting principle under this precedent.
In truth, oftentimes the reasoning given for taking down a Confederate statue is a form of reductionism. Often, what more cynical protestors do is that they take historical context, and then abstract only what they consider the information relevant to their cause. For example, never mind that Robert E. Lee advocated moving on, after losing the Civil War. Or to take a Union example, disregard the idea that Ulysses Grant, someone who had a complicated relationship with slaves, was crucial to freeing slaves from the Civil War by defeating the Confederates. Simply, all of the irrelevant information to the protestors’ cause are abstracted away, so they are left with the idea that Grant and Lee owned slaves. From there, protestors take only the essential idea to their cause. For example, Ulysses Grant is now a racist because he owned slaves. And as expected, Grant’s statue was toppled a couple days ago. This thought process takes away so much of the complexity of history. People are not clear cut, and neither is history. This form of reductionism simply does not account for that.
Even on a purely moral level, we have to be cognizant that people are flawed beings. If we cancelled or shunned people only based on their wrongs, instead of also looking at the vast good they have done for society. I do not think anyone would advocate taking down a monument to Martin Luther King Jr, even if he was an adulterer, because of the vast amount of good he did for the Civil Rights Movement. In that same vein, we should be consistent in saying that CSA figures supported a heinous ideology of white supremacy, while also recognizing that their statues still represent a sense of Southern pride completely disassociated with racism today. No one is perfect, and we ought to remember that.
With all of this said, it is not like the general peaceful protestor does not have a point, when they want a Confederate statue taken down. It is absolutely fair for an African American to view a Confederate statue with derision, especially because their taxpayer dollars are going towards keeping up statues that wanted to enslave them. However, decisions to take down a statue should be done calmly, and it should be done with consensus. If people vote to take down a statue on a local level, they should be able to do it. That is what federalism is about. Simply removing a statue without taking into consideration the beliefs of others in the community is not civil or fair. Especially because they too may have a reason to keep a statue standing, for any of the above reasons. Unfortunately, that kind of civil dialogue or disagreement is not happening right now. Only when we can return to civility, we can consider removing Confederate statues through consensus.