Unfashionable as it is to say, President. Trump was right to a degree in his comments on Tuesday.
Now he was wrong about some things. Few, if any, of those demonstrating against the removal of the statue of Lee from the re-named Emancipation Park were people of good will who are opposed to an Orwellian re-writing of history. Most appear to be “Alt-Right,” an odious mix of: Neo-Nazis; Klansmen; white nationalists; and other white supremacists
But he was right in stating that not everyone opposing the rally was on the side of the angels.
Along with the various and sundry clergy following in the way of Bonhoffer and Kolb, there were people following in the way of the Spartacists, who fought in the streets with the Freikorps in Berlin and Munich in the wake of the Kaiser’s abdication after World War I.
The conflict theorist, John Robb, has said that the key take away from Charlottseville is that both sides are trying to inflame further conflict, which again, harkens back to the conflicts that followed the fall of the German Empire.
For mood music, put on The Stones’ Street Fightin’ Man.
Although, I must say of the Alt-Right, with their Home Depot Tiki-torches and Hobby Lobby shields, getting pushed around by Antifas (whom they outnumbered), "you ain't exactly representin.'"
There are those who want drama and not progress. They exist on both sides, as President Trump stated. There are clear lessons from history on this issue and they should be considered.
For that reason, as a student of history, I tend to object to re-writing it.
For those of us born in the Twentieth Century, this tends to bring to mind Stalin's Purges and Orwell's 1984, but it is a far older phenomenon. Shakespeare, early in the development of modern British Constitutional monarchy and writing of the late Roman Republic, crafted these famous words:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest--
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men--
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man. The Life and Death of Julius Caesar, Act 3 Scene 2.
People have tried to control the present by re-inventing the past for a long time.
Lee, Jackson, Longstreet and Stuart are towering figures in American history, particularly American Military history. Lee and Jackson, particularly, were honorable men who made decisions, based on their understanding of the nature of our Republic (a commonly prevailing one then), that put them on the wrong side of history. If we discard that part of our history, we increase . . . not decrease . . . the chance that other people of good will might repeat that error, as Lee and Jackson’s dilemma and their choice will disappear along with the rest of their legacy.
Additionally, there are those who fought for the Confederacy whose legacy is far more ambiguous.
Consider, for example, former Confederate Major General “Little Billy” Mahone, who after the Civil War became a US Senator from Virginia as part of his “Readjuster Party” which sought to represent freed Blacks and poor Whites.
Mahone probably did not do that out of the goodness of his heart. He did it because he thought meeting the needs of those groups would advance the interests of his state and give him political advantage, by keeping these groups nominally in the Democratic fold. While Mahone, the son of an Irish immigrant and tavern-keeper, probably had no particular prejudice against Black people, he had been a slave owner and troops under his command, giving no quarter, had killed large numbers of “US Colored Troops” during Mahone’s great victory at The Crater.
However, Mahone, in the 1870s and 1880s had assembled the very coalition that FDR would rely on in the 1930s and 1940s and on which the Democratic Party largely relies today. We are, in my opinion, better served by studying this ambiguity, rather than trying to banish it.
On the other hand, men of good will can disagree.
Ralph Northam, M.D., the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, currently running for Governor in that state, has called for statues of Confederate figures in public spaces to be removed from public display and placed in museums.
While this is a stereotypical position for any ambitious Democrat, it is a notable position for an alumnus of the Virginia Military Institute (Mahone’s alma mater, where Jackson taught Physics and Artillery Tactics for 10 years prior to the Civil War), especially one, like Northam, who was both President of the Cadet Honor Court and a Battalion Commander in the Cadet Regiment.
Northam will probably lose the support of most VMI alumni in the Old Dominion, a large number of them affluent and well connected, over the position he has taken. Unlike most ambitious Democrats taking such a position, he stands to lose from this public position. He has, in Nassim Taleb’s phrase, “Skin in the Game.” It is what lawyers call, a declaration against interest,” which is momentous, for example, admissible in a court even as hearsay.
In Northam’s case, as in Lee and Jackson’s, an honest man has made a decision that may, or may not, be right and may have adverse consequences. The verdict is with history, . . .er . . . so long as history can consider it, of course.