There’s a feeling I’ve become all too accustomed to over the past year: Uncertainty, washing over me as I begin to scan the day’s headlines or social media feed. The foundation has been fractured; we no longer feel like we have our footing. For the first time in ages, people are being forced to take a cold, hard look at themselves to answer questions about which side of the line they stand. It’s a difficult time, ideologically speaking.
We’ve lived the majority of our lives in a country where our beliefs aren’t constantly challenged. If there’s a silver lining in this ever-evolving state of chaos we are enduring, it’s the fact we’ve all been tasked with shaking the dust from our conscience and sharpening our resolve.
The events in Charlottesville, VA, will resonate in our country for years to come—as will the appalling level of rhetoric coming from the White House. The ripples of violence perpetrated by white nationalists are being felt in Wilmington, as the national discussion turns to Confederate monuments prominently featured in so many Southern towns. Are they honoring history or are they mere grim reminders of racism bubbling just beneath the surface? It all depends on who you ask. I spent some time ruminating on the divisive topic, dusting off the part of my brain controlling common sense to work to a sensible conclusion.
History is in a constant state of flux. The further away we get from a war, the easier it becomes to lump everything together: people, ideologies, etc. Complex situations become cut and dry. Wars are waged by men with agendas and fought by pawns who rarely understand for what they’re really fighting. Can we hate a war but love the warrior? Can we despise the ideology on one side of the battlefield but feel empathy for those who suffered and died for a cause? If we reduce the Civil War to being about slavery, it will always be difficult for some to see their service as honorable or their deaths as tragic. Just as it’s difficult for someone to grieve for German soldiers who died fighting for the Third Reich.
There are a great many people who always will see the Civil War as a battle involving liberation and ending genocide. That’s why indignation is always there on the topic. Some believe Confederate monuments exist to “honor the fallen soldier,” but others see, “Honor the fallen soldier who died trying to make sure black people remained enslaved.”
Some people still are bummed by the outcome of the “War Between the States,” and the monuments reflect such every day. Written across one prominent monument honoring the soldiers of the South has the words “The Daughters of the Confederacy” proudly written across its base. What those words imply very clearly is the daughters were proud of what they had in the South prior to the war; those values are still something they cherish. It’s an uncomfortable comfort level where they want people to embrace what was good about the South, and forget a few million people were suffering regularly to provide them such an existence. It’d be akin to people keeping up Nazi statues because, even though they killed Americans, Russians and engaged in a targeted genocide of the Jewish people, they still made the trains run on time.
In 2011 I travelled to Budapest—a beautiful city that had spent much of the 20th century embroiled in conflict and occupied by the Nazis and Soviet Union. It had been only 20 years since the fall of the USSR and an end to Communist rule in Hungary. While on our trip, my wife mentioned a destination she thought I would enjoy: a collection of Soviet-era statues and monuments called “Szoborpark,” or Memento Park. The soviets had spent decades erecting monuments to the founders of their revolution. After the empire crumbled, the people of Budapest decided to drag the massive monuments to the outskirts of the city and collect them in one place. It’s an amazing display of iconography and a trip through an era of history most citizens of Hungary would rather forget.
Maybe it’s time for the American South to adopt a similar strategy: Tear down monuments of an outdated ideology, and relocate them to a patch of land somewhere in the periphery where they can be viewed strictly in an historical context. Who wants to pass them by today, in a city roundabout, as a reminder some people still want to return to a pre-1865 state of American living. I won’t ever advocate erasing history, but I don’t think history has to be used to remind everyone they wish things had never changed.
Honor the history of the past but not at the expense of the future.