1) First, to state the obvious, contrary to our president, “you can change history.” What you can’t change is the past. As the president no doubt remembers, Hegel, in his Philosophy of History stated “history encompasses in our language [that is, German] the objective as well as the subjective aspect and signifies both historiam renum gestorum (historical accounts of the past) and res gestae (the things themselves.)” Same in English. Though today we are perhaps more skeptical than Hegel that the “res gestae” are self-interpreting. History, the interpretation of the past, is always changing. And the history of the Confederacy has undergone vast changes in recent decades.
2) Hegel was referring to a distinction that has become central to recent historiography, the difference between “history” and “memory.” My quick way of distinguishing between them. The goal of good history writing is to place events of the past in their historical context, and since every era has its own context, good history writing distances us from the past, makes us remember or learn how different the past is from the present. I would note that it doesn’t take eons or even decades for the “historical context” to change. It is already difficult, for instance, to think back to just a year ago, when many of us thought that Hillary Clinton was going to be the next president . Read some newspaper articles from last August. We are living in a different historical era.
3) Memory, on the other hand, effaces and often erases the distance between the past and the present. Figures of the past become our contemporaries. Rather than providing historical context, memory is concerned with how the past can be useful for us. To broadly overgeneralize, history seeks complexity and nuance, and memory does not. It needs heroes, and it needs villains.
4) Statues are part of public memory, not history. To erect a statue to someone is to honor that part of a person thought worthy of admiration. But there are always other parts. No one is perfect. I guess in the western world the earliest statues were built to honor the gods, and it was only much later, with the Romans, that statues started to be erected to persons (primarily to Roman Emperors, who were thought to be, in some sense, divine.) Perhaps the ancient Hebrews had it right: all statues are idols, false representations of their subject.
5) Statues that honor aspects of the Confederacy are all idols worshipping the false gods of white supremacy, slavery, Jim Crow, and racial subordination.
6) To repeat, no one is perfect. No statue honors a perfect person. If we look for flaws in those whom we place on pedestals, we will find them. I think all Confederate statues need to go; but there is no unambiguous division between Confederates and others, such as other ante-bellum slaveowners, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. If our president wishes to call attention to the ways in which slavery has deformed our country from the beginning, he is correct. But this calls for a greater reckoning with slavery, and not, as our president wants to do, sweep in under the rug because of the inherent “greatness” of a Washington, a Jefferson, or even a Lee.
7) Even if there is no unambiguous division between Confederates and other slave owners, there are practical ones. As has been often said, the reason there are monuments to Confederates is
precisely because they went to war against the United States to defend the institution of slavery. Monuments to Washington and Jefferson were built for other reasons.
8) We will not solve this problem, definitively, ever. Every generation will have to refight it. The current struggle is against the memorialization of the Confederacy, and I think we should not dilute our energies by trying to efface all traces of America’s racist past, not because we shouldn’t do so, but because we need to focus on the very difficult task at hand.
9) The conversation about this has been very helpful and illuminating. The incompatibility between the ideals of the Confederacy and American democracy has never been clearer, and the demonstrations in Charlottesville and the idiotic maunderings of our president has only sharpened the debate. The point is, for me, less about removing the offensive statuary, but educating the public about the Confederacy. The reason why there are no Nazi statues in Germany is primarily because Germans, after 1945, wished to distance themselves from the crimes of National Socialism (even when, by all rights, they were implicated in those crimes.) The reason why there is so much Confederate statuary in the US is that Confederates and their descendants never felt a similar need to separate themselves from their past. Perhaps, now, when for the first time, when neo-Nazis have become the champions of the Confederacy, they will.
10) Let me repeat, every generation will have to refight this, and define their own boundaries between the permissible and impermissible in public memory. This is a debate about memory, not about history. Here in Clemson, for instance, while there are calls to change the name of Tillman Hall, named after perhaps the most notorious racist in turn of the 20th century America, no one is calling for pulling down Fort Hill, the home of John C. Calhoun, the most prominent and notorious ante-bellum defender of slavery. This is how it should be. Fort Hill, though it can and should be reinterpreted, is a genuine artifact of history. Statues and portraits of Calhoun, such as one that hanged until very recently in the Clemson University library, are artifacts of memory.
11) Whether or not the statues of Confederate generals are pulled down, nothing will change the reality that the most significant event that ever happened in the United States was the four years of the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Its inherent historical gravitational force is so great that almost everything else in American history continues to revolve around it, leading up to it and trailing away from it. And of course, you can’t understand the Civil War without understanding the Confederacy. And to understand the Confederacy, we need to place it in its historical context, with proper attention to historical complexity, without having, as our primary task, creating heroes or villains. But the Confederacy no longer deserves to be honored in our public memory.