Last night, screaming student radicals tore down "Silent Sam," a statue of a Confederate soldier that had stood on campus at UNC-Chapel Hill for over a century. In this excerpt from the new book Erasing America: Losing Our Future By Destroying Our Past, James S. Robbins discusses how a vocal, sometimes violent left-wing minority is attempting to rewrite American history to further their political ends:
“Statues, inscriptions, memorial stones, the names of streets--anything that might throw light upon the past had been systematically altered.” George Orwell, 1984
On August 12, 2017, right- and left-wing demonstrators clashed in Emancipation Park, formerly Lee Park, in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The violence left three dead. Heather D. Heyer was killed when right wing extremist James Alex Fields rammed his car into a crowd, and Virginia state troopers H. Jay Cullen and Berke M. M. Bates died in a helicopter crash. Thirty-eight others were injured.
The Charlottesville incident and the political firestorm that followed spurred a nationwide purge of honors to the old Confederacy. Towns across the country began pulling down statues, removing plaques, renaming streets and schools, and otherwise erasing the memory of those times. “Liberals poured into the streets,” wrote satirist C. J. Hopkins, “tearing down Confederate monuments, and otherwise signaling their total intolerance of the racism they had tolerated until a few days earlier.”
Some activists took the matter into their own hands. In Durham, North Carolina, members of far-left groups including the Workers World Party and Democratic Socialists of America tore down a statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the county courthouse. Despite ample video evidence of the crime, District Court Judge Frederick S. Battaglia made prosecution futile and the radicals walked.
A few days after the Durham incident a statue of Robert E. Lee in front of the Duke University chapel was removed after vandals broke off parts of its face. In Austin a statue to legendary blues performer Stevie Ray Vaughan was spray painted for unknown reasons; the iconic broad-brimmed hat may have confused a vandal yet the guitar instead of a musket in Stevie’s statue hand should have been a clue.
NBC’s Saturday Night Live satirized Democratic leaders touting among other things a jobs program “converting Confederate monuments into statues of prominent lesbian poets.” This was meant as a joke about fossilized Democratic leaders trying to project a more “woke” image, but responses on Twitter suggested younger activists thought this was a good idea, and there is a precedent of sorts; in 2016 students at the University of Pennsylvania took down a prominent portrait of “dead white male” William Shakespeare and replaced it with a photo of "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde.
President Trump said it was “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.” But he also noted that the decision whether to keep such statues is “up to a local town, community, or the Federal Government, depending on where it is located.”
Nevertheless Mr. Trump was castigated for allegedly not denouncing the right-wing protestors in Charlottesville quickly enough, and then for not doing so thoroughly enough, and ultimately for saying there were good people on both sides of the statue issue. The president’s blanket condemnation of violent extremism on the right and the left reflected a time-honored and centrist American intellectual tradition. However, the media adopted the narrative that the statues could only be seen as vile hate symbols, so anyone wanting them to remain must ipso facto be a pro-slavery racist.
Democratic National Committee Deputy Chair Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota charged that President Trump had “greenlit” Charlottesville-style protests by the extreme right, and that the left-wing protestors more accurately reflected American values than the president. Ellison later posed smiling with a copy of “The Anti-Fascist Handbook” published by the violent ultra-left Antifa group, which even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has denounced.
CNN cast the net of blame even wider, running a story claiming that the Charlottesville tragedy “could not have occurred without the tacit acceptance of millions of ordinary, law-abiding Americans who helped create such a racially explosive climate,” and that all Trump voters were “white supremacists by default.”
But opinion polls showed that Americans agreed with President Trump by wide margins. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll from just after the Charlottesville incident asked whether Confederate statues “should remain as a historical symbol or be removed because they're offensive to some people.” Sixty-two percent said they should remain, while only twenty-seven percent said they should be removed.
When broken down by party, 86 percent of Republicans, 61 percent of independents and a surprising 44 percent of Democrats said statues should stay. Only 47 percent of Democrats opted for removal. Even more surprising was that a 44 percent plurality of African Americans favored keeping the statues, against 40 percent seeking removal. Two-thirds of whites and Latinos wanted the monuments to stay.
Polls also called into question the idea that (as one commentator wrote) “Confederate statues were erected as the loudest dog whistle to non-white subjugation in American history.” An Economist/YouGov survey found that 54 percent felt that statues of Confederate war heroes evoked southern pride, while only 26 percent saw them as symbols of racism.
Statues honoring rank and file soldiers in particular tend to be tributes to those who died in the fight, put up by their fellow troops, families and communities. Similar monuments – in some cases nearly identical -- were being erected in northern towns at the same time for the same purpose. Commemorating conflict and its human cost is part of the human condition. Monuments have always followed wars, in every country, since history began. And there have always been those, like the ancient Vandals or ISIS, who want to tear them down.
James S. Robbins is the author of Erasing America: Losing Our Future by Destroying Our Past (Regnery, 2018).