It might shock many, but perhaps people could learn something valuable from Lee instead of erasing him from public memory.
On Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia the KKK marched in protest of a planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. Charlottesville is the location of the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson, and is the campus about which Rolling Stone Magazine wrote their infamous fake piece on campus rape. Given the violent protests on college campuses around the country, and the illiberal streak of schools like UVA, it is great that the city stood up for free speech. It’s also a good sign that the counter protesters did not instigate violence. But the KKK marching in support of the statue does more harm than good — it puts up barriers to remembering the imperfect past.
The removal of Lee’s statue represents a disturbing trend of erasing history based on any association with slavery. It follows the removal of Confederate statues in New Orleans, and increasing calls to rename buildings and streets named after Southern leaders. Given the minority of Trump supporters that come from the alt-right, the marching of the KKK in support of this statue unnecessarily connects Lee, Trump, and conservatives with racism.
It’s true that Robert E. Lee held slaves for a short period and fought for the Confederacy. But history is more complicated than stoking outrage and calling somebody racist. By the standards of today, everybody from the past was racist. The Barrack Obama that ran for President in 2012 held positions on gay marriage that would now be considered homophobic by the intolerant left. Instead, we should all seek to understand why people from the past thought and acted the way they did, and recognize that even those associated with slavery made valuable contributions to society worthy of a statue.
Robert E. Lee was a brilliant man and a great leader — by many accounts he was a godly man worthy of emulation. He freed the slaves that he inherited — after the war he became president of a college and called for reconciliation as he trained young minds to be loyal to the union. He fought for the confederacy because of a now outdated belief that loyalty to his state was more important than loyalty to the federal government. He felt that the federal government was overreaching and trampling on people’s rights. It might shock many, but perhaps people could learn something valuable from Lee instead of erasing him from public memory.
It’s true that Robert E. Lee was associated with a slave owning society, but all modern people have come together and condemned the selling of slaves (except maybe the KKK, which is why those who support a Lee statue really don’t want their help). Despite the connection with slavery, Lee is worthy of study and remembrance, just as the slave owners Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are. I wish I was around for another 100 years to see the liberals of today have their statues defaced and removed by the liberals of the future. But for now, I’ll settle for explaining why we shouldn’t remove the imperfect luminaries of our past.