You know we’ve reached a point of – something – when a sports announcer named Robert Lee is reassigned from calling a University of Virginia college football game because of his contemporaneously unfortunate name.
Lee reportedly agreed with ESPN that he should go elsewhere rather than risk heckling, distraction or potentially worse given the recent horror in Charlottesville, where white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other vermin violently protested the taking down of a Robert E. Lee statue. The ensuing mayhem left one counter-protester dead and many others injured.
One could hardly blame Lee, assuming ESPN’s version of events is accurate. Internally, the decision was no big deal, according to the network. Nevertheless, it provided the spark needed to freshly inflame passions in the wake of controversies over whether to remove Confederate monuments that many find offensive.
Why, after all, should we glorify the South’s Lost Cause or the institution of slavery the Confederacy sought to protect? Why should public lands play host to marble, granite and bronze images of men who tried to destroy our relatively new nation? By now, surely, we can drop the ruse of states’ rights as the overarching rationale for the Civil War. The South needed slaves to support its economy, period.
This doesn’t mean that the South has nothing of which to be proud. The valor of those who died protecting their homes and families can’t be denied. The fact that the vast majority of those killed and maimed held no slaves suggests there was more to the Southern soldiers’ fervor than a burning desire to secure human bondage.
In the end, it was a matter of pride – and, later, injured pride.
Once the Confederate states were conquered (or liberated, depending on one’s perspective), there was nothing left but ashes and anguish from which to salvage a memory of lost glory and a culture at once beautiful and beastly. Amnesia was essential to this task. This meant minimizing or blocking the facts of slavery and inventing a more palatable explanation for the war. Thus, “states’ rights” for the foreseeable future will be presumed to be first a dog whistle for racism and only second an argument for decentralizing the federal government.
For most Southerners, however, Gen. Lee wasn’t a hero because he supported human bondage but because he was viewed as noble, brave and true to the mission of defending the South against “Northern aggression.” That he lost the war is no less reason to admire the traits of courage, loyalty and sacrifice that we attribute to heroes.
The irony, of course, is that Lee himself probably would applaud the removal of all monuments related to a war he viewed as a national horror. As mentioned here before, Lee warned his fellow Southerners against glorifying the war and specifically requested that no monuments be built in its honor. He thought it best to leave the past behind and to move forward as a united nation.
I present these observations not as endorsements or condemnations but as a Southern-born, Yankee-bred agnostic on statuary. As a hybrid American – the product of a World War II Yankee pilot and a Southern belle – my ancestors fought on both sides of the Civil War. My basement houses Confederate money from my maternal grandmother as well as a record album of Union songs favored by my father.
This family collection, though interesting as historical artifact, is nonetheless personal and irrelevant to a sane nation. In other words, who cares? The terrible violence of the Civil War and the enormous loss of life can never be reconciled, nor the scars of slavery completely erased. But we are well past a time when we should allow ourselves to be divided over a long-ago war. As a nation, we abhor that slavery ever existed, as we also recoil from the fact that for most of our history women were considered less human than men.
We also respect history, but we move on. The monuments in question may remind us of who and what came before, but they also reflect a half-truth. Perhaps the better solution is to build more memorials, as the city of Richmond has done, to honor the heroic slaves, their forebears and descendants, whose skills, knowledge and labor made both the Old South and modern America possible.
In the meantime, ESPN ought to give Robert Lee a raise.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.