Old South vs. the new America: What Confederate monuments say about us

Old South vs. the new America: What Confederate monuments say about us
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The 20th anniversary of Sept. 11 challenges us to consider what our country stands for, what it should stand for, and for whom it should stand.

The central conceit of Confederate monuments is that the antebellum South is ever-present. It remains — and always will remain — embedded in the fabric of American consciousness.

The problem, of course, is that one cannot separate — historically, sociologically, or emotionally — the Old South’s reverence for torturing human beings. For buying and selling them. For separating children from parents and wives from husbands. For capturing them. For murdering them.

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That’s not to say other Americans did not support slavery, or even own slaves. But to my knowledge, there are no Confederate monuments honoring Vermonter secessionists. Confederate monuments were dedicated to advancing a supremacist Southern heritage, aimed at intimidating and threatening those who stood in the way. And not only “stood,” but also “stand,” because they continue to offend and dishonor those whose ancestors died so that these Confederates could live in public squares forever.

Last week’s removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, Va., has been met with the usual backlash. Former President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Trump sues NYT, Mary Trump over story on tax history McConnell, Shelby offer government funding bill without debt ceiling MORE — who according to the Republican National Committee “still leads” the GOP — was quick to name Lee a national hero while lamenting — erroneously — that “except for Gettysburg, [he] would have won the [Civil] War.” Trump also strangely insisted that Lee would have handed the U.S. “total victory” in Afghanistan.

Hyperbole and questionable intent aside, the idolization of Lee and those he led into battle against the United States raise questions his eternal supporters will not — or cannot — answer: How many centuries are enough to honor men who killed hundreds of thousands of Americans? And by extension, for what purpose are we obeying monumental decisions made generations ago?

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries — the years when many of these monuments were erected — doctors commonly recommended soothing teething babies with licorice-flavored morphine syrup. Why don’t American medical textbooks continue to promote morphine syrup? Because of scientific progress. Previous “experts” who pushed this product into people’s homes don’t merit public recognition. They don’t deserve pedestals. Simply put, we should have known better back then. We didn’t. Now we do. And medical writings and parents’ attitudes have evolved accordingly.

And the notion of “evolution” is critical. We can remember past mistakes without shoving them in people’s faces. So, too, can we remember past horrors without venerating the perpetrators.

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Slavery was our country’s original sin. Displaying monuments to those who killed and died to perpetuate slavery is a contemporary sin. A majority of Americans agree, and want the monuments gone. The other side believes, inexplicably, that removing them will somehow desecrate America.

By keeping these Confederate monuments, we are taking orders from avowed bigots of the past, who desperately sought to reignite the Lost Cause. More than 1,000 remaining statues represent these bigots’ triumph over modern-day America, which is supposedly (but nowhere close to) “post-racial.”

Every day these structures tower over us, we, an allegedly evolved nation aspiring for goodness and greatness, straining to liberate ourselves from a history steeped in dehumanization, are surrendering unconditionally to a devoutly racist philosophy.

If we truly are a better country than we were 50, 100, and 150 years ago, then it’s way past time we grow up and act like it.

B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.