Opinion Columns & Blogs

Not up to the task of answering a central question

We’ve been here before. A deadly rampage by a white supremacist. A debate about Confederate symbols in public places.

Two years ago, we searched our souls after a mass shooting in a historic black church in Charleston. Now we’re doing the same after Charlottesville, where a man described as a Nazi sympathizer is charged with running over and killing a woman and injuring 19 others, after a street fight pitting marchers carrying swastikas and rebel flags against leftist vigilantes.

Post-Charleston, the rebel flag came down from its permanent spot on South Carolina’s capitol grounds and was banished from other spots as well. But most calls to remove Confederate statues and monuments went unheeded. Post-Charlottesville, it didn’t take long for the issue of public tributes to the Old South to rise again.

There are questions worth asking, particularly in Georgia and the rest of the South. Is the vice president of the Confederacy truly one of the two best representatives of our state in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall? Do memorials to Robert E. Lee, a century and a half after Appomattox, serve more to inspire bigots or to remind us of our heritage, warts and all? Is the best way to make our public places more inclusive for more people to remove monuments that cause offense, or to add new ones that tell a fuller account of our history?

Instead, for days we have been mired in an argument about whether, if we take down statues of Lee and other Confederates, memorials for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are next.

That would seem to be quite the slippery slope. The father of our country and the author of the Declaration of Independence are, apart from their flaws, altogether different from the military commander of the failed Confederacy, apart from his admirable qualities. Surely, if we were to draw an anti-Confederate line, it need not ensnare the Founders as well.

Yet some people, including Al Sharpton and an analyst on CNN, actually have argued for removing, or ceasing to maintain, tributes to Washington, Jefferson and others who seemingly pass the test of general acceptability.

Thanks to the vastness of the internet and the need to fill 24 hours per day on cable television, one can readily find somebody saying pretty much everything stupid the human mind can conjure. And legions of their sympathizers will not only adopt an argument unburdened by thought; they’ll revel in it.

But wait, there’s more. Following the apparent dictum of contemporary politics that no irrationality can go unmatched, President Trump’s personal attorney reportedly circulated an email that likewise compared Washington to Lee. Among other things, the message he forwarded to allies claimed “You cannot be against General Lee and be for General Washington, there literally is no difference between the two men.”

Thus does the same basic argument, made by opposing sides, confirm one group’s suspicion that extremists will not budge on Confederate symbols — while confirming another group’s fear that a different set of extremists will not stop at Confederate symbols.

There are questions worth asking about the way we publicly memorialize figures from our history. But we don’t seem up to the task of answering them at the moment.

Kyle Wingfield writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Reach him and read more at www.bit.ly/KyleWingfield.