Possessed of some kind of strange atavistic power, statues of long dead but definitely not forgotten figures drive emotions still, and some to violence. So it is in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a terrorist drove a car into a protesting crowd, murdering one and injuring 11. And all because a lump of bronze is getting shifted: the figure of Civil War-era general Robert E Lee is being relegated from its prime location.
The nearby public space where the clashes are taking place was formerly Lee Park, and gradually, on state flags and statuary, and in other symbolic ways large and small, the symbols of white supremacy – real and perceived – are fading from the prominence they gained in the era of segregation, when the civil rights of Black Americans supposedly won in that Civil War were being systematically dismantled under the bogus slogan of “separate but equal”.
The Lee statue for example was not some tribute from bereaved Southerners in a recent bloody war, but was erected decades later, in 1924. It was designed to symbolise supremacy rather than reconciliation, no matter who it was.
When Donald Trump initially refused to condemn the racists and klansmen on the march in the South, but spoke instead of violence on “many sides”, he was either prey to some confused moral equivalence or was cynically mindful of his electoral base.
There is though no moral equivalence between democrats and neo-fascists, as is usually well appreciated. There is good reason why the Lincoln Memorial is one of humanity’s great monuments to freedom, and old Abe is on the banknotes, while the politicians and generals of the confederate states who fought for slavery occupy a less prominent position in modern American life.
Lincoln it was who demonstrated magnanimity in victory, having Dixie played at public events and Lee’s funeral. Yet as white power reasserted itself by the 1890s and in turn was challenged by the civil rights movement from the 1950s onwards, America has never had a formal process of “truth and reconciliation”, such as the Mandela-inspired one in South Africa. Nor the public contrition for past crimes seen in post-war Germany, for example.
Through legislation and the election of a black president, African-Americans have made huge strides, and they should not daily have to be confronted with an ugly, cruel past. They should not.
Flags, statues, songs and symbols matter to people. It is why the UK Union Flag is seldom seen in Scotland, why Australia and New Zealand contemplate removing it from their own flags; why the flag of St George was appropriated by English nationalists; why it was so powerful a symbol when the statues of Lenin and Stalin were pulled down after the Cold War, and why Stalin is being rehabilitated in Putin’s Russia; why Saddam’s statue was toppled and beaten with shoes; why Chinese tourists are arrested for giving a Nazi salute in Berlin; why some want the statues of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa and Oxford taken down, as they have been in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) and why a giant sculpture of Friedrich Engels was moved from Ukraine to its new welcoming home in Manchester.
It is no coincidence that the most oppressive nations tend to have the most gigantic tributes to their leaders – witness the absurd monuments of the Kim family in North Korea.
Maybe one day America’s South will have moved so far that General Lee and his statue and the Confederacy and its flags will be regarded as a distant though fascinating historical phenomenon, like the now obscure generals dotted around London’s Trafalgar Square. For now they are living breathing symbols of hate, and best kept well in the background.
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