The flashpoints that sparked the clash between world views earlier this month in Charlottesville, Virginia are just the latest battle in the decades-long culture war over racial and economic inequality in the USA. Once again, groups on the left and right of America’s political extremes (along with others) are battling it out in online forums and public protests. The most recent lightning rods are American Civil War monuments to white generals and soldiers who fought for the Southern Confederacy to maintain their (economic) right to own slaves. It was, of course, the slaves that allowed the South to prosper by providing the manual labor needed to run vast agricultural plantations.
Having grown up in the South, I’m fully aware of the fact that some Southerners still carry a chip on their shoulder due to the South’s defeat in that tragic conflict that took so many lives on both sides and left the USA a broken country. I had a classmate in high school who always wore a belt with a large Confederate symbol on the buckle, continually talked about the artifacts he and his father had found at numerous Civil War battlefields over the years and always referred to the bloody battles that took place from 1861 to 1865 as ‘the war between the States’. A dozen years later when I lived in a southern coastal town, I encountered a man in his 20s who refused to accept pennies in change when he made a purchase because Abraham Lincoln’s image was stamped on them.
While such encounters are certainly not the norm these days, they made me aware of the raw emotions that can still be attached to such distant (to me) historical events. Therefore, I’m not at all surprised that some Southerners cling to these symbols of days gone by as if there was something magical about the period prior to the war.
Identifying the opposing sides
In the latest controversy, these nostalgic white Southerners, along with other conservative white Southerners who are afraid of change in general and average (white) locals who say they view these monuments as historical and seek to preserve the monuments in their current public spaces, have been joined by members of the Alt-right movement which is made up of self-proclaimed white supremacists and KKK members.
While it’s impossible to know the motivations of all those fighting to keep these monuments in place, the Alt-right has publicly declared that they’re fighting for a homeland for the white race and want to deport all non-white people from US soil. In my view, the Alt-right, who organized the ‘White Nationalist’ demonstration in Charlottesville, is clearly opportunistic and has embraced the ‘save our monuments’ cause in order to drum up support for their ugly and flawed agenda.
The opposing side wants to remove the monuments, with some expressing a desire to destroy them while others (the majority?) think they would have more educational value by being preserved in museums. Those who hold these and similar viewpoints are also being joined in public protests by what’s being termed ‘the Alt-left’ or Antifascists, labeled by the media simply as Antifa. This collection of civil rights groups views the monuments as racially-charged and totally offensive symbols of hatred and discrimination that are outdated and have no place in a multicultural society.
Based on media accounts, some individuals aligned to Antifa (so-called anarchists?) were involved in violent confrontations with the Alt-right members during the Charlottesville demonstrations where a 31-year old woman was killed and many others were injured. I want to state firmly that I personally condemn any violence on the part of the left or right!
My Southern perspective
Since I grew up in the ‘the South’ and I’m currently spending time here, this battle seems quite personal to me. In fact, there’s one monument in particular that I’ve always adored for what I perceived to be its artistic value—“Gloria Victis” by noted sculptor Frederic Wellington Ruckstuhl—which was cast in Belgium and unveiled in its current location in the median of a busy public street in Salisbury, NC in 1909.
As a child, my family would often take day trips to Salisbury to shop. From the backseat of my parent’s car, I would gaze up in awe at this bronze sculpture depicting a Confederate soldier slumping into the arms of a majestic angel. I remember craning my neck and climbing up on the car’s rear seat for a better view through the back window. Part of my fascination for this particular monument was, perhaps, the mere novelty of it, since there were very few public sculptures on display in the area where I grew up.
Since some of these controversial monuments have recently been vandalized or destroyed while others have been voluntarily removed by city councils in various States, I revisited the Salisbury sculpture last week to see if there had been any alterations or if the entire monument might now be wrapped in black plastic while the local government decides what step to take next. While I must say I still have an appreciation for the sculptor’s skill in creating Salisbury’s “Gloria Victus”, after reading the verses placed on all four sides of the base which glorify the Southern Confederacy’s cause in the Civil War, I can clearly see why African Americans would demand the removal of such blatantly racist symbols of a historical period when their ancestors were bought and sold like cattle and considered the absolute property of whites who often viewed and treated them as less than human.
With further research, I learned that most of these monuments were commissioned and financed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an advocacy organization whose website states that their aim is to honor the contributions their ancestors made to building the USA as a nation. As a history buff, it’s difficult to understand how an organization such as this could completely ignore the fact that the so-called contributions of some of their ancestors were responsible for ripping apart the very fabric of the American Republic.
Learning by example
Don’t misunderstand my point of reference here. I may have grown up as a white boy in the rural American South, but in regards to race and gender views, I had the good fortune of having parents and grandparents who believed in racial and gender equality and that education and life-long learning were the keys to understanding others. These positive role models taught me that discrimination based on the color of someone’s skin was not only ignorant but also immoral. Judge me by the words I speak and the deeds I do, not the color of my skin, religious beliefs, gender, sexual orientation etc.
My personal world view is based on my belief in egalitarianism—that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities. To me, this ideal must be a driving force behind the actions of every nation that seeks to be labeled a ‘democracy’. Any nation that doesn’t practice this in principle is being hypocritical when it espouses ‘freedom’ and democracy to the rest of the world.
I also try to have a tolerant attitude toward the lives and beliefs of others, and no, I don’t believe tolerance equates to a lack of moral fortitude. I consider myself to be as principled in my work ethic and belief in self-determination as anyone, but I do not believe I have the right to tell anyone else how they should live their lives. The only absolute I strive to exemplify is to treat others as I want to be treated. The simplicity of this idea can’t be overstated, but it seems to be incredibly difficult for some humans in practice, the ones who want to place us in boxes and separate us from each other.
Tolerance has its limits
As tolerant as I attempt to be of others’ beliefs, my tolerance does have its limits. If we show complete tolerance to those with socially and economically destructive ideas such as those espoused by the Alt-right movement, it is the tolerant that will be silenced in the future world the white supremacists desire to create. In case anyone was absent from high school history class, horrifying examples of ethnic cleansing can be found from Nazi Germany to the Balkans, Armenia and far beyond.
While there are many lessons to be learned from these historical examples, perhaps the most basic is that nations cannot thrive for long periods of time if those in power survive by instituting policies that advocate propaganda or the segregation, discrimination or extermination of certain unwanted groups. Such nations will witness the crumbling of their economies and decades of economic and social chaos while they seek to rebuild a truly prosperous and enduring society. If you have any doubts about this, ask the Germans whose government institutions go out of their way to display the horrors of the Nazi era in an effort to be sure it’s never repeated.
As I stated previously on this blog, I don’t feel an allegiance to any political party and I have never been a ‘single issue’ voter, believing instead that the things we care most about (leading to liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all) are a package deal, not isolated from other issues. Politicians the world over love to pander to the desires of individual groups in order to gain and shore up power by using the divide and conquer method of governing.
This has been President Trump’s strategy from the beginning of his campaign and the people and image of the USA are suffering terribly because of it. However, Trump didn’t create the divisions. He’s an opportunist who merely fanned the flames of the schism which already existed and used the ensuing anger to develop his base. I feel the greatest damage he’s done to date is in urging US citizens to reject civility by giving his stamp of approval to hate speech and bigotry.
Causes and solutions
So, what’s the answer to the growing divide in world view between America’s so-called left and right? I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have any definitive answers or solutions, but one thing I’m convinced of is that violence only begets more violence and will never solve the underlying issues. I’ve occasionally felt the need to rage against the system, but not by unleashing the ugly, destructive side of our human nature. Dialogue and an offer of compromise are much better ways to win hearts and minds to a cause.
It seems human civilization has made strides toward creating a more equitable world, but there is still SO much more work left to be done. Now is not the time to take a step backward.