I think way too much has been said and written over the last week about the Charlottesville riot, its political aftermath, and the ongoing movement toward removing public commemorations to persons who served in the Confederate military during the Civil War (as well as for slaveholders, generally). Such is the nature of our 24/7 information cycle, which never gives us a chance to escape the immediacy of such events and issues in order to actually think about them constructively. As a result, I, and many others with whom I’ve been talking recently, feel we are caught in a spiral of public insanity that we can’t seem to escape.
But we need to escape it and begin to rebuild our society—now. Toward that end, I want to briefly share some thoughts with you.
First, every community in our Republic has the right to decide whether and whom it will honor in its public spaces with road names and signs, building and park names, plaques, statues, and any other form of commemoration, including the right to change or remove those commemorations. These are decisions for each community to make; and while those of us from outside the community may have a right to offer our opinions about proposed choices, but, in the end, we should respect each community’s decision.
Second, though I respect the decisions being made to remove statues and other forms of commemorations of Confederate soldiers from public venues, I fear, as with so many actions today, that those who are promoting such blanket attacks on these monuments are being way to draconian and are actually destroying the full, rich history of their communities—both the good and the bad. For instance, for every Nathan Bedford Forest, who never really embraced the post-Civil War peace and who helped form the KKK, there were thousands of men who returned from that war to rebuild their communities and society. Men like Robert E. Lee, who spent his final years promoting reconciliation and building a respected liberal arts university. These men re-pledged allegiance to the Union, had their citizenship restored, and built the foundations of their towns and cities—foundations we live with today. Were all their choices perfect? Of course not—and we should never honor the Jim Crow decisions and actions of the post-war period. But, neither should we ignore the full story of the positive foundations these men created for the communities that exist today. These men were not perfect humans—they were just like you and me.
Third, in many ways, our public roads, buildings and parks serve as a living museum of each community and its evolving story. Ideally, street and building names, plaques and statues help tell that story—and as the community grows, so should its monuments and commemorations. If the presence of some of these commemorations (e.g., the Confederate flag) is so offensive that, rather than tell the story it wounds the community in way that doesn’t allow it to heal from the mistakes of its past, then, by all means remove the offensive monuments. But, let’s use some discretion to try to expand and use our public museums to live with and learn from our past, rather than erase it. To completely erase all of the men who served in the Confederacy from the evolving history of our communities is overkill.
Fourth, it should go without saying that the groups that obtained the permit to protest in Charlottesville last weekend (self-proclaimed neo-Nazi’s, KKK members, white nationalists, etc.), and those who participated with those groups in that protest, promote detestable ideas and deserve all of the criticisms and condemnations they have received. There was a time when even the thought of such groups coming together sparked immediate public ridicule, either through biting humor (e.g., scenes from Blazing Saddles showing such people ridiculously enlisting to join the attack on Rock Ridge) or public condemnation (e.g., the widespread condemnation of the Nazi march on Skokie, Illinois); but there always seemed to be a consensus that our First Amendment protected the public advocacy even such vile idiocy. Violent confrontation of such idiots is not the answer, and Charlottesville is evidence of what we used to know—such confrontation may make the counter-protesters and their supporters feel vindicated, but it almost always spirals into greater violence because some idiot will get provoked to take the violence to another, deadly level. Violence is never the answer to speech we abhor—more speech and debate is the only answer, and the answer that our First Amendment promotes. Remember, violent revolt against Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia (or even Putin’s Russia or Maduro’s Venezuela) may have been, or may be, the only vehicle left for a society under the grip of a madman or madwoman, but those societies didn’t (and don’t) have a First Amendment—we do.
Fifth, more constructive speech and debate is needed today; but what we don’t need is more of the ideological yelling and screaming that we experience on a 24/7 basis through cable TV, Twitter, and Facebook. Ultimately, the speech and debate that the First Amendment protects presumes that the people engaged in such activity will exercise their God-given capacities to think and listen before they speak. Unfortunately, too few people are truly thinking and listening today; they are just reacting and blurting in 140 characters or less. If we are ever to regain our sanity, we need to re-engage our own faculties to think and listen. And that goes not only for our Blurter-in-Chief in Washington, but for everyone else who blindly resists him because they think he is either the world’s biggest moron, or the re-incarnation of Attila the Hun, or both (or who blindly support him—for whatever reason).
Finally, I recommend that we all resolve to regain our own sanity. To do this, let’s try to carve out some regular block of time to shut-off the 24/7 noise created by TV, the Internet and our Smartphones. Then, use some of that time to read or think, and some of that time to engage with people—actually living, breathing people. As we do this, maybe we can learn to think and listen again, then to talk and debate, and just maybe to rebuild the relationships needed to have a working, sane community and society.