To pretend the past never happened is to forget our history. To willfully advocate for its destruction is to hate ourselves and our identity.
The level of hatred and fanaticism leveled by a vocal few at the remaining public displays related to the Confederacy is sad and disappointing. The removal of Confederate monuments is troubling and alarming. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the destruction of politically inconvenient monuments and icons carried out by authoritarian and extremist regimes around the world – especially in socialist countries and in territories currently controlled by the Islamic State.
Even the United Nations has recognized the importance of cultural touchstones, and historical markers within a society. It has drawn attention to the targeting of cultural heritage for intentional destruction and removal, labeling such practices as potential crimes, especially when the aim of erasing the history of the country and thus undermining the peaceful coexistence of diverse communities is intended.
Speaking on the destruction of culturally important monuments and sites by ISIS, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said that “Cultural cleansing, in my view, is exactly what’s happening… These extremists want to impose a different vision on the world. They want to tell us that there is no memory [of these sites], that there is no culture, that there is no heritage.”
We should work harder to educate all people on the valuable history and lessons of the past, and not – in the name of fear and hatred – cast aside the important contributions many of these men made to our civilization. Robert E. Lee contributed greatly to the United States of America – even in his role as the military leader of the seceded states. The Civil War was – by nearly universal assessment – almost inevitable and unavoidable. The seeds of the war were sown in the founding of the nation and the establishment of the Constitution. A conflict on paper was doomed to eventually become one on battlefields across the nation.
It was the blood shed by soldiers and civilians alike that washed away the original sin of the founding – the institution of slavery. 800,000 soldiers lost their lives as the country battled over slavery, the rights of states and economic disparity. The lessons learned in those deaths, destruction and violence helped shape who we became as a country. They come through in the words of Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy.
By erasing the past represented by those monuments, we erase the roots of the words and thoughts and deeds of those who have become the touchstones of our society. We have made them less connected to the nation’s past and in so doing have cut loose our moorings. If we take down statues of Lee, Jackson and Davis today, will Washington, Jefferson and Madison be next?
John Schroeder writes that “…the simple fact that history is real, and changing it is dangerous. Slavery happened, the Confederacy was real, and the Civil War occurred. Removing remembrances of them serves only to help us forget that which should never be forgotten.” It is a lesson we are failing to learn.