The Codcast: Tipping point for Confederate statues

After this month’s white nationalist rally in Virginia, statues of Confederate leaders are falling across the South. Protests by white supremacists against the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville have set in motion a rush to rid town greens and parks of icons to the Confederate cause.

Many have decried the moves, saying they are erasing tributes to Southern heritage and history. Others say the embrace of the statues by groups with such abhorrent views is proof that they represent something much more malevolent than “Southern pride” and should be excised from our public places.

The context in which many of the Confederate statues were erected is an important part of the debate, says Boston University historian Nina Silber on this week’s Codcast. Many were put up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and sent a “message of white supremacy” as Southern states were consolidating the Jim Crow system of segregation as part of the backlash to Reconstruction.

As for the alliance of Confederate-flag-carrying white nationalists and neo-Nazis in the Charlottesville rally, Silber says that is not just a “current coming together of these ideologies,” and that there is an ugly history of convergence between Nazi thinkers and the Confederacy.

To Nazis of the 1930s and ‘40s, “there was something admirable about the Old South, its system of slavery, and a social hierarchy that put a supposedly superior race on top,” she says. “Hitler himself spoke admiringly of the Old South.” Silber explained this history last week in an op-ed in the Washington Post, writing that “the line between fascism and worship of the Confederacy is not so clear. In fact, it never has been.”

But most people certainly don’t equate respect for Confederate monuments with hate-filled ideologies. Steve Koczela of the MassINC Polling Group, who joined in the conversation with Silber, surveyed Virginia voters in the wake of the events in Charlottesville and found a majority of them support keeping the statues in place and most see them as paying tribute to Southern heritage, not racism, findings that are largely mirrored in national polling data.

What about those, including President Trump, asking where the statue-toppling ends. Will we remove figures of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who were both slave-owners? Silber says there is a slippery slope, but “the fact that there’s a slippery slope does not mean we shouldn’t start out on the slope.”

In her view, there’s a clear distinction in that Washington and Jefferson were “foremost involved in a project about the creation of the American republic, which included many of the principles we hold dear today.”

In today’s Boston Globe, Renee Loth wrestles with the Confederate monument debate, expressing support for removing many of them, but questioning the methods being used to do so.

“The statues that are signifiers of racial subjugation need to be removed — but it won’t help to do it through vandalism, as at Duke University, or skulkingly under cover of night, as in Baltimore,” writes Loth.

That sort of rush to topple monuments, says Koczela, an Iraq War veteran, evokes images of the euphoria that accompanied tearing down of monuments with the fall of Saddam Hussein. Years later, the country is in tatters.

“Does the act of taking down of statues do anything?” he asks. How do we “make sure we’re not just taking down statues to make ourselves feel better.”

All of which underscores the fact that deciding to remove Confederate monuments is a much easier task than getting to the root of the difficult race issues that make the debate so charged.



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