Want to Fuel the Alt-Right? Tear Down More Statues


(Editor’s note: This piece originally ran at the Troubler of Israel blog at Patheos.)

Rod Dreher correctly observes that the mob who tore down a century-old monument to Confederate soldiers in Durham, North Carolina, Monday represents the breakdown of law and order. No matter what your views about race, the Confederacy, or monuments, banding together and destroying public property is not and must not become an acceptable answer. If it does, we simply can’t have a society.

But overlooking the obvious Marxist overtones of the group that organized the crime (“Workers World Party Durham”–Gee, I wonder which comrade these folks want to commemorate in place of a Confederate soldiers?), there’s an important question we need to ask, especially in light of the violence and murder by one of the alt-right demonstrators in Charlottesville, last week: Is tearing down statues really making our country a better place?

I mean this on two levels. First, a very pragmatic one. The alt-right demonstrators carrying and wearing Nazi, Klan, and Confederate imagery in Virginia were there to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. For them, much like their counterparts on the radical left, such statues symbolize an identity. The disaffected white males who swelled the ranks at the “Unite the Right” rally-turned-riot feel their identity and heritage are under attack. And Dreher doesn’t think they’re entirely wrong:

“The alt-right has correctly identified a hypocritical double standard in American culture. It’s one that allows liberals and their favored minority groups to practice toxic identity politics — on campus, in the media, in corporate America, on the streets — while denying the possibility to whites and males. By speaking out against left-wing identity politics, and by explaining, over and over, why identity politics are wrong and destructive, conservatives strengthen their position in chastising white nationalists on the right.”

Numerous other outlets are making this point, including The Wall Street JournalThe AtlanticThe Federalist, and most importantly, I think, The New Republic.

That last, written before Charlottesville blew up, is among the few left-of-center articles I’ve read whose author seems to truly grapple with the situation. Moser recognizes that we’re not witnessing a resurgence of organized racism. The actual Klan has been for years, and remains, a virtual non-factor in America. Estimates of its national membership range from 5,000 to 8,000. Compared to that the Moose Lodge is like the Red Army. And the largest Neo-Nazi group in the United States totals a whopping 400 members.

What we’re actually witnessing, he argues, is the birth of a young and exceptionally nasty troll class, who know how to play the American left and its outrage machine like a fiddle. He calls it “hate theater.” And those counter-demonstrating, panicking about the resurrection of the Third Reich or Dixie, and doubling down on the demonization of all whites, are fanning the flames.

Again, these sentiments aren’t coming from some right-wing fever swamp. None other than Peter Beinart at The Atlantic observes that from Berkeley, Evergreen State and Middlebury, to Auburn, Dallas, and Portland, (not to mention the assassination attempt against Republican congressional leadership in June) the “violent left” is on the rise, meeting perceived assertions of white supremacy (real or imagined) with actual–often deadly and always illegal–force. Beinart thinks they’re only adding credibility to the alt-right’s persecution complex:

“…progressives face a choice. They can recommit to the rules of fair play, and try to limit the president’s corrosive effect, though they will often fail. Or they can, in revulsion or fear or righteous rage, try to deny racists and Trump supporters their political rights. From Middlebury to Berkeley to Portland, the latter approach is on the rise, especially among young people.Revulsion, fear, and rage are understandable. But one thing is clear. The people preventing Republicans from safely assembling on the streets of Portland may consider themselves fierce opponents of the authoritarianism growing on the American right. In truth, however, they are its unlikeliest allies.”

What we saw in Durham, a sort of left-wing vigilantism directed at a statue, is exactly the kind of thing that fuels the alt-right. It gives reality to the white nationalist alarm cry that their heritage is under attack by unrestrained mobs. Left-wing violence is the very best alt-right recruiting tool. As Moser points out, it not only makes them look legitimate in the eyes of potential converts, but it gives them a sense of renewed purpose and a strange sensation of importance and relevance.

Of course, there’s a second, less pragmatic reason to oppose the removal of Confederate statues and monuments: History is not the right place for the kind of moral inquisition many on the left want to hold, and almost none of America’s revered figures would pass the requisite purity test in such a purge.

The premise that half of the men who died in the Civil War are racist monsters who don’t deserve to have their names mentioned or their valor commemorated on the ground where they fought isn’t very convincing. But this French Revolution of American history will not stop with guillotining Robert E. Lee and his rebel soldiers. If everyone in the American story is now to be condemned on the basis of his worst ideas and deeds, rather than celebrated for his best, where does it stop?

Certainly not with Thomas Jefferson, our esteemed third president, a Southern plantation man who owned slaves and impregnated one. The Charlottesville protester at the 17-minute mark in Vice’s coverage seems to have already set her sights on Monticello, where she says “the master” constantly looks down on the city’s African Americans. Others are already demanding statues and commemorations of Washington come down. I live not far from the Jefferson memorial on the tidal basin in Washington, D.C. Should a mob gather to pull the author of the Declaration of Independence from his pedestal and consign him to the dustbin of history, would law enforcement put up more of a fight than they did in Durham? If they did, would it be consistent?

Right-wing fringe groups who turn violent richly deserve the condemnation they’re receiving. But if we take a clear-eyed look at what’s fueling these groups, it’s obvious left-wing fringe violence is, as Beinart writes, “their unlikeliest ally.” It’s also not clear whether this politically correct purge of history has any brakes. And as long as the radical left insists on unilaterally adjudicating that question, often outside the law, the radical right will continue to enjoy a potent recruiting tool.

Update 8/17/17: It took all of about five seconds for Al Sharpton to take up my suggestion about the Jefferson Memorial. I wonder how many progressives will follow suit?

Update 8/17/17: Looks like a strong majority of Americans want to keep the Confederate statues standing, according to an NPR/PBS poll. The “very liberal” were the only group where a majority wanted to take them down. Dreher concludes these people are even more out-of-touch with the American public than we thought.

Image courtesy of DoxaDigital at iStock by Getty Images. Illustration designed by Heidi Allums.

G. Shane Morris is assistant editor of BreakPoint Radio.

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  • Joel Stucki

    I’m a white male, age 41, and a conservative. And Confederate monuments offend me, because they are NOT monuments to the individual soldiers who fought in the Civil War, they are monuments to the CAUSE of the Confederate States of America, and that cause is, at every point, attached to white supremacy and the preservation of slavery. None of the many nuances of the causes of the Civil War can be separated from white supremacy. It infects every other relevant concern like a disease.

    This quote from your article:

    “If everyone in the American story is now to be condemned on the basis of his worst ideas and deeds, rather than celebrated for his best, where does it stop?”

    That is totally backwards thinking. A Confederate monument to Robert E Lee is a celebration of the WORST thing ever done by an otherwise decent and noble man. We don’t raise monuments to Thomas Jefferson or George Washington for being slave owners, but rather for the work they did and the risks they took for founding this nation. Yet we honor General Lee for fighting against this nation, because he felt that his duty to his state overrode his duty to country, even though the cause of his state was intrinsically evil. He was, by all accounts, a good, honest, decent man, not to mention a great military leader. But his decision to support the Confederacy was wrong. And Civil War monuments to him exalt him for making that decision and therefore exalt the cause itself.

    My opposition to statues of General Lee comes not from a desire to condemn the man for his worst act, but rather to condemn the act itself, and to cease from exalting it as if it were his best act. Which it was not.

    • jason taylor

      The thing is, his worst act was inherently tied to his best acts. So what does one do about it? Except admit that he was human. But does he deserve a public statue for it? Perhaps not.
      On the other hand perhaps what is being objected to is not lack of justice but lack of grace. It is ungentlemanly to stomp on a defeated enemy and petty vindictiveness is not somehow a great cause. Whatever one’s cold judgement of someone, what does spite prove?

      • Phoenix1977

        I’m no expert on the American Civil War but your argument can be made about several other controversial, or plain evil, persons in history as well. Let me give you an example.

        Adolf Hitler is best known as a raving mad lunatic who commited mass murder on 6 million Jews, 500.000 Gypsies, 120.000 gay men and women, an unknown number of mentally and / or physically handicapped and pretty much everyone who stood against him.
        However, he was also a brilliant strategist and politician, a great speaker, a leader who inspired others and the person who revived Germany’s economy after the United States withdrew it’s support due to the Great Depression. He rebuilt Germany’s infrastructure and improved it greatly and dedicated a lot of resources to protecting art, even during the war.
        But you will find no statues of Adolf Hitler anywhere in Europe. In fact, the only bust of Hitler that was to be found, in front of his birth home in Austria,was removed when it became a sanctuary for neo-Nazi’s. Having an image of Hitler in your home makes you a person of interest in Europe and showing his symbols (the Nazi flag, to compare it with the Confederate flag) automatically makes you a criminal because the public display of Nazi symbols is forbidden by law in pretty much all of Europe.
        All Hitler’s great achievements (and it makes me sick to my stomach to admit it, but there were quite a few of those) are directly tied into the largest crime against humanity the world has faced in the 20th century. So rightfully there are no statues, busts or paintings of Adolf Hitler in the public square. Even the one book he wrote (“Mein Kamp”) is forbidden to possess, printed or be sold in Europe (and since the Dutch government owns the copyrights you can be sure there are no legal prints of it available) and owning either transcripts of his speeches or, worse, the original vinyl recordings makes you suspect as a racist (unless you are an academic studying the time period).
        People like Adolf Hitler don’t deserve statues or monuments to commemorate them. They deserve to be remembered as mad beasts who would be best forgotten, if that didn’t mean forgetting those who suffered because of them. And the same argument can be made for Confederate generals or other leaders of the Confederacy.

        • jason taylor

          Aside from the fact that the first person to invoke Hitler has ended the argument, the use of Hitler draws the suspicion that you do not have anyone else to use.. Not everyone who is bad is Hitler and using him as a universae maledicta is simply unwieldy because not only are few people as bad as Hitler, more important no one was bad in the same way Hitler was bad, and still more important, it is boring and gives the impression that you get both your history and your philosophy from watching Indiana Jones.

          And the absurd fact that Europeans seem to think it necessary to have a thought police that forbids pictures of Hitler or anything that smacks of Nazidom is not an example that should be emulated. We don’t do things like that here or shouldn’t and if we did no one would feel safe enough to wait until the next election.

          For the record, almost no one praises Lee for owning slaves, or for fighting for slavery or whatever you think he should be condemned for. He is praised as an archetype of chivalry. That is the purpose of myths. Instead of disliking that perhaps you can afford to learn something. Or if you will not deign to do that perhaps you can learn from Joshua Chamberlain, a man who did far more to end slavery then you(or I for that matter) ever did and, behold, saw nothing wrong with courtesy.

          • Phoenix1977

            I could make the same argument about Lenin or Mao or even some American Presidents. Or some inventors (like the men responsible for the Manhattan Project). But somehow I doubt you care.

      • Joel Stucki

        Ugh. Why am I doing this? This is exactly why I left Facebook and other social media–to stop arguing with strangers on the internet. I’m out. Peace, everyone!

  • jason taylor

    In any case there are two points. One is that the real issue is not whether Lee deserved to have a statue erected in the first place. It is whether he deserved to have his statue torn down instead of providing a sedate pigeon perch.

    The second point is more important. It is the old cliche,”don’t negotiate with terrorists.” That was originally about hostages. But it should be even more about rioters. Backing down does not make them love you, it makes them lick their lips. Many people justify removing Lee because he rebelled against the United States in the past. It has not seemed to strike them that rioters are rebelling against the United States in the present.

  • Just One Voice

    Blah. History, to me, too often seems like just a bunch of people arguing. So hard to know what really happened and why. Nonetheless, I try to read & understand as best I can.

    My two cents: I need to always remember that everyone brings their own paradigm to the table. (Read Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits book for some great insight on that.)

    Was anyone that is living today alive back when they erected any of these statues or memorials? Can anyone know exactly what the motive was for erecting it? It’s highly doubtful. It doesn’t take psychological research to know that everybody kinda imposes their own paradigm/translation onto bits & pieces of history.

    So, in that light, unless something is CLEARLY & ABSOLUTELY a celebration of something wrong, then I think it ought to remain. It’s part of the story, part of history, & it helps us remember that story a bit more accurately than if it weren’t there.

    Here’s yet another article I stumbled across, relating to all the recent fire that’s erupted: http://www.albertmohler.com/2017/08/13/letter-berlin-lessons-history-heresy-racial-superiority/