‘I Think Continually of Those Who Are Truly Great’

By | 2017-08-17T13:34:20+00:00 August 15th, 2017|
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To Removers of Monuments

Those impassive, silent guardians – will their gaze no longer shame you?
Have they been forever banished? Are you sure?
Can you finally stroll in comfort streets bereft of all reminders?
Is their valor gone, as if it never were?
Spiteful children! Did it gall you that someone so loved, respected these,
Enough to raise their monuments on high—
And you know you’ve never earned any respect, and never will,
And your blog will be deleted when you die?
“Ingrate, vandal, ignoramus,
Meddler, coward, bully, fool”—
Those are titles your pedestal might bear,
Were your legacy preserved, beyond the web and your own minds –
But I doubt it will last too long even there.

—Anonymous

Should President Trump be faulted for his response to the tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia? In the aftermath of a clash between protesters and counter-protestors, a nasty ragtag group of extremists on both sides, the president said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.” He concluded, “My administration is restoring the sacred bonds of loyalty between this nation and its citizens, but our citizens must also restore the bonds of trust and loyalty between one another. We must love each other, respect each other and cherish our history and our future together.” Then he denounced the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis by name, while calling white supremacists “repugnant to all that we hold dear as Americans.”

How could anyone raise an objection to this? And yet a firestorm erupted among those who sought to make political mileage out of the tragedy. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), always a reliable barometer of the politically correct, thundered, “The president’s talk of violence ‘on many sides’ ignores the shameful reality of white supremacism in our country today, and continues a disturbing pattern of complacency around such acts of hate.” An echo chamber of pundits and politicians insisted that the loss of life and the disorder in Charlottesville was encouraged by the president himself.

Charlottesville’s mayor, Michael Signer, a Democrat, declared, “I’m not going to make any bones about it. I place the blame for a lot of what you’re seeing in America today right at the doorstep of the White House and the people around the president.” This may have been a veiled reference to the president’s strategic advisor, Stephen K. Bannon, often wrongly and unjustly smeared as one sympathetic to white supremacists.

Here, as is so often the case with this president and the media, Trump had a much better handle on reality than did his critics. He understood that what was going on in Charlottesville was more than a detestable white supremacy, but a breakdown in our sense of common bonds of citizenship.

What sparked the original protest was a decision by Charlottesville to remove a statute of General Robert E. Lee, and we’ve come to a sad pass where any attempt to defend Lee can be labelled as the work of white supremacists. Not so long ago, Lee was recognized as a hero by both North and South, a man who was offered the command of the Union forces, and who had been the superintendent of West Point. He regarded slavery as an evil, but he makes a convenient target for the ideologues of the Left who seek to weaponize history.

“I think continually of those who are truly great,” wrote Stephen Spender. And Lee was one of these. He fought to defend what he regarded as native land—Virginia—from attack, and throughout the United States there are many who admire his military prowess, his religious piety and his effort to effect a reconciliation between North and South after the war. To seek to obliterate his memory, is an act of hate itself. It also reeks of self-serving historical amnesia, a demand for cheap grace, for absolution for past wrongs that are American wrongs. The truth is, we we all share the guilt of America’s sins.

About the Author:

Stephen B. Presser
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, and the author of “Law Professors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law” (West Academic Publishers, 2017). This year, Professor Presser is a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder.