opinion

Statues and Limitations

What I Wish Democrats Would Say About Confederate Monuments

As the president falters as a moral leader, America needs somebody to step up.

opinion

Win McNamee/Getty

While we’ve all been rightfully outraged over Donald Trump’s post-Charlottesville emissions, we seem not to have noticed much about the Democrats. There’s only one president at a time, and in times of strife, the nation looks to him, in vain, for moral tone-setting.

But I have been waiting—also in vain—for one of the Democratic 2020 contenders to step up since Charlottesville, or at least since Trump’s hideous press conference at his eponymous tower, and offer the moral leadership that Trump has so grandiosely failed to provide.

I know it’s not incumbent upon any Democrat to do this. And done wrong, it might even seem presumptuous. But done right, and at the right kind of venue—say a well-chosen Southern progressive redoubt like Kentucky’s Berea College, the first Southern college to teach black and white students together—such an intervention could mark a Democrat as someone willing to take that chance and say things that everyone, conservative and liberal, needs to hear.

He or she would, of course, denounce racial hatred and bigotry, but that’s the easy part.

Next up comes the subject of Confederate symbolism and statuary. This one is a little trickier than it might seem at first. The position of any Democrat should be that statues of Confederate generals and politicians should be removed. But the rationale for doing so is key. It can’t just be the people memorialized were racist; before 1960 or so, virtually everybody in American public life was racist. If we take down statues of everyone who held views on racial or ethnic or gender questions that fall short of the standards of today’s left, there won’t be any statues anywhere. Even Abe Lincoln was racist. Martin Luther King was sexist. Shall we take down the statues of them?

Obviously not. The great works of both men more than redeem their retrograde views. The same is true, I want to hear this Democrat say, of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and all the men who, despite their racism or sexism, did great things for this country.

Let me dwell particularly, my Democrat will divagate, on Washington. He was a slaveholder. And you know what else he was? He was a great man. Partly because of his military heroism, sure—but that’s secondary. The greatest thing he ever did was refuse power. In 1793, Washington-mania was at a fever pitch, and the young nation was struggling under the Articles of Confederation. Forget this democracy nonsense, cried the mob. Just give us a dictator! General Washington will save us!

Rather than seize that power, Washington announced his retirement. Said he was leaving New York, and going back to Mount Vernon. To drive the point home, he stopped off in Annapolis, where the Continental Congress was then in session, and handed his military commission over to the body, thereby signaling in very clear terms that he would refuse the mob’s demand for a dictator.

Now that is greatness. In fact, King George III, upon hearing that this was Washington’s intention, said: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” It was the crucial moment in the early history of the republic, the first republic anywhere. And that is why no statue of George Washington should ever come down, my Democrat will insist, and those who make such demands ought to go learn some history.

The same cannot be said of men who raised their swords against the United States of America—that’s the distinction my Democrat should make. And speaking of history lessons, this Democrat should give one about Reconstruction and Redemption, and about how the South “won” the battle of narrative over the Civil War, and how that damaged our political culture for half a century or more.

But even here, he or she should tread lightly. No doubt there are millions of Southerners who are good-hearted people and who aren’t any more racist than most of the rest of us but still have considerable regional pride, and some of that pride is inevitably bound up in history.

So my Democrat should praise that which can justly be praised about the South. That includes those who fought for racial justice. But again, that’s exactly what people would expect a Democrat to say. She or he should also talk about the South’s contributions to our literature and our musical and culinary heritages, its famous sons and daughters who were innovators and inventors, its real American (not Confederate) patriots; also, the kindness of the people, their respect for elders and authority, and yes, fellow liberals, their faith. Doing this would ring especially true at Berea, a liberal Christian school.

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A Democrat who talks like that will be offering a vision of our history and our nationhood that many citizens are desperate to hear. She or he would dispense some hard truths to the right, but to the left as well, about how our celebration of history is not a search for enemies or an investigation into people’s flaws but a recognition of attempts to perfect an imperfect union by imperfect people.

If all this is starting to sound a little Obama-esque—well, it is. But I don’t want him to do it. Leave him in peace. Somebody who wants to lead the Democratic Party, and the country, should do it. She or he will instantly stand out; will confuse and frighten conservative media blowhards and Republican political consultants; and will be capable of winning a hell of a lot more than 487 counties.

It saddens me to say I’m not sure I see many Democrats around who could or would give such a speech. At a historical moment when all the energy is about placating the left, this speech would cut against that to some extent. There’d be plenty in this speech for a left-wing person to like, but it would also challenge some left-wing assumptions and interpretations. I don’t see any Democrats (or, ahem, non-Democrats) around who can do both of those things. And that’s a shame. The country needs someone who can. God knows there’s a vacuum to fill.