Robert E. Lee fought for slavery. He took on the cause of the oppressors, enabling unimaginable injustices. It should not be controversial that he is a symbol of the racism that plagues our country to this day. And yet, there he is, on the Duke Chapel, for everyone to see.
Lee is clearly a rallying figure for neo-nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups and domestic terrorists, yet Confederate statues are often defended on the false pretense of “remembering history.” Yes, history is nuanced. But being an influential historical figure does not automatically grant you a position of honor. There’s plenty of room for “remembering” in museums and textbooks that offer context, not glorification.
Let’s dig a little deeper. Proponents of keeping a statue of Lee often ask what we should do with statues of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, both slave owners. It’s a good question, since we should treat like cases alike.
Every generation has moral blind spots. Living in the present might allow us to identify yesterday’s sins, but makes it difficult to grasp today’s injustices. Isn’t it wrong, for example, that a small number live in abundance while so many barely have enough to live at all? Or isn’t factory farming, the horrific slaughtering of millions of animals, a grave injustice?
This is not to create an equivalence between past and modern injustices, but rather to consider another point. We enjoy looking up to people, having heroes. But when we choose to glorify individuals, we inevitably run into problems. Washington had slaves. JFK wasn’t perfect. And the “heroes” of today may tolerate injustices known or not yet identified.
Who can we celebrate?
That’s a tough question. But today, we are faced with something that isn’t quite so tough.
Lee is unquestionably a rallying symbol for white supremacists, neo-nazis and other radicals. And in a debate about who should stand and who should fall, the toppling of Lee is a good place to start.
David Wohlever Sanchez is a junior in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and former columnist for The Chronicle.
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