“With malice toward none; with charity for all … let us strive to achieve a just and a lasting peace among ourselves.”—Abraham Lincoln
Unfortunately, President Lincoln’s words still hold relevance today, over 150 years after the end of the bloody brother war. On Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, a clash between nationalist and “anti-fascist” protesters, both sides armed and fervent, left one person dead and dozens injured. Ironically, the overlooked issue at the heart of all this violence is an inanimate, rusting, old statue of General Robert E Lee.
The reaction of the mainstream media has been expectedly one-sided. President Trump was slammed for purportedly failing to condemn white supremacy after writing a tweet denouncing “hatred, bigotry, and violence … on many sides.” While most would agree that “hatred and bigotry” more than accurately describe white supremacists, it was the “many sides” part that angered progressives. In this instance, the victims were “anti-fascist” rioters, injured and killed at the hands of a white supremacist from Ohio. Yet, both sides were armed to the bone and ready to fight. Antifa, BLM, and other far-left organizations have incited violence many times before. It is disingenuous of the mainstream media to cast blame solely on one side when it could have, just as easily, fallen on someone from the other side. One expects rioters to be violent, just like one expects our media outlets to twist the truth in their favor.
Before I fall into the same rabbit hole as Trump, I unequivocally denounce the KKK, white supremacy, and any infringements on the rights of others. Of course, this goes for “Nazi-punching” anti-fascists as well. I am a Ukrainian Jew who lost great grandparents in the Holocaust and having recently returned from a trip to Auschwitz, I would be first to denounce racism and Nazism in all of its forms. As a student of history and all of its nuances, however, I understand that (to paraphrase Nietzsche) too often in fighting monsters, we risk becoming monsters ourselves. Fascism depends on the burning of books and the targeted suppression of history, and yet, the “anti-fascists” of today seem to be the ones intent on tearing down and rewriting history.
It could be argued that General Robert E. Lee is not the villain that progressives have made him out to be. General Lee fought the war in defense of his heritage and his homeland rather than the institution of slavery, one which he called, “a moral and political evil.” He dreaded and advised against the war, and after having lost it, gave up any efforts to restore the Confederacy. He asked to be buried with an American, not a Confederate, flag. Regardless, all these arguments, though valid, miss the central point of the debate: history is an objective venture, which cannot be rewritten or forgotten to protect anyone’s sentiments. History is an exercise in analysis, not in defense or defamation.
All ethnicities, nationalities, and religions on this earth have committed atrocities. Of course, some were grander in scale than others, but not because those perpetrating groups were inherently more evil, but rather because they had the resources to commit evil, and the circumstances were in their favor. Perhaps we, the Jews, could have been Crusaders in a different world. Perhaps the Africans could have been the global enslavers if they had had coal, beasts of burden, and deciduous rather than tropical forests. Moreover, it is commonly known that many Africans themselves sold rival tribes into European slavery. History has shown that every group serves their own interests, even if that means hurting others. These are not the beliefs of a white supremacist – these are indisputable anthropological phenomena. One cannot, like many factions of the anti-fascist movement attempt to do, preach equality selectively. All humans are equal, even in our ability to hate and inflict pain.
For that reason, history must be seen through a lens of impartiality, as a testament to, as Carl Sagan put it, “the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of a different corner” of our planet. The Confederacy defended an immoral infringement upon human rights, yet the bloodiest war in American history was fought to preserve the Union, and the emancipation of the slaves was only an afterthought. Nonetheless, it was a remarkable and painful first step towards ever-elusive equality, one that forever shaped the history of our nation on both sides. The North grew to be the industrial powerhouse and world power that is synonymous with America today. The South descended deeper into poverty, debt, and a racial divide which continue to this day. The smaller and weaker Southern states saw its young men lost, its young women widowed, and the remains of an already weakened economy in shambles. The emancipated slaves were a reminder of the war that had stripped the South of its glory, and thereby became the scapegoats of hatred borne of poverty and despair. We cannot blame the people for fighting a war at their leaders’ behest, and we cannot blame orphans for harboring resentment over the loss of their fathers. Likewise, we cannot blame a bronze statue for 400 years of slavery and segregation.
Every people deserves their heroes. Progressives recently applauded the Hollywood production of Black Panther, which features the first major black superhero fighting for his highly advanced African home-nation. For decades, our minorities have decried the lack of appreciation and acknowledgment of their contributions to American history. I imagine our Southerners must feel the same way. Setting aside debates over his morality, General Robert E Lee was a hero and defender of his homeland and culture, one that has deeply suffered since his loss. While his statue symbolizes racism to some, it is a beacon of pride to others. The existence of this difference of perspective is the very cornerstone of American democracy.
The right to view a historical figure as either a hero or a villain is what sets apart fascism from freedom.
Among the scenes of violence and the ensuing blame-game, it can be easy to lose sight of our shared American values. No fire begins without a spark. There are many reasons for racial tensions in our country, and we should not be adding to the list by taking down historical monuments – monuments which in their very existence symbolize our nation’s respect for diversity and coexistence. Abraham Lincoln, upon winning the war, set out to tackle the far more difficult task of reconciliation, one which unfortunately carries on to this day. We must now take it upon ourselves to ensure that our free nation, a nation which protects even the right to memorialize Confederate generals, a nation “of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the face of this Earth.”