I didn’t receive much support in 2009 or 2013 when I called for the removal of the Confederate statue that towers over the state legislature in Raleigh.
I heard plenty from those who called me an ignorant Yankee, incapable of seeing that the monument symbolized their proud heritage. Most who agreed with me that the statue also represented something ugly and dark were pushing for a middle ground. Don’t tear it down, they argued, but contextualize it with plaques that give a fuller sense of its history – and erect other monuments nearby memorializing those who struggled for freedom.
That seems like ancient history now that a sudden and angry push is underway to remove Confederate statues across the South. I am, of course, glad that my view is taking hold – that the long ignored and muffled voices are being heard.
But I didn’t want it to happen this way. I was hoping to spark a conversation in which North Carolinians could acknowledge profound differences of perspective, to appreciate the complexities of history and identity that transcend simple dichotomies of right and good, good and bad. This debate is not about stone and iron but family and culture. No one’s view is easily dismissed.
Instead, a new mob has arisen, the mirror image of the one that erected so many of these monuments at the turn of the century to declare white supremacy and usher in the era of Jim Crow. Its aims may seem more benign, but it is still a mob, insisting on imposing its view by intimidation and force rather than reason, summarily dismissing all who think differently.
Perhaps the statue of Robert E. Lee should have been removed from the Duke Chapel – but not in response to vandalism. The proper response to that affront to civil society would have been to restore the bust and begin a thoughtful discussion about its future.
The same is true for Silent Sam, which should not be removed simply because a crowd of thankfully peaceful students surrounded the statue at UNC.
The concerns expressed by Duke and UNC leaders about potential violence are precisely why they should not back down. The mob should never be rewarded. Protest should prompt an airing of views, not force immediate action.
Sadly, a mob mentality – driven by a fever of an instant, intolerant righteousness – has been sweeping across America. As the Confederate monuments tap into our history of power and race, this phenomenon is rooted in our evangelical past of sudden conversions and furious conviction.
Consider that in 2008 both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton said they opposed same-sex marriage. By 2012, growing numbers of Americans who had suddenly seen the light were branding those who opposed it as deplorable homophobes.
Until the Charlotte City Council passed a law protecting transgender residents in 2016, most North Carolinians had given little thought to this population, much less the complex questions of biology, psychology and identity it raised. In a flash, all who questioned it were irredeemable bigots.
Now the scales have fallen from many people’s eyes not just about Confederate monuments but statues across the land celebrating figures some deem offensive. In my New York City, Christopher Columbus and Peter Stuyvesant are on the chopping block. In Virginia, it’s Thomas Jefferson. As President Trump presciently noted, slave-owning George Washington is probably next.
As a longtime supporter of same-sex marriage, an opponent of HB2, which overturned Charlotte’s transgender law, and an advocate for re-evaluating public monuments, I welcome many of the converts.
But I am beyond concerned at their knee-jerk effort to demonize those who hold views that many of them probably held just a few years ago.
The movement to raze the monuments of so many historic figures so quickly is especially troubling because it suggests a very dark view of our very great country. Instead of a land of opportunity, it sees us as a nation conceived in oppression and dedicated to the proposition of white supremacy. I fear that we may soon reach a point where it’s not just a few NFL players who refuse to stand for the national anthem. That would be their right. It would also be a tragedy.
American history is the story of a diverse people ever endeavoring, in fits and starts, to create a more perfect union. The greatest gift our founders bequeathed to us was a system open to radical change through deliberative, democratic institutions.
My faith is in our nation, our people, is such that I believe that the center will hold.
But as I see the politics of slogans and emotion rise up, I worry.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at email@example.com.