We depart from our long-held commitment to refusing to talk about black slavery in America in order to make a point and address a worryingly common argument.
When Trump said yesterday that the anti-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville were worse than the Nazis, he put it this way:
…there were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. …the following day it looked they had had some rough, bad people–neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them, but you had a lot of people in that group who were there to innocently protest…
So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
This is the insidious poison of fascism: making false equivalences. We have to admit that when we first heard this, we thought that Trump was saying Lee and Jackson, Confederate generals, were heroes in the same way Washington was–military leaders, great Americans.
But it’s actually worse than that: he gives voice to the false equivalence that since Washington enslaved people, he and the Confederates had the same beliefs, the same goals, and the same impact on this nation.
This lie was ably debunked by Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University, on NPR news:
SIEGEL: What clearly distinguishes a Robert E. Lee statue from a George Washington statue or a Thomas Jefferson statue since all those men owned slaves?
SOMIN: There are two big distinctions. One, nobody honors George Washington precisely for the fact that he owned slaves, whereas the Confederate leaders, when they’re honored, are honored almost entirely for their service to the Confederacy, which was created for a purpose of perpetuating and extending slavery.
Second, while I think it’s very much correct to criticize the Founding Fathers for owning slaves, those of them who did, they also had great achievements in other areas which do legitimately deserve honor. By contrast, the Confederate leaders – very few of them would be remembered today but for what they did in the Civil War to protect slavery.
When we honor Washington, we honor him for his selfless devotion and unceasing effort in the fight to establish democracy in this country. We honor his refusal to become king when it was offered to him. We honor his wise leadership.
The list of achievements accruing to Confederate leaders is quite different. They promoted slavery, first and foremost. They were traitors to their country. They helped create the de facto enslavement of black Americans in their states after the Civil War.
That’s why statues of these people should never have been allowed to stand in this country. Somin goes on to address this:
SIEGEL: One of the arguments that’s heard is that a statue of Robert E. Lee reminds us of a dark chapter in our past, that it’s part of our history. Removing it is akin to erasing history. Does that argument hold any water for you?
SOMIN: I don’t think so. We should definitely remember this period in our history. And in fact, nobody proposes that we forget. But there’s a big difference between remembering history and honoring people who fought in defense of slavery. And what these statues do is they honor these people. They don’t simply commemorate them. If the goal was just simply to remember what happened, that could be done with museums, or that could be done with more appropriate public monuments, ones that actually acknowledge the evil of slavery.
The statues of Lee, Jackson, and all the rest of them are not reminders of the past, they are loving tributes, often hysterical in their lamentations over the Lost Cause. The honor and courage of all Confederates are consistently vaunted, as on this memorial in Tampa, Florida:
Enough is enough. It’s time to end the myth that the Civil War was begun by the Confederacy for any other reason than to promote slavery, and to end all false equivalencies that would connect George Washington with men who had no qualms about enslaving their fellow Americans.