Photo: Flickr

In North Carolina last night, a Confederate monument came down. That’s a start.

The latest public debate over America’s epidemic of Confederate monuments has been going on for a year or so now. The subtler, more private debate has been going on since the end of the Civil War. Confederate monuments have always been monuments to slavery, to racism, to inequality, to violence, to lynching, to the Ku Klux Klan, to oppression, to the nastiest, basest, most vile parts of human nature. They are wistful monuments to a time when the majority of people could treat the minority of people as animals, and derive benefit from their misery. Supporters of Confederate monuments say that they exist to honor history. This is true. They honor a part of our history that should not be honored. They aggrandize a part of our history that was despicable. They celebrate a part of our history that should disgust us. They are an attempt to bestow a patina of righteousness on a time that should cause us only shame and regret. They quite literally place upon a pedestal men who fought and killed and died for the right to enslave the ancestors of today’s Americans.

Confederate monuments should come down off of their pedestals. America’s awful history can be in books and museums and classrooms, but to put it on a monument in the town square is to send the message: We, the Confederates, lost the battle, but the war that we waged is still on. That much is true. If you come from the South you know that the war for white supremacy has never ended. The racist South rose and fell and rose and fell, squashed once by the Union Army and again by the the civil rights movement, but it has never been eradicated. The racist South dies only as its citizens die and are replaced, every so slowly, by young people who grow up somewhat more enlightened. This process has been going on longer than any of us have been alive and it will still be going on when we are all dead. You drive down to rural Virginia or Georgia or Mississippi or Florida and spend some time there and you will see that spiritually many things have not changed since 1865, and even less has changed since 1965. This is not to minimize the things that have changed; it is just to call reality for what it is.

The way you will know how much hasn’t changed is by the big Confederate monument sitting in the proudest spot in town.

Human nature is rife with tribalism and fear. The old white South is a tribe that went to war in defense of a purely evil way of life, and lost in humiliating fashion. Self-justification is a coping mechanism for this, and the non-white citizens of the south have been living with generation after generation of Southern self-justification for a century and a half now. Imagine, just as a human with basic decency, the gall that it would take to build a big statue in town to celebrate the men who enslaved, and then fought to keep enslaved, and then created terrorist organizations to oppress other citizens of the same town. It sends a message, doesn’t it? The message is about who is in charge. A Confederate monument in a Southern town serves the same function as the severed heads of enemies of the monarchy placed atop the London Bridge. Both are warnings. Both are meant to establish exactly where power lies. Both are dark, medieval tactics that have no place in a society that likes to think of itself as modern.

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It was not a fair and functional democracy that sprinkled these Confederate monuments throughout the South. It was a system of white supremacy that had full control of governments and civic life in a large region of our country. Southerners pride themselves on manners and grace, yet they celebrate publicly the most brutal thing that America has ever vomited onto this earth. It is only possible to embrace Confederate monuments if you see black people as subhuman. There is no other way. A proud southerner could never countenance a public monument to a man who had murdered a member of their family. But they expect the black population of the south to endure this en masse, everywhere, every day, and live their lives in the shadows of great symbols of violence directed at them. This state of affairs persists because white people do not see themselves as members of the same family of mankind as black people, and white people have with few exceptions always held the political and economic power down south. Confederate monuments are not just statues. They are the ugly growths on the skin that reveal the cancer that lurks below.

If we did have a fair and functional democracy—or even basic human decency—Confederate monuments would not afflict our landscape. The Confederacy’s stories would be in history books and museums and not in a place of honor in the town square. That all of these statues have persisted this long, even as the same cities congratulate themselves on their “progress” and lure in tourists to see the sights of the civil rights movement, is a farce. It is damaging and insulting to black people, yes, but it is also an ineffable mark of hypocrisy upon the white people. We’ve allowed these things to stand. For so, so long. And still they stand today.

Downtown St. Augustine, Florida, my hometown, in 1964. The Confederate monument there still stands.
Photo: AP

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Tear them down. Tear them all down. Get a big truck and a strong rope and drive it through the south pulling Confederate monuments off their pedestals until they all lie face down and shattered. Melt them down into silverware. Put them in museums. Toss them in the dump. Or, better yet, leave them there, toppled. Seeing a mute and broken Confederate horseman in every town square would be one of the most powerful symbols of Southern progress that I can imagine. The people who have taken action to make this happen already are heroes, and history will remember them as such. Do not wait for the mayors, the town fathers, the gentry to decide to take down these atrocities. Our great-great-grandfathers might have been waiting for the same thing. Waiting for that classic Southern decency to kick in. Sooner or later, people decide that forever is too long to wait.