My first job, in 1972, was with a small weekly in Richmond, Virginia. Like my fellow writer/editors, I was a proud veteran of the sixties campus wars, and our left-of-center politics were strongly represented throughout the paper; which is to say, we were far from a neat ideological fit with the deeply conservative town Richmond still was back then. I joked with my friends up north that, the morning after Richard Nixon’s landslide victory in November, I could actually see my McGovern vote in the paper. The politics weren’t all that I disliked about Richmond. It was sleepy, ghastly hot in the summer, and in general far from what I then thought of as “the action.”
But there was one thing that I loved about the place: it was steeped in history. On Clay Street, just a few blocks from our office on Broad, was the Confederate White House. Not far off loomed the magnificent, Jefferson-designed state capitol. Over on Franklin, the Jefferson Hotel boasted the staircase said to be the model for the one in Gone With the Wind. But above all there was Monument Avenue, with its imposing statues of the generals whose prowess had sustained hope in this capital of a doomed nation a century earlier: Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee.
As a Northerner and a lefty, I’d grown up thinking of the South as the bad guys. Nonetheless, there was an undeniable grandeur to these stone figures, and I felt it every day driving past them on my way home. They were men of surpassing courage and nobility, rightly enshrined in national myth: “There stands Jackson like a Stone Wall.” And the image of Lee, wearily arriving at Appomattox aboard Traveller, having resisted calls from diehards that he continue the fight, saving the nation from yet more bloodshed. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. One of my colleagues, Richmond-born and recently graduated from Harvard (and now a left-wing commentator of some note), would tear up every time he heard “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
As a Red Diaper baby, I came from a different tradition. My parents never saw Gone With the Wind—they were outside the theater, picketing. But I, too, felt the pull of that history, in all its messiness and grandeur. It was our history, as Americans.
Maybe that’s all over now. Maybe, as my colleague Kay Hymowitz once observed, for kids today American history runs from the oppression of the Indians to the oppression of blacks to the oppression of women, with nothing ennobling in between. Not long ago, talking with several people in their twenties, I was startled to learn that, until the movie came out, none of them had heard of Dunkirk. How, then, could we expect them to know about figures like Richard Kirkland, “the Angel of Marye’s Heights,” the Confederate soldier who, during the abattoir that was Fredericksburg, emerged from the safety of the commanding Southern lines to tend to dying Union soldiers on the killing field below?
Our history is rife with moral complexity. My wife and children exist only as a result of two near-misses. One ancestor, on her mother’s side, whose descendants would include several prominent abolitionists, nearly drowned after falling overboard on The Mayflower, while her great-grandfather on her father’s side, at 12, was nearly shot down from a rooftop in Fort Smith, Arkansas, by an occupying Union soldier after shouting “Long live Jeff Davis!”
All of which is a preamble to saying that, in his exchange with the churlish and ignorant press corps in the aftermath of Charlottesville, Donald Trump got it right when he said: “This week it’s 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?” He may not have been the ideal messenger—with his combative style, manic egotism, and casual relationship with facts, he never is—but he laid out a case that for months has cried out to be made, and he did it so clearly that the refusal of the media and the elites of both parties, not just to credit it, but even to acknowledge it, speaks volumes. Though Trump has never quite defined what his notion of making America great again actually means, preserving that which needs no fixing—including the history that is our common legacy—is a key part of it.
Trump also correctly pointed to the role played in the Charlottesville tragedy by the totalitarian Left, the vanguard of the would-be American Cultural Revolution. As a pair of astute commenters on the website Just One Minute observed (for brevity’s sake, I’ve combined their exchange): “These antifa thugs are descendants of the Weather Underground, Symbionese Liberation Army and other Left Wing terrorists. And we’ve reached the point where these communist anarchists are eagerly enabled by a media that become enraged if anyone even suggests they might have played a part in the violence with their piss balloons, mace, 2 x 4s and baseball bats.” (To her credit, at least one New York Times reporter, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, acknowledged antifa’s role in the mayhem on Twitter, noting that “the hard left seemed as hate-filled as alt-right. I saw club-wielding ‘antifa’ beating white nationalists being led out of the park.”)
Objecting to the tearing down of these monuments does not make one a Nazi, or a racist, or even passingly unreasonable, much as Trump’s adversaries wish it were so. “Who’s next?” is the right question. Is it so unthinkable, in this climate, that the mob will soon descend on Monticello? Is that scenario any less plausible than it would have seemed five years ago that objecting to transgender bathrooms would be broadly regarded as evidence of moral depravity? This is the way America changes these days—rapidly and thoughtlessly.
And the media is the key to it all, as was never clearer than at yesterday’s Trump press conference and in commentators’ reactions to even the most reasonable public statements. For CNN vice president and assistant general counsel Johnita Due, Virginia governor Terry McCauliffe’s remarks condemning white nationalists were not enough, for they also included kind words for Washington and Jefferson. “I felt punched in the stomach,” she wrote. “At a time when it is important to condemn white nationalists and supremacists unequivocally, invoking Thomas Jefferson is a mistake.”
Twenty years ago, my wife and I were at a dinner party with a married couple, both New York Times reporters, who’d recently returned from a trip down South with their kids. They told seeing an exhibit at the Virginia Military Institute honoring the cadets, some as young as 15, who, pressed into emergency service, distinguished themselves in the 1864 Battle of New Market. The exhibit was disturbing enough, they said, but what was worse was that their 15-year old son had been moved that kids his age had performed so heroically. They’d had to sit him down and explain that, yes, these boys may have been brave, but by definition they were immoral people, fighting for a bad cause. Twenty years later, the media at last feels emboldened to deliver that lecture to the nation. Trump called them on it, and in doing so, he has surely expressed what millions of Americans feel.
According to the latest reports, security has now been increased around the statues on Monument Avenue.