For Helen Andrews the last straw was the faculty and staff of Washington & Lee University voting to remove Lee’s name from the college.
Here we arrive at the question at the heart of the statue debate: Are people constrained by any duties, any external obligations at all, or is everything always up for negotiation? Are we free to choose which heroes we want to celebrate and then equally free to choose again differently tomorrow?
Heredity is one source of unchosen obligations. It was very much in mind when Americans were debating how to handle reconciliation after the Civil War. How could we possibly strike a balance between asking Southerners to swear allegiance to the Union, which was vitally necessary, and forcing them to spit on the graves of their fathers and brothers, which was morally unthinkable to ask from any but an abjectly conquered foe? Amazingly, America succeeded in bringing the South into the country again, but only because we did exactly that: struck a balance.
History is another source of unchosen obligations, one more powerful in many ways than heredity. To be loyal to the United States means being loyal to its history. You canâ€™t treat America like a conquered province, the way the crowds defacing Winston Churchill are treating London. Lee and Sumner were both very stubborn men, which made them superficially similar, but the difference was that for Lee the ultimate arbiter of his conduct was external whereas Sumner recognized no higher judge than himself. Acknowledging unchosen obligations means accepting that some things about America, like its history, arenâ€™t yours to change at will â€” which is good, because stable and unchanging things are what Americans can unite behind.
The left has a counteroffer to this. We can heal all our divisions, they say, if you will only join with us in rallying behind our revised list of heroes. But that would mean consenting to make your position on your countryâ€™s history infinitely changeable, and infinitely changeable at the whim of someone other than yourself. Because, of course, the right side of history weâ€™re all uniting under will be different again tomorrow, and you wonâ€™t be on the committee that decides what it is. Nothing is fixed; no principles stand firm. You will be like Sumner, a man in whom nothing can be relied upon except his sense of his own self-righteousness.
To live like that, you must either have an unshakeable sense of yourself, as the egotist Sumner did, or else no sense of yourself at all. There are some political systems that prefer their citizens to be infinitely malleable with no bedrock sense of self, but they are not democratic ones.
I used to side with the people who wanted to tear down all Confederate monuments. If Southern gentility means anything, I thought, it means not causing gratuitous offense. It means being willing to accept that a statue might mean one thing to us but something different to our fellow citizens, to whom we have an obligation to be considerate. I took people at their word when they said, we donâ€™t hate the South, we just want you to celebrate whatâ€™s best about it, not whatâ€™s worst.
That gave them too much credit. In truth, they donâ€™t want to celebrate anything about the South, or America, or the past. Everything falls short of their Year Zero standards. Considering the absolutism of their ideology, perhaps I should have seen this coming. Others did. Either way, Confederates are in the rear-view mirror now and Washington and Jefferson are the ones up for condemnation.
The left argues that name changes and statue topplings are a way for people and institutions to demonstrate their commitment to real change. But at this point, it is not ordinary Americans who need to demonstrate their good faith to the left. It is the statue-topplers who need to convince us that they are genuinely committed to pluralism and not, as their actions would suggest, just sparing some statues temporarily while they bide their time to wait and see what they can get away with tomorrow.
They are so very small and the men whose memory they want to efface are so very great. Nothing the Left does can possibly touch General Lee.