The politics of dealing with the nation’s Confederate monuments has just taken a major and, to me, dismaying and surprising turn with the release of a new poll gauging national attitudes on the issue. At the same time, although I remain convinced that the Confederacy and its ideals should be condemned, and certainly never memorialized in public spaces, the more I learn about these statues and plaques and grave sites, the clearer it becomes that a cookie-cutter approach mustn’t be taken to the issue.
First, the poll. Keeping in mind that surveying public opinion is still much more an art than science, the results of yesterday’s NPR-Marist sounding on the monuments are nothing less than stunning. According to the poll, fully 62 percent of all Americans believe that “statues honoring leaders of the Confederacy should remain as a historical symbol.” Especially discouraging for me, the question’s wording makes clear that the subject isn’t some broad category that could include simple burial sites for ordinary Confederate soldiers, and/or even statues or other monuments to these regulars, many of whom were motivated by a wide variety of considerations on top of racism. Instead, respondents were asked their views of monuments honoring the Confederacy’s leaders – who spearheaded the South’s betrayal of the United States and whose declarations of secession leave no doubt that preserving the racist institution of slavery was their top priority.
Even more bizarre – at least for me: Such sentiments were expressed by 44 percent of Democrats, 31 percent of Americans who described themselves as “Very liberal-Liberal,” and 61 percent of self-styled political independents.
Nor were the regional breakdowns what you’d (I assume) expect: Honoring Confederate leaders in this way was endorsed by majorities throughout the country, including 53 percent in the Northeast, 61 percent in the Midwest, 66 percent in the South, and 61 percent in the West.
But the real shock comes from the racial and ethnic results: Honoring Confederate leaders with memorials was backed by 44 percent of African Americans and 65 percent of Latinos (along with 67 percent of whites). Moreover, African Americans registered the largest percentage of those “unsure” (16 percent).
It’s possible that these results were skewed by the phrasing of the “anti” position: The stated reason for removing the statues was that “they are offensive to some people.” That’s an awfully bland formulation, and I wonder if the numbers would have changed much if the wording was changed to something on the order of “because they staged an armed revolt against the United States” or “because slavery would have remained in place had they prevailed.” But over the last week or so, how many African Americans in particular could remain unaware of these facts? And how many liberal Democrats?
So the poll’s findings seem pretty accurate to me. And the big takeaways from them look like the following: There’s a big divide over these matters between the national (bipartisan) political class and especially the national media on the one hand, and the general public on the other; and much of the (current) elite position on these racial issues contains a huge element of anti-Trump posturing. (And don’t forget – I believe that the president is in the wrong on Confederate memorials, too.)
Second, Confederate monuments can’t all be lumped into the same category, don’t all raise the same questions, and shouldn’t arouse the same emotions. Here’s just one example. I’m sure I haven’t been the only American who’s been amazed to learn that these sites can be found in many locations outside the old Confederacy. They’re even located in my home state, New York. But the story of one of these markers shows how varied they can be.
I’m talking about not only a cemetery with the remains of Confederate veterans that’s located in Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester County, an affluent suburb of New York City. I’m also talking about an obelisk that stands over the graves.
The bodies interred at the Mount Hope Cemetery, beneath the obelisk are those of former Confederate soldiers who moved to the area after the conflict in search of economic opportunity. The inscription on the 60-foot monolith refers to them as “heroic dead” and the complex was dedicated in 1897. And according to one source, these veterans “remained proud of their Southern Confederate heritage.”
So for an opponent of honoring these figures, like me, that set off alarm bells. But as I read further, my first inclination to call for the removal of the obelisk changed. To start with, even though the site is owned and the obelisk funded by the United Confederate Veterans, this means that it’s a private piece of land. So since it’s not a publicly owned space, the owners should have the right to maintain it however they wish. Moreover, the site was sold to the Confederate veterans group by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. And this Union group cares for the complex today.
Perhaps most important, a contemporary newspaper account leaves no doubt that the purpose of this particular monument was national reconciliation – a goal no one of good will should oppose provided it’s being sought on the proper basis.
So there are Confederate monuments and there are Confederate monuments. How best to decide their fate? Many voices, including President Trump, believe that the states and/or localities should have the last word – unless the monuments et al are on federal ground. I’m not so sure, partly because it’s a national issue, and partly because policy would likelier become hostage to short-term, and frequently shifting, considerations. Of course, an optimal solution may not be possible, so this outcome might be an acceptable compromise.
One other conceivable option: a presidential commission. Often, these organizations are simply exercises in can-kicking, but some deliberation seems to be exactly what’s needed on the monuments issue now. And its conclusions certainly wouldn’t be ignored – as with the reports of so many other presidential commissions. Best of all, this type of body seems best suited to recognize the variety of Confederate monuments, and propose measures that recognize them adequately – even to the point of case-by-case recommendations.
The big objection to a presidential commission is that it’s not an especially democratic mechanism – although its members would be chosen by a democratically elected leader. Congress could be given a role, too. Especially if its members were well chosen, the result could well be a series of appropriately nuanced decisions that finally, and truly, bring the Civil War to an end.