Biden's Statues and Names Compromise is 2020's Version of Civil Unions

by Neil H. Buchanan

I never thought that I would see NASCAR ban the Confederate flag from its events.  Ever.  I could not imagine Mississippi getting rid of the that flag's inclusion in its state flag.  Ever.  I never thought that entire high school sports teams would take a knee during the national anthem, or Mitt Romney would join a civil rights march against systemic racism, or any number of other politicians would embrace the phrase "Black Lives Matter."  Ever.  Ever.  Ever.

Even so, we often see things happen suddenly that had once seemed unthinkable.  I have noted at various times, for example, that the public's attitude about cigarette smoking once seemed implacable: Smoking was viewed as an individual's right, goddammit!  But in very short order, not only did smoking become "uncool" but New York City's smoking ban -- even in bars and restaurants -- was adopted in cities across the country and the world.  Paris without people smoking arrogantly (and now merely being arrogant)?  Quelle horreur!!

Drunk driving went from cool to unacceptable in a few short years in the mid-1980's.  Marijuana is now legal and widely accepted in many states, with nary a Jeff Sessions to turn it into a culture war battle.  Bill Cosby is a pariah.  Harvey Weinstein is serving a 23-year prison sentence.  There are, of course, different reasons for each of these changes, but they all once seemed unthinkable.  Some are small and some are large.

In addition to the current debate about statues/flags and names, same-sex marriage is the other huge issue about which, when public attitudes suddenly and radically changed for the better, advocates happily said things like: "I thought that, if this ever happened, it certainly would not be in my lifetime."

Here, I first want to discuss the current reconsideration of Confederate and other racist iconography, offering some examples that I think are especially telling.  But my larger point, telegraphed in the title of the column, is that I think the position that Joe Biden and others have taken -- yes to ending idolatry of traitors, no to similar treatment of slave-owners and others -- is the equivalent of the creation of so-called civil unions during the years prior to the acceptance of same-sex marriage.

As it happens, I drove through Richmond, Virginia, yesterday.  I did not stop, for a variety of reasons, but it did offer an opportunity to reflect on that fascinating city.  I had never visited there until about three years ago, but when I went, I immediately fell in love.

Well, sort of.  I have now been back two or three more times for weekend visits, and every time that I try to describe it to people who have never been to Richmond, I say something like this: "If you can completely compartmentalize the ubiquity of Confederate iconography, then you'll love that city.  BUT, there is quite a bit to compartmentalize."  And honestly, I never truly felt comfortable with those mental gymnastics.

Still, nearly everything else about Richmond appealed to me.  It is a medium-sized city, a state capital, and a university town.  (I was surprised to learn that Virginia Commonwealth University is an urban campus and enrolls over 30,000 students; the much smaller University of Richmond is out in a rich suburban area.)  There is an arts district near downtown, next to which hipsters and artists are reclaiming an abandoned neighborhood of row houses.  The Carytown neighborhood is (pre-Covid, anyway) a thriving LGBTQ area, not far from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which has among other things a beautiful sculpture garden.  Vegan-friendly restaurants are easy to find.

Or, to put it more simply, Richmond is an American city in the 21st century -- youth-centered, economically reviving, progressive, blue.  Well, except for all of that Confederate stuff.  My take on the situation is that Richmonders have long been embarrassed by all of it, but the state legislature (dominated until recently by Lost Cause dead-enders) has forced the city to continue to display and apparently celebrate its role as the capital of a treasonous rebellion against the United States.

The most well known controversies have swirled around Monument Avenue.  We honestly did not know anything about that street (or much else about Richmond, to be honest), so when we drove down a beautiful avenue lined by stately homes, we were shocked to see not just statues but full installations honoring Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee, and someone named Matthew Fontaine Maury.  Slack-jawed, we then came upon the much newer statue of civil rights icon (and Richmond native) Arthur Ashe, and we had to laugh and applaud the locals' ingenuity.

The point is that this was the kind of thing that, even when we returned in 2018 and 2019 (that is, even after Charlottesville), our reaction to all of this was glum resignation.  "This is never going to change," we said.

On the way from Washington to Richmond, we had noticed an official road sign guiding people to the Stonewall Jackson Shrine.  Shrine?!  Here are Merriam-Webster's definitions for that word:
"1 a : a case, box, or receptacle especially : one in which sacred relics (such as the bones of a saint) are deposited
     b : a place in which devotion is paid to a saint or deity : sanctuary
     c : a niche containing a religious image

2 : a receptacle (such as a tomb) for the dead 

3 : a place or object hallowed by its associations"
This is not about "understanding our history," or some such dodge.  Finally, the National Park Service last Fall announced that they would change the name to the "Stonewall Jackson Death Site" (rather than, say, pretending that Definition #2 above is what they intended all along).  So even before the current upheaval, there had been some small progress in how we handle these issues.  But again, even the most optimistic among us never thought that Richmond would quickly and at long last update its most publicly embarrassing ties to a pro-slavery rebellion.

One of the attack lines that people like Donald Trump have used -- beyond the usual nonsense about heritage and "erasing history" -- was that this is a slippery slope.  If you do not like Confederate statues and places names, he and others say, what about slave-owning people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson?  Huh?  Do you want to stop honoring them?  Do you?  Well, do you?

Trump has been pushing this bogus line for several years, and I recall having a dinner with some other law professors in 2018 where this question came up.  One respected senior scholar offered this: "I have no problem differentiating between those who founded the nation and those who tried to destroy it."  This felt right at the time, and variations on that comment are now widely circulating.  The problem is that this is a bit too clever.

Even more surprising than the speed with which Confederate statues and names are being removed and changed is that serious people are now talking openly about reconsidering Washington, Jefferson, and others.  If some people in Columbus, Ohio, have a problem -- a very understandable one -- with their city's association with a genocidal slaver, what about Washington, D.C., which is a district named not only after Columbus but also for a man who owned 300 slaves?

Along with New York Times columnist Charles Blow, I have no problem reconsidering whether Washington deserves to be spared.  In Blow's words: "Some people who are opposed to taking down monuments ask, 'If we start, where will we stop?' It might begin with Confederate generals, but all slave owners could easily become targets. Even George Washington himself.  To that I say, 'abso-fricking-lutely!'"  Yes, even "the good ones" should be reconsidered.

For one thing, they were not, ahem, good.  They owned slaves, and they did not have to.  George and Martha Washington did not merely bide their time, passively owning people -- as if that should be dismissed with the word "merely" -- but actively tracked down an escaped slave (at least one) and used them as "dower slaves."  Jefferson's transgressions are even more widely known.

The point is that one can appreciate the good that these men did without building shrines to them or continuing to ignore their shameful and monstrous realities.  If society reaches a point where we say, "You know, those guys are historically important but did horrible things, so maybe we should stop treating them as deities," I would be fine with that.

Again, however, Biden has taken the now-centrist position that Washington and Jefferson are out of bounds, because they were not traitors to the United States.  Why am I not surprised?  Even a presidential candidate with a record of taking bold positions (very much unlike Biden, in other words) would almost certainly be eager to claim this easy middle ground in our fraught moment.

The similarities to the same-sex marriage debate are palpable, once one thinks about it.  I, and nearly everyone I knew with similar political views, originally reacted with great discomfort to the very idea of same-sex marriage.  It just seemed so extreme, we thought, and it would be political suicide.  We came up with diversionary arguments ("Well, marriage is a dying and corrupt institution, so why should we bother fighting to extend it to more people?"), but we slowly came to realize that it was an essential civil rights issue.  In the end, people's views evolved.

And now, the cautious approach to statues and place names is to occupy space that is politically safe only because of the bravery of people who rejected the previous status quo.  This is the same position as those who, during the middle years of the country's same-sex marriage debate, found themselves embracing what we now see as an untenable and dishonest proposal for civil unions.

That is not to say that civil unions were unimportant at the time.  They were a huge step forward, just as getting rid of Confederate statues, flags, and place names represents real progress now.  And for a variety of reasons, the current debate might not reach the same clear conclusion that the country reached on same-sex marriage.  For example, I sincerely doubt that Washington, D.C., will be renamed, or even that the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond (where I have stayed) will abandon the name of its native-son slave owner.

But maybe some or all of those things actually will change.  Stalingrad and Leningrad are now historical names and nothing more.  Istanbul was Constantinople, and it is not our business to say why Constantinople got the works.

Even if we end up -- for the sake of mere convenience, or due to some kind of political standoff -- stopping well short of a full reckoning, that does not mean that half-measures are actually defensible (or sensible).  Civil unions, for all the progress that they represented, should not have been the point at which political stasis set in.  Yet it could have ended there.

Those who want to make the case that the slave-owning founders should continue to receive a pass on the iconography front need to come up with something better than, "Well, they did important things, and they did fewer bad things than Jefferson Davis did."  We can recognize important accomplishments without the idolatry or the willful erasing of ugly reality.