Opinion writer

(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

We’re having a long-overdue discussion in the United States right now about the enormous number of monuments and statues we have celebrating the Confederacy, set off by the protest of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, and elevated by President Trump’s reaction to that protest blaming “many sides” for the violence that occurred there.

Most Republicans aren’t vulgar or stupid enough to say what the president said. But they play a similar game, trying not to offend the most despicable racists and defending the indefensible, all in the name of anodyne ideas like “history.”

We can see it clearly in an interview Vice President Pence gave this morning to Ainsley Earhardt of “Fox & Friends.” Let’s look at one part of the discussion that began with Earhardt asking about the statues of Confederate figures that stand in the U.S. Capitol. Each state chooses two of its citizens to memorialize this way, and multiple Southern states have chosen Confederate generals or politicians:

PENCE: I hold the view that it’s important that we remember our past and build on the progress that we’ve made. The United States Capitol, every state is able to donate two statues to commemorate citizens that they want remembered in the heart of our government. States can make those decisions. What we have to walk away from is the desire to erase parts of our history just in the name of some contemporary political cause.

EARHARDT: So you’re in favor of keeping those monuments?

PENCE: I think that — obviously I think that should always be a local decision and with regard to the U.S. Capitol should be state decisions. But I’m someone who believes in more monuments, not less monuments. What we ought to do is we ought to remember our history but we also ought to celebrate the progress that we’ve made since that history.

“Some contemporary political cause”? You mean, not celebrating the people who waged war on the United States of America in order to maintain slavery? Is that a passing political fad, like outlawing bath salts or lawn darts?

Let’s talk about what Pence means when he says that taking down Confederate statues would mean “eras[ing] parts of our history.” This is probably the most common argument Republicans are making in defense of Confederate monuments, and it’s utterly absurd. Nobody advocating for the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee or changing the name of a highway honoring Jefferson Davis believes that we should erase those men from history. Quite the contrary; they should be remembered and understood, for exactly who they were, what they believed and what they fought for.

Defenders of Confederate statues want us to believe not only that a statue is the only way to remember a historical figure, but also that a statue is value-neutral. It’s just “history,” not a commentary on the righteousness of the cause for which those men fought. This, too, is completely ludicrous. We don’t put up statues simply to say “Here’s a thing that happened.” If we did, there would be statues of O.J. Simpson and Balloon Boy. We put up statues to honor, venerate and exalt the people who we are commemorating. There’s no clearer way to say “This person is a hero whose acts we celebrate” than putting up a statue of them.

Protests over Confederate symbols have erupted in several cities, following white nationalist violence in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. (Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

That’s exactly why those statues were erected in the first place: To celebrate the Confederate cause. And they were erected at times when whites in the South were particularly eager to assert white supremacy: most after the end of Reconstruction, with another wave during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

I was particularly taken with Pence’s assertion that whether to put up or take down a Confederate monument “should always be a local decision.” Because Republican-run states in the South don’t think so. Despite their oft-spoken support for “local control” and the idea that the government closest to the people is always wiser and more just, most of the states of the Confederacy have passed laws making it illegal for a city or town to remove a Confederate statue without the permission of the state legislature. These laws are on the books in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee — seven of the 11 Confederate states. Some states also forbid municipalities from renaming roads named for Confederate figures.

But don’t Americans support keeping up Confederate monuments? If you’ve been following this issue in recent days, you’ve almost certainly heard a reference to a recent poll conducted for NPR and PBS, showing that they do, by a 62-27 margin. But the truth is that the question asked in that poll could barely have been designed better to produce that result (though I’m not saying they did so intentionally). It asked whether “statues honoring leaders of the Confederacy should remain as a historical symbol, or be removed because they are offensive to some people.” That posits a choice between value-neutral “history” on one hand, and “some people” who are offended on the other. In other words, a reasonable understanding of our past, or a small group of censorious, politically correct agitators?

You could have more accurately have asked whether they should remain to honor those who fought to retain slavery, or be removed because that cause was morally abominable. Or you could ask the question in other ways — we won’t know what the results are until we take more surveys.

And that gets to a core question I’d like to hear Republicans answer, including the president and the vice president, but also every other officeholder or candidate. Yes or no, do you think it was a good thing that the South lost the Civil War? I’m guessing that they’d hem and haw and avoid giving a straight answer, so as not to give offense to those who think the answer is no.

But it’s time for some moral clarity. When someone does something terrible — like fighting a war to maintain slavery — we examine it and explore it and remember it. What we don’t do is celebrate it. We don’t put up a statue of them in the town square. We don’t say to our fellow citizens, “If these men had had their way, you would be a slave today — so we’re going to make you walk by a statue honoring them every day.”

Except we do. And we do it not only because of the poisonous rot within the hearts of some, but also because of the moral cowardice of others, those unwilling to make the simplest of distinctions between right and wrong. If nothing else, they should no longer be allowed to obscure what it is they’re supporting.