One of the first things my high school seniors read each year is Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” in which Socrates teaches about the difficulty of knowing the truth. Our experiences limit how we see the world, the way cave dwellers believe shadows and not the objects that cast them are real. Our task, Socrates says, is to leave the cave and look at the bigger world of ideas.
“Picture a chair,” I tell my students. “Now imagine that every chair in the world mysteriously disintegrates into dust. There are no more chairs anywhere. But that’s okay, because you have the real chair in your mind. You can build a replica, but that’s all it will be – a replica. The idea is what is real. The idea lasts.”
That ideas are more enduring than objects is relevant in deciding what to do about Confederate monuments such as the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. The alt-right/white supremacists/white nationalists/neo-Nazis argued that their Unite the Right rally was a protest against erasing history. South Carolinians heard the same argument when the Confederate battle flag was moved from the state courthouse.
Yet the history that statues and flags represent hasn’t gone anywhere. The idea of the Old South haunts us still.
My family were small subsistence farmers in upstate South Carolina before the Civil War. Census records show that they, like most of the white families in the area, owned a slave or two, giving the lie to the notion that slavery was rare and only practiced by rich plantation owners. Federal troops were stationed here until 1877 tamping down the activities of the KKK, and one of my ancestors went to trial for his part in a lynching.
Nothing makes that history go away. The legacy of slavery – the systemic racism, the bigoted stereotypes – stand as tributes more enduring than any statues.
Anyone serious about preserving history through monuments should insist that more be erected to show the complete story – a statue of Harriet Tubman beside the image of Robert E. Lee, perhaps, or a tableau of a slave family being torn apart at an auction, or an obelisk celebrating Frederick Douglass’s learning to read next to a memorial of the law that made literacy for slaves a crime. Would the alt-right/white supremacists/white nationalists/neo-Nazis cheer that addition to the larger historical truth?
Of course not, because their protest isn’t really about history. It’s about hegemony.
“We will not be replaced!” they yelled in Charlottesville. They weren’t talking about a statue. They were talking about their fear of losing dominance.
That fear once motivated Christian Picciolini to join the Chicago Area Skinheads. When his first child was born, he renounced the group. “Once you’re more resilient and you’re more secure, ideology and fear tend to go away because there’s no one to blame anymore,” he told NPR.
While Picciolini counsels former skinheads through his organization Life After Hate, the Southern Poverty Law Center has published an action plan for dealing with hate groups as a whole. Rather than demonstrating at hate rallies, counter-protestors can hold a competing peace rally at a different site, for example. We can support victims of hate by speaking up and teaching tolerance, especially to our children. And we must stay vigilant and not remain silent.
Otherwise, the ideas that fuel hate groups will fester long after the last monument comes down.
McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.