I. The Fall of Richmond
In 1930, that caustic fellow H.L. Mencken wrote that if the war of 1861-1865 had gone otherwise, “Richmond would be, not the dull suburb of nothing that it is now, but a beautiful and consoling second-rate capital, comparable to Budapest, Brussels, Stockholm or The Hague.”[i]
I had occasion to be in downtown Richmond for a few days in both 2003 and 2007. As of my first visit, something like two thirds of all storefronts seemed empty. The thriving had definitely run out. As if on modernist purpose, the Confederate White House was surrounded and dwarfed by medical centers, and the adjoining Museum was already beginning to be reconstructed by the self-appointed forces of righteousness. On my second visit, the store fronts were as empty as in 2003. The thriving had not returned.
In a city with a history of sorts, it might seem unwise to destroy many of the outward expressions of that history. To deliberately create a Monument Avenue without monuments may well border on criminal stupidity. (“There’s a gal, her name is Sally, lives way down on Bare Plinth Alley …”)
II. The Noble Fourth Estate
Nonetheless, I shall waste few words on the merits of statue removal and monument-smashing, inasmuch as those merits are pretty much nonexistent.
It will be enough to sample some of the coverage of the biggest outrage of last year: the removal with malice of the statue of Robert E. Lee by agents of Richmond’s radical municipal politbureau on Wednesday, September 8, 2021.
Organs of the monotonously sound-alike press gave the story top billing on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of that week. Tuesday’s accounts were full of high anticipation and preliminary gloating. Wednesday’s stories were all about the (officially) joyful spectacle and full of realized gloating. Thursday’s coverage fretted over the search for an evil 1887 time capsule (not found until later) while bragging on the trendy and with-it time capsule that would replace it in the now purposeless base.
What naturally stood out was the uniformly triumphalist tone of the reporting, which expressed the self-glorification of the right-minded classes. It was a favorite point that the Lee statue was the largest evil Confederate monument still standing, aside from Stone Mountain. Bringing down Lee was clearly a big deal for these lovely people. It’s not every day that barnburners get to torch the second-biggest barn of their designated enemies. A catchy tag found at Yahoo News and Politico was “Lee statue cut in pieces.”
III. The Radical Press
A few more samples of this fine new cultural form must suffice.
CBS quoted Governor Ralph Northam as saying Monday that ‘”Virginia’s largest monument to the Confederate insurrection will come down this week” (italics added — it would have been a shame to miss a chance to say “insurrection”). CBS duly noted that the statue was “expected to be cut into two pieces for transport.”
Well, transport is a very tricky business.
Rather oddly, all things considered, the story added that “The Lee statue was created by the internationally renowned French sculptor Marius-Jean-Antonin Mercie and is considered a ‘masterpiece,’ according to its nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, where it has been listed since 2007” (italics added).[ii]
Oddly, other stories admitted that it was a decent old statue. Even so, doin’ right don’t have an end, and that masterpiece would have to go.
NPR focused on the prospect of a new time capsule that would “reflect the current cultural climate in Virginia.” The Governor called this “fitting.” The story grumbled that the 1887 capsule was thought to hold “objects … believed to have ties to the Confederacy, the governor’s office said.” This is of course very shocking – a time capsule in Virginia with ties to Virginian history.
By contrast, the new capsule would “include a photo of a Black ballerina taken … in front of the statue, Kente cloth worn at the 400th commemoration of 1619, a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sticker, ‘Stop Asian Hate’ fliers,” and so on.[iii]
That’ll sure show those dead racist white folks.
Politico.com got the woman-in-the-street viewpoint by interviewing someone who has lived in Richmond for all of three years. Despite some disqualifying “whiteness,” this exophilanthropist echoed the expected party line about symbols of hate.[iv]
Meanwhile: Way up North in Boston land, sat a Civil War blogger, big and grand … But let us dwell no more on such a fellow. He is a statue-smasher to rival Basher Dowsing of English Reformation fame, although he prefers that others do the weary work. His artful incitement comes with a gold-plated guarantee of good faith. On September 8, his post about the removal of the Lee statue indicated that it was all about him and his feelings, as doubtless it was. He also says that his first name doesn’t rime with his last name.
Richmond.com was ecstatic about finding a new purpose for Monument Avenue, whatever it might be. After reciting the party line on how such statues came to be, and relishing how “Lee’s torso was torn from his legs,” this outlet complained that over eighty other evil monuments “remain standing in Virginia alone.” The good work is never done, people.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney was quoted as saying, “’I’m confident we’re going to produce something that’s the opposite of what this is,’” while “pointing to the strapped-up statue.” Of that there can be little doubt.
Complaints about the James River as a social divide were aired, from which we must conclude that the racist old river will have to go, or at least be re-routed. (One imagines that the Army Corps of Engineers is already drawing up plans.)
This uplifting copy is followed by about a hundred color photos, including some of the oleaginous Governor and his beaming wife, four pictures of the empty pedestal, and seven of Lee’s statue being sawed into pieces.[v]
The Virginia Mercury helpfully speculated that that the statue would be stored, temporarily but securely, on “the grounds of a prison outside of Richmond.”[vi] High wit, indeed, and a symbolic of the glorious future that lies ahead for the mighty suburb.
We may close with a former newspaper which has lately devolved into a leftwing blog. “No one” — The Guardian astutely observes — “believed that the final humbling of insurrectionist Lee [!] or the removal of a bronze monument, albeit one of the biggest to the Confederacy, was going to fix systemic racism overnight.” But even so, the report notices much “elation after a decades-long campaign galvanised by last year’s racial justice protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in faraway Minneapolis”[vii] (italics added). One is pleased to see that the Guardian knows basic American geography!
Now if only they could work out exactly what-all a fatal encounter with a policeman in an upper midwestern state has to do with statues in the South, we would be most grateful. We would probably tug our forelock in thanks.
IV. Immediate Aftermath
As of December 5, 2021, we learned that the Lee pedestal, too, was to be smashed by the iron fist of social progress.[viii] Governor Blackface Northam had to conclude his good work before Republicans took over from him. (At least, he will soon have free time for other projects including, perhaps, a timely treatise on the ethics of infanticide.) He assured us that if his minions do find the wicked 1887 time capsule, it will be carefully preserved. On his principles, it is hard to see why.
December 7 brought us news that Charlottesville’s Lee statue is to be “melted down to create ‘art that will reflect racial justice.’”[ix] One wonders what fate is in store for the much larger statue dismantled by the Richmond junta.
As 2020 yielded to 2021, much fretting was heard about the evil, racist time capsule. There turned out to be two such boxes, but their contents failed to please the archeological vandals. It was sad to see the perpetrators so disappointed.
V. A Personal Note
I concede that I may be predisposed not to hate General Robert E. Lee. I was born in Lee Memorial Hospital in Lee County, Florida quite some time ago. More recently, I lived for some years in another county named for the General.
It never seemed at all odd to me that there was a portrait of Lee in the County Courthouse, or a bust of Lee by the main Fort Myers Post Office, and a passable mosaic of Lee on his horse on the side of the old Lee County Bank building. I would be quite surprised if anyone was actually oppressed by any of these manifestations of regard for Lee.
Fortunately, the Lee bust was spirited out of harm’s way before the newly invented local woke mob could wreck it. As for the mosaic, the owner of the building says that someone (not he) painted over the mosaic.
It would be nice to think that the current wave of righteous insanity, grounded on an utterly insensate and childish understanding of what history is, could recede now. But it would be rather foolish to assume that this is enough for them. Creative destruction apparently has no end.
It may be a long siege.
[i] See “The Calamity of Appomattox,” American Mercury (September 1930), p. 30, or https://www.americancivilwarforum.com/the-calamity-of-appomattox-by-h.l.-mencken-published-in-the-american-mercury-sept.-1930-2085719.html .