What's in a Name?

David Brooks wrote recently in the Times about what he calls “The Robert E. Lee Problem.” The column assesses the implications of scrubbing symbols of the Confederacy from the South and elsewhere. By now the Confederate battle flag has come down from the South Carolina statehouse and elsewhere (I’m fascinated by the tipping-point dynamics of this move -- once Walmart gets on board, you know the thing is irreversible). But what about other symbols and figures that may bear a similarly odious taint?

Among the historical figures dear to the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee is paramount – and the map of the South is dotted with sites bearing his name. Brooks notes that Lee was, in his private life, a man of rectitude, intelligence and charm. Yet he joined the slave-owning insurgency, betrayed his oath of duty as an officer, owned nearly 200 slaves himself, and led the forces of a rebellion that triggered the deaths of 750,000 Americans. Should he come down, along with the Stars and Bars?

Brooks says yes. “Every generation has a duty to root out the stubborn weed of prejudice from the culture,” he writes. “We do that, in part, through expressions of admiration and disdain.” He goes on to recommend removing Lee’s name from “most schools, roads and other institutions.”

I lived for years in Germany, among places and institutions dedicated to opponents and victims of the Nazis – all those Bonhoeffer Platzes and Sophie-Schollstrassen, streets and schools named for the rejected and reviled, the murdered and the martyred. There were no Himmler Parks to be found anywhere. Nor would anyone expect there to be. When a country is vanquished, or a despised ruling power toppled, the transitions of memorialization are simple: the statues come down. In a civil war, the challenge can be more complicated – especially one, like ours, in which a high premium was placed on national political reconciliation, and certain core conflicts and resentments were never worked out. 

My own immediate reaction to seeing the Stars and Bars come down – “good riddance!” – disclosed a deep, even primal satisfaction. We won that war, right? Shouldn’t that symbol have been expunged back then? It is the flag of a vanquished nation and an errant cause. As a citizen of the Union I say “hurrah” to the erasure of the Stars and Bars from public life and its relegation to the museum.

But how far should such erasure go?  Visiting Richmond, Virginia, a couple of years ago, I found it strange, even a bit eerie, to drive those stately boulevards with huge statues of Lee and Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson peering down at me. Again, I felt, didn't we vanquish these guys? 

Should all those statues come down? Should avenues and schools and parks, and on and on and on, be renamed?  Where to draw a line? Even I would agree that when you have Senate minority leader Harry Reid publicly deciding whether to take a position on the mascot of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, whose nickname is “Hey Reb,” that things might be getting a little bit too fine-grained.

The University of Virginia has led the way among the southern institutions of higher learning that are attempting to reckon with this aspect of the South’s history, forming a commission charged with providing recommendations “on the commemoration of the University of Virginia’s historical relationship with slavery and enslaved people,” including “appropriate memorialization.”

And what about us, up north? What about, to take just one example, the places named for Senator and Vice President John C. Calhoun (a lake in Minnesota, a residential college at his alma mater, Yale)? Calhoun was a vehement defender of slavery – he called it “a positive good” -- and the residence at Yale that bears his name includes stained glass window panels depicting slaves picking cotton, eating watermelon, and standing in shackles before Calhoun. Some of these images have been removed; some remain. To remove them all, insists the college’s head, would be “to erase history” – and in the process, to “forgive ourselves” unjustly,” as one student living in the dorm put it.

Should we expunge Calhoun from public memory, as much as possible, along with the flag of the South that he revered? What about the slaveowning Thomas Jefferson? Or the “Indian Killer,” Andrew Jackson? How far to go with the cleansing of history? Is cleansing even the right metaphor? What do you think?

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

Also by this author
Trapped

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Culture
Books
Books
Collections
Collections