United States history gives its citizens many reasons to celebrate, but it is also rife with terrible lessons they'd do well to learn from.
Current Lt. Gov. and Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Virginia Ralph Northam has expressed his support for the relocation of Confederate statues from public spaces to museums, an opinion nuanced by his own family's history of owning slaves and fighting for the South during the Civil War.
However, while Northam appears ready to move forward, it seems state Republicans are not.
On Wednesday, the Virginia GOP took to Twitter to attack Northam for his views, calling them a betrayal to his "heritage."
The Virginia GOP accuses Dems of practicing "identity politics". Then they tweet the following about Dem candidate for Gov. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/14g98kDH0g— Deborah Cohen (@g8r84) August 23, 2017
In response, Northam tweeted that he had no problem with denouncing white supremacy, regardless of whether or not that was a part of his so-called heritage.
Hours later, after heated media backlash, the party removed the tweets and replaced them with a poor excuse.
Our previous tweets were interpreted in a way we never intended. We apologize and reiterate our denunciation of racism in all forms.— Virginia GOP (RPV) (@VA_GOP) August 23, 2017
John Findlay, executive director of the Virginia GOP, insisted to The Washington Post that the party was not attacking Northam for denouncing his slaveholder ancestors, but for his backing of the removal of memorials they see as honoring Confederate soldiers who fought and lost their lives in the Civil War.
“We said that Ralph Northam is turning his back on his heritage and family. It is because his great-grandfather fought for the side of the Confederacy and was wounded during the Civil War,” Findlay explained. “When he wants to tear down monuments dedicated to those killed in action and wounded during the war, he is literally talking about a member of his own family.”
Northam's own position on the statue debate has evolved, particularly after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. While he used to advocate for allowing local municipalities to decide what to do with their statues, he now backs monuments being firmly placed in the analogs of history where they belong. His opponent, Republican lawmaker Ed Gillespie, said he feels similarly, but doesn't necessarily see the need to move them to museums to do that.
"Rather than glorifying their objects, the statues should be instructional,” Gillespie stated on his candidate website. “While ensuring that Confederate statues are not exalting them but educating about them, we should do more to elevate Virginia’s history in expanding freedom and equality by extolling the many Virginians who played critical roles in this regard.”
Finding common ground is a valuable tool for preventing future violence, but it's harder to locate when one side is steeped in moral bankruptcy. The Confederacy is intrinsically linked to human bondage, to treason, to bloody conflict, and to the near annihilation of the United States. Statues of leaders in the Confederate army and of the soldiers who fought beneath them are testaments to individuals who were willing to put their lives on the line for violent, racist ideologies, or at least forgive it.
Taking into account America's escalating political and racial tensions and the current president, it doesn't look like the nation has evolved much in spirit over the last 150 years. Gillespie and other politicians who favor his proposed compromise are banking on the idea that a lesson was learned from the Civil War and that America is now better than its immoral origins. In their minds, there is enough distance between the present and the past for the statues to be merely historically informative to the public, rather than inciteful.
However, the Virginia GOP tweet highlights the underlying problem to this line of thinking: The Confederacy isn't dead.
Banner and thumbnail credit: Reuters photographer Aaron P. Bernstein