No matter how ready you think you are to see an actual Klansman, you aren’t. Not that the Klansman is easy to see. Standing on tiptoe several rows back in the crowd, I can glimpse some of the white robe, which is more than enough for me. Someone tells me that when she got close enough to see, she began to cry. It sounds dramatic, she adds, apologetically.
The Klansmen—around fifty of them—are here in Charlottesville on a Saturday in early July to protest the imminent removal of statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from two city parks that until recently bore their names. (The parks’ names have now been changed from “Lee” to “Emancipation” and “Jackson” to “Justice.”)
For the Klan, this event is a sign of its decline. Back in 1921, a few months before the unveiling of the statue of Jackson that’s overlooking this whole affair, the local newspaper proudly announced that “the fiery cross, symbolic of the Isvisible [sic] Empire and of the unconquerable blood of America, cast an eerie sheen upon a legion of white robed Virginians as they stood upon hallowed ground and renewed the faith of their fathers.… The Ku Klux Klan has been organized in this city.” Its members were, as the article said, “Charlottesville’s leading business and professional men.”
But what is the Klan now? A faded image of itself, surely. These people aren’t community leaders by any stretch. At first glance, the entire struggle now is over images: statues, white hoods, and Confederate flags. Removing the statues is as symbolic as keeping them—a gesture toward Charlottesville’s black population that seems to fall just short of actual material aid. (In fact, though this information hasn’t dominated the news, the city council has also passed an equity package, which dedicates around $4 million to, among other things, public housing, educational opportunities, and further development of a local African American heritage center.)
Still, there’s an undeniable electric shock that comes from seeing a Klansman: There’s something real here, you think. Those white robes still have power.
There’s something real here is precisely what I don’t think about a month later, when I start watching a live video of Unite the Right ralliers preparing to march across the University of Virginia campus with torches. Like the Klan, Unite the Right is here to protest the removal of the monuments, and to agitate for “white rights.”
If anything, I expect one of the fidgeting young men—maybe the one with a tiny swastika pin on his polo shirt—to ask himself, “What am I doing here?” and take off. The situation is undeniably comic. But as they continue to march with their risibly misappropriated bamboo tiki torches, chanting “You will not replace us” (and sometimes “Jews will not replace us”), they quickly become less funny. When they surround the woman who is recording the video I’m watching and the screen goes black, they’re not funny at all.
The next day, many of the Unite the Right ralliers show up at Emancipation Park carrying little wooden shields. I snap a picture of one man carrying a shield that says Deus Vult (“God wills it”) in one hand and a Confederate flag in the other. When the participants are ordered to disperse practically before the rally can even start, one begins to yell at white counterprotestors, “Y’all are all hypocrites!” He makes eye contact with me as he says it. Given the other options on the table, there are worse things.
These people, too, don’t seem altogether real. More dangerous, to my eyes, are the private militia members who have come to the rally heavily armed and looking ready for combat. They view themselves, as one tells me, as the self-appointed keepers of the peace. But one of the kids behind a wooden shield is James Alex Fields, and in a few hours he’ll ram a car into a crowd of people on Charlottesville’s pedestrian mall, killing one counterprotestor, thirty-two-year-old Heather Heyer, and injuring nineteen others. It doesn’t get more real than that.
The Klan didn’t always look like the Klan. In its earliest days, as historian Elaine Frantz Parsons tells it, Klansmen committed acts of violence in carnival clothes and women’s dresses and even in blackface. By doing so, Parsons writes, Klansmen encouraged “northerners to read their attacks as theatrical, rather than political.” By way of example, she points to A Fool’s Errand, an 1879 novel by Albion Tourgée about the recently concluded Reconstruction era. (You might know him better as the lawyer who brought Plessy v Ferguson to the Supreme Court, unsuccessfully attacking state laws that mandated “separate but equal” public facilities.) In that novel, Northerners initially respond to news about the KKK as though it were “a piece of the broadest and most ridiculous fun.”
A little farther down the page, Tourgée writes (with some bitterness), “What could be funnier, or a more appropriate subject of mirth, than that the chivalric but humorous and jocose Southrons should organize a ghostly police to play upon the superstitious fears of the colored people, who were no doubt very trifling, and needed a good deal of regulation and restraint?”
In a somewhat similar fashion, the kind of people showing up at Unite the Right—a disparate group of reactionaries, nationalists, fascists, and racists who are loosely clumped under the title “alt-right”—have built their cultural profile as the class clowns of public discourse, shooting spitballs at prigs and dunking feminists’ pigtails in the inkwells. Its members say and do outrageous things. The anger of their targets proves they aren’t in on the joke, aren’t capable of rational conversation, or are merely “virtue-signaling” to their fellow “cucks.”
Meanwhile, in publications sympathetic to the alt-right such as Taki’s Mag, writers mock “the keening, unhinged hatred that the ‘anti-racist’ whites have for their genetic cohorts who refuse to join them in their creepy, ethnomasochistic psychological self-cleansing rituals.” Y’all are hypocrites, in short, and the alt-right and its more mainstream-friendly figures position themselves as provocateurs who are willing to speak truth to power with a wink and a nod.
Culture commentators, viewing the alt-right as a new movement, look for an “alt-left” on which this backlash can be blamed. “When the Left indulges in rhetoric that demonizes whites…it summons the demons of white nationalism,” wrote the conservative blogger Rod Dreher the day after the rally. In this, such writers echo Tourgée’s depiction of Northern mirth: The alt-right exists to play upon the superstitious fears of hypersensitive liberals, and that’s it. Or, like our president, they say merely that there were faults on many sides, that the Unite the Right rally included many “very fine people.”
But the alt-right is not really a new social movement. It is the reality of which the Klan is now only a symbol, and like the early Klansmen, its members are adept at ironizing their real activities to such a degree that it’s almost impossible to believe they mean it. (One parent of a Unite the Right attendee recalled in an open letter a “joke” his son once made: “The thing about us fascists is, it’s not that we don’t believe in freedom of speech. You can say whatever you want. We’ll just throw you in an oven.” You had to be there, one imagines.)
More to the point, however, the catalyst of all of these assorted protests in Charlottesville wasn’t something new. It was something very old: those Confederate monuments. In the days leading up to the unveiling of the Lee monument, back in 1924, the Klan, though not officially affiliated with the celebrations surrounding the monument, would burn a cross for two hours and throw a parade.
Symbols, like events, never float free from their context. What the statue of Lee meant to the Klan at the time it was unveiled was revealed in how the Klan behaved. That the Klan dragged its undead corpse to Charlottesville to protest this past July tells you what the statue still means to it today. That a young man from Ohio was willing to kill for it tells you what it means to him, and to many others who share his ugly convictions.
America can’t really be accused of ignoring the Civil War so much as refusing to leave it. Far from averting our national gaze, we relive the conflict over and over, sometimes literally, until the war itself becomes, in the words of historian David Blight, encased in a “shell of sentimentalism.” Blight compares this sanitized Civil War to a national Passover, but one could also think of it as a highly choreographed dance in which all the dancers are gentlemen and all act from the highest ideals. Both sides are allowed their version of events, and two Civil Wars thus exist side by side in the national memory.
Confederate monuments are one of the sentimentalities that help keep this situation in place. They celebrate an abstract heroism and patriotism, the actual details of which are not much discussed: a Lost Cause so fine no actual interests seem to penetrate it. Those monuments are also ambiguous: What they mean depends on what version of the Civil War, and of the past, you yourself happen to subscribe to. This ambiguity is part of what makes the presence of the monuments a problem for municipalities, particularly those that struggle to be truthful about their past.
But the Confederacy wasn’t—despite the beliefs of the many people I’ve known personally who felt this way—a beautiful and tragic cause. That myth can be sustained only by erasing slavery from the picture entirely, or else by justifying it, which some people I have talked to are willing to do. At a Civil War reenactment I attended as a teenager, my host spent some time trying to prove to me that the enslaved people were happy. Even the term “Civil War” was inappropriate, and one visitor who dropped by was gently but firmly told not to use it. (“The War of Northern Aggression” is often proposed as an acceptable alternative, though not entirely without irony. “War between the States,” if you’re feeling politically correct about it.)
Charlottesville itself is a symbol now, the meaning of which is being wrestled over. For some, its meaning is that “extremism,” represented by the protesters on both sides, is itself to blame. This is the direction in which the president, in his remarks, has chosen to go. Online, people sympathetic to the rally, some of whom had not even been there, put out their own version of what happened. They turned the counterprotest that I went to observe—which included many clergy and grandmothers alongside the Democratic Socialists of America and others—into a solid militant bloc of “antifa” extremists attacking people at will (and, of course, paid for by George Soros). Black people, I read, “roamed the streets” harassing any white people they found. Shortly after the car plowed into the protestors, the story began to circulate that it was actually a “false flag.”
And even in mainstream conservative publications, from The Federalist to the Wall Street Journal, news of the very real death of Heather Heyer was briefly dispatched to make room for the predictable talking points.
Since the rally, the alt-right has shifted its analysis from content to form: Unite the Right followed procedures; the police did not. Whatever happened was the fault of the police. Much mainstream analysis has also preferred to climb up to this level of abstraction. With better procedures, one could have a white supremacist rally every day and no one would be harmed. The rally doesn’t mean anything. The statue doesn’t mean anything. The problem is somewhere else.
But the problem really is right there. One line that runs from the Confederate statuary through the Klan and to today’s alt-right is white supremacy, something no one should be shy to say. Another is dishonesty. Dishonesty about what’s thought and dishonesty about what happens and what has happened. Corny shields, ironized racism, and sober statues dodge the question of what they stand for and why they are there.
Last December, the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces delivered a report to the city of Charlottesville. After much study and some community discussion, the commission came up with two recommendations. The statues could be moved, or the space around the statues could be transformed by adding other pieces of public art or commentary. The latter recourse would allow the park to tell “the complete story—good and bad—about Charlottesville’s past.”
This isn’t the route Charlottesville chose to take, but there is little reason to think that it wouldn’t have provoked the same violent response. Indeed, depending on what the complementary piece of art might have been, things might have been worse. That the two options were to remove or transform does, however, identify the problem here as not just one of memory but of meaning. The Confederate monuments that went up in the 1920s were ways of keeping one line about the past alive. That they retain this meaning is clear enough from the response to efforts to remove them.
Perhaps Confederate statues can be made to represent something other than what they stand for right now. But there’s no way for this to happen without our really grappling with what they do mean. I used to think it was a good thing for America to have monuments to its various national shames. Now I understand that those monuments have yet to be made.