I have not written much about the removal of Confederate statues, even though my hometown, Charlottesville, is at the center of the controversy. Honestly, I have a hopeless feeling about it and the subject makes me depressed. I do feel that the issue is not being approached from the correct point of view by either side, so I wanted to give my perspective.
Statues of Confederate commanders are not about slavery. I have literally never heard anyone honour these men because they supported slavery, and only marginalized groups outside of the public discourse consider them as standing for anything racial. The number of demonstrations recently, almost all including members of the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacist groups, gives a misleading impression of how these statues are viewed by most people. I have no evidence that these protests were organized by members of the left, but I do believe that, if the left wanted to make a case for removing the statues, they could not do better than calling into existence protests by people that no one wants to be associated with (not to mention giving the rallies names like "Unite the Right" that appear specifically designed to link mainstream conservatives with the weirdos who actually came out to protest). Almost none of the people at the demonstrations have been from Charlottesville, and the KKK, in particular, was imported from out of state. I have lived in Virginia for about 30 years of my life, the first 20 and the last 10, and I have never heard of a KKK organization here nor heard anyone express pro-KKK views. My point is that these are fringe elements, almost completely irrelevant to political life; we would not let them influence our policies in a positive direction, and it makes equally little sense to let them influence our policies in a negative direction.
(I hesitate to use words like "weirdos" to describe the protesters, but the term "extremist" implies that they take otherwise normal views to the extreme, which is not the case: they are outliers in every sense.)
What these statues represent to most people is the defense of their homes against invaders. Yes, these men fought for the Confederacy. Yes, the Confederacy was formed to protect slavery. These are related points, but they are by no means the same. Fighting on behalf of a government does not mean approbation of its policies. I came across a striking indication of this recently on a totally unrelated matter: the British Falklands War. British politician Enoch Powell told Margaret Thatcher that the war had nothing to do with values: "We do not fight for values," said Powell. "I would fight for this country even if it had a Communist government." Whether or not you agree with Powell's assessment, I think it is clear that anyone actually fighting a war has far more immediate motives for putting his life at risk than whatever originated the war. I think it would be about as reasonable to criticize Soviet soldiers in World War II for fighting to promote Communism as it is to criticize Confederate soldiers for fighting to promote slavery. In both cases, they were fighting because their land was invaded. No further justification is needed.
(It is true that almost everyone today finds it difficult to understand how Robert E. Lee could choose to fight for his state over the federal government. I agree that this is foreign to our way of approaching things, as our states have largely become administrative units with quaintly different laws that make our lives difficult, rather than the primary locus of anyone's loyalty as a sovereign government. Nevertheless, it was a very real and sincerely held opinion in 1861; the fact that the federal government has come to dominate the states since then should not detract from this fact.)
I can understand why the federal government would be unhappy at the existence of these statues, because they do represent, at some level, the right of the states to oppose it. But that has nothing to do with why the statues are being removed now. Instead, it is about the alleged racism inherent in anything supporting the Confederacy.
I have argued elsewhere that this is a reductionist view of the Confederacy that leaves out several salient facts (among them, that a number of states, including Virginia, only joined after the federal government declared its intention to invade). I can understand why politicians and demagogues would benefit from proclaiming this simplistic and historically inaccurate view, but it baffles me to see people whom I know to be intelligent and thoughtful supporting an approach that I'm pretty sure they would not tolerate on just about any other subject. If the statues are so offensive, I would like to know why it is that we are only just discussing their removal now? Did people somehow overlook the alleged racism inherent in them for the last hundred years or so? Or did they think that racism was okay during that period but somehow isn't now? Or perhaps they waited until more serious racial issues were addressed, and now they have nothing more pressing to fight for in the realm of racial justice than the existence of statues?
Some have argued to keep the statues because they are historical monuments which, good or bad, need to be preserved. It would be better in my opinion if the statues could be kept, even under that logic, but that is emphatically not why I support them. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were heroes. People came from elsewhere to burn and destroy this state, and they fought against them. I honour them and everyone who defended Virginia. I would honour them even if I thought Virginia was wrong to secede. I happen to think Virginia had a very good case for seceding, but the legal niceties matter little when bullets begin to fly.
There is much I would like to add about the recent attacks on Robert E. Lee in particular, certainly the best the South had to offer and the least likely to warrant removal of his statue. However, this is a complicated matter than I will save for another time.