The Negation of the Past 

December 21, 2021 Updated: January 3, 2022


I live on Lee Street in Alexandria, Virginia. Yes, that Lee—Robert E. grew up a few blocks away. We also have Jefferson and Franklin Streets, and King, Duke, Prince, and Princess, which go back to the 18th century. Alexandria is where it is because further north, the Potomac River gets too shallow for shipping. It was a merchant town from the beginning, including a large slave market, with town leaders generally careful to avoid political tensions when they could.

In the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, Alexandria was occupied with little incident, and commerce went on.

When I moved to the city in 2017, at the intersection of South Washington and Prince streets was a statue of a Confederate soldier, a solitary figure in bronze atop a concrete and marble base. It showed a common soldier facing south, with no weapon and his head bowed. The accompanying text listed Alexandria residents who ended up among the Confederate dead.

It’s an image of defeat, and it bore the name “Appomattox.”

I say “was” because the statue is gone. It was removed in June 2020 by the organization responsible for it, the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The Daughters knew it was only a matter of time before the city leadership (Democratic) would order it down. The Daughters also didn’t want to see the statue vandalized as so many other statues, Confederate and non-confederate, were in the summer of 2020.

It was no surprise, then, that a story in the local paper a few months back reported on a move to change the name of my street. The initiative was all too predictable. A few years before, the old Episcopal church in Alexandria, on North Washington Street, decided to remove two plaques inside, one memorializing George Washington, the other Robert E. Lee. When I moved to town, Frank Buckley took me on a tour that included entering the church and sitting for five minutes in the Washington family pew.

As was often the case back then, a big donation to the church would reserve for you and your descendants a prime place in the congregation. But these commemorations had to go, because, the church leadership said, they “create a distraction in our worship space and may create an obstacle to our identity as a welcoming church.” As for all the money the church had received from those families in the past (which would have been tainted by profits from enslavement), I don’t recall any commentary about it.

Lee Street is an obvious next target. The leader of the effort is a millennial (of course!), only 25 years old, white with a little turquoise dye in his hair, and he shows in his comments in the news stories little historical understanding of the racial past of the United States. He doesn’t live on Lee Street, and it isn’t clear that his own family has been victimized in any way by the Lee family and what they represent. But his passion is firm, his conviction solid. He knows what’s right, and his moral scruples are a whole lot more precise and virtuous than those of actual residents of Lee Street who have lived there for decades, so he believes.

His goal is to erase every sign of the Old White South from the entire city. The “Appomattox” statue was no celebration of the Cause. It was a sign of mourning—but that didn’t stop the campaign against it. I predict that the City Council will eventually vote on the street name change and give him what he wants.

This is the progressive mentality in action. It’s ready to walk into a room for the first time and start telling people who’ve been there a long time what to say and do. Prudence is for weak wills, not for the young idealist eager to mold the world into the image of his ideals. He doesn’t hesitate one bit to tell the natives what he thinks of their heritage. He has a set of universal truths and values in hand, and he applies them to any and all as fervently as the most avid Spanish explorers in 1585.

This dictatorial impulse has never been more open than it is today as the “woke” wave continues. The old liberal values of pluralism and diversity, which they used to mouth, no longer compel them. In truth, they were a dodge, a way to dislodge European legacies from their high place without sounding destructive.

“We aren’t trying to get rid of Shakespeare,” they could say in the past, “we just want some representation of other races and genders and cultures. You don’t object to that, do you?”

What they really wanted, though, was to get rid of the Western tradition, the American Dream, and traditional conceptions of social life altogether. Our anti-Lee Street activist doesn’t want to share space. He doesn’t aim to put abolitionist monuments around town as a contrast to the remembrances of the slaveholders. He doesn’t care about historical memory in any broad way, only in the narrow progressive way, which means certain memories must go. It doesn’t matter to him that a lot of people in Alexandria find Robert E. Lee admirable as a soldier and gentleman, even though he took the wrong side in the War.

If an Alexandria grandmother said, “My great-grandfather fought in Lee’s army and died at Antietam—don’t take down that plaque commemorating him and other locals who were killed,” our progressive would offer a curt reply: “Nope, sorry.” If you asked him historical questions about the Civil War, you wouldn’t get much of a response. He doesn’t need facts; he has the right values in hand, and they tell him what to do.

This isn’t a positive project—it’s a negative one. It must be fought. We don’t need to defend Robert E. Lee. We need to fight arrogance and control. I don’t know of any people on the right who would object to a monument in Alexandria to the human cargo sold on the docks of the Potomac. Let the history be told, they would say.

But once the erasures start, once the left starts tearing things down, it’s a new ballgame. Our woke progressives deserve as much space in the public arena as they believe conservatives and traditionalists deserve. Their moral fervor shouldn’t shield them from reprisal.

On the contrary, it should put their adversaries on a wartime footing. The Culture War is on.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.