Ronald Reagan famously called for President Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” which was both a barrier and a symbol of the separation of East Berlin and the rest of the world.
This wall cost lives to cross or try to cross. And while it was silent, like a statue, it spoke loudly to both sides.
Mr. Trump asked in his news conference on Aug. 16 if the taking down of statues will extend to Jefferson and Washington, because they owned slaves.
Here is where history and reason should intersect, and yet they do not for the man who sometimes lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
This country at its birth had slaves, was still actively acquiring slaves, and even more actively debating their ownership while the Constitution and Bill of Rights were being debated and written.
This divide was not resolved, because it crossed the lines of economic stability, especially for the South, and the decent, humane treatment of fellow human beings.
From the toxic embrace of slavery, many problems have flowed right into our Supreme Court, onto the battlefields of our nation. They came to an unruly rest in the 1960s as we took mighty steps toward equality. Ruby Nell, but a child, walked into a white school to simply sit at a desk and learn.
It did not go smoothly all of a sudden; change seldom does.
But there is also a truth that has been shape-shifted long enough. The Civil War was waged to keep humans enslaved for profit. Out of that belief, states made the decision to leave the Union and fight to bring down the United States of America and re-establish the country under the banner of slavery for economic growth, and out of a deeply held belief that blacks were subhuman.
The South waged war against our country. While some were “fine gentlemen,” they made the choice to unravel the Union.
This is no small gesture. This was a war based on seceding from the United States of America.
From the view of Southerners, their honored dead may well remain honored by their families and have a place in history, but we fool ourselves and lie about what happened if we gloss it over. What happened back then was secession and war.
Mr. Trump asked who is next to be removed from monuments or parks. Jefferson? Washington? The answer is neither.
Jefferson and Washington founded and fought for the very institutions the South decided to leave and destroy. Yes, they owned slaves, as was the economic basis for years. But no, they did not declare war on the United States, nor wish to tear it limb from limb.
There is no comparison. It is a false equivalence and a red flag to wave, and is bereft of thought or history.
The Confederacy was formed to destroy the United States, and the Confederacy lost the war.
When you lose a war, you may not expect to have the same place in history or in parks or in monuments as does the victor.
For well over 100 years, the Confederacy has had an extended spotlight. Now, as we gain more perspective and as the nation becomes less “pure white,” people are asking if having the Confederate soldiers and generals in a prominent position might now shift to their being in, say, a museum or lesser setting.
They, after all, stand for a vision the nation decided not to share.
These figures and their representations are, as many point out, part of our history. But it is not a glorious history.
Rather, it is one of human subjugation, secession and death. It goes so far as to have caused the assassination of President Lincoln. This was a traitorous time, and it is now time to put that history into some perspective.
The people who marched on Charlottesville were not reaching back to some moment of glory. Neo-Nazis and the KKK hate blacks, Jews, minority religions and forms of self-definition.
Those torch-bearing marchers did not chant Aristotle or Jefferson. They sounded like anti-Semitic, anti-black, anti-gay hate mongers. They believe that, had the Union not held, they would own slaves and be top dogs.
The Union survives. Those who believed otherwise lost. We are better for it.
Reagan’s words apply today. In those remarks from our more recent history, he said:
“We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace.”
We should not pretend that the Confederates were equally for freedom.
Let us move those statues, Mr. President.