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During my working life, which included stints as a low-level academic administrator and therefore of self-pity, I used to keep a facetious list of jobs in comparison to which mine was a breeze. Director of admissions was high on the list, just below the parking czarina. Right at the moment I am particularly glad not to be the president of say, Washington and Lee University. 

My own alma mater, the University of the South (Sewanee), was founded in 1857. Its cornerstone was laid in 1860, more or less in time for the Yankees to blow it up a few years later. There’s location, location, location—which Sewanee certainly had. But there is also timing, timing, timing — in which it was somewhat wanting. In the context of the Civil War, the demolition of the ceremonial cornerstone of an incipient educational and religious institution may be regarded as a deed of philistine vandalism or of potent political righteousness, depending upon point-of-view. And one must acknowledge that there is a good deal of point-of-view on display in the current controversy concerning the decommissioning of Confederate war memorials.

In my undergraduate years, the chapel at Sewanee was something of a museum of memorials, as many historic ecclesiastical buildings are. There were lots of funerary and memorial plaques, many of them cryptic to us, such as “she hath done what she could." That turns out to be Mark 14:8, but the sacrilegious adolescent imagination could run wild.  One read “and they rise to their feet as He passes by, gentlemen unafraid.” Forty years later I discovered it in Kipling, but I still have no idea what it means or what it was doing there. High up on the wall along both sides of the nave were some clearer emblems: old state flags, all of them from Confederate states, and some of them actual antique battlefield flags in what appeared to be battle-distressed condition.

What did these dusty, ragged flags mean? Neither I nor anybody I ever knew considered for a moment that they “meant” white nationalism or indeed anything political. Their symbolic purpose, as I understood it, was to identify individual dioceses among a multiplicity of church dioceses, a large number of which had persevered through the frantic distractions of national crisis, war, defeat, destruction, destitution, and military occupation to found a liberal arts college.  But I am a professional scholar of iconography. I know how difficult it is to be sure that the interpreter of an artistic symbol is on the same page as its creator. On this subject, it is quite possible for even an eminent professor of literature to smear egg all over his face, especially when he smells a “political” possibility.

How about the statuary monuments to Confederate generals? What do they mean? Here the semiotics immediately become murky. In the best-case scenario, an equestrian Lee might conjure up the Romantic visions of honor, courage, devotion to duty, military genius, dignity in defeat, or steadfastness in a lost cause that the old aristocrats found in reading Walter Scott. But that is assuming the statue is really about Lee. In the last several days in the Times, two knowledgeable historians (Eric Foner and Jon Meacham) have published essays that, despite differing aims and emphases, agree in the plausible claim that the erection of the Charlottesville statue was not an homage to the historical Robert E. Lee but a reactionary gesture meant to offer symbolic life support for the lost cause, just as the whole racial set-up in the South of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was designed through technically legal mechanisms to preserve as much as possible of the spirit and effect of the legally abolished institution of slavery. One somehow doubts that torch-lit marchers chanting “Jews will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil!” were much into the biographical Lee. 

Since iconoclasm is making a bid to reclaim the status of virtue, might we try agreeing on some guidelines?  Could we make a preliminary distinction between public, civic sites and literally consecrated ground—meaning churches and cemeteries? Whoever took a hammer to the bust of Lee in the Duke University chapel is in my opinion a small-time criminal zealot in a long, self-righteous, puritanical tradition that includes the fanatical image-smashers of the Scheldt churches in the sixteenth century and the Taliban bombers of the Bamiyan buddhas in our own. But that is probably a minority opinion. Shared public civic spaces, on the other hand—town squares, public parks, government buildings and grounds—are in a different category. In a democracy such places should so far as is possible actually belong to the citizenry and, insofar as possible, be regulated by democratic procedures, always remembering, as the Founders did, that democracy should not be synonymous with the “tyranny of the majority."

I am hardly one who is indifferent to the past. I have spent my life trying to study aspects of the remote past in their autonomy, integrity, and irrecoverable subtlety. Life, however, is for the living. The American Civil War is, as they say, history. But so is the history of the American Civil War. That is why historical monuments removed from public places should be archived, not destroyed or  “disappeared." Surely our great nation ought long ago to have faced its spiritual Appomattox and endured its spiritual Reconstruction and emerged a few steps closer to that “more perfect union” of our original national intention. Surely we can do so yet.

John V. Fleming

Author John V. Fleming taught at Princeton University for 40 years before retiring in 2006.

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