Photograph by Anthony Crider (Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
If you were to talk to the white nationalists in the US today, they would assure you that they are the main victims in the country, the ones who are subject to the most danger. First of all, since 2008 they were under the yoke of a black president, losing the white monopoly over the state. Then, with the rising Black Lives Matter movement in 2014-5, whites were thoroughly silenced and cornered by the joint pressure from immigrants, urban liberals and dirty communists. This was to such an extent that a former Ku Klux Klan (KKK) leader, David Duke, declared in Vice News that such forces “don’t want our speech because we are telling the truth about the ethnic cleansing of America and the destruction of the American way of life in a new Bolshevik style society with no freedom, no freedom of speech in this country.” (Vice News, 21 August 2017)
For Duke and his patriots, the last straw was the recent attempts to remove the monuments of their cultural heritage. Namely, in February 2017, there was Charlottesville city council’s decision to remove the Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s monument. This decision was taken to court and postponed, but with the May removal of a larger statue of General Lee in New Orleans, the prospects of having a decision in their favor diminished. Hence, mid-August, a group of white nationalists organized a rally to protect this last remaining fort and to “unite the right” as they named their Charlottesville gathering. The march was carried out with torches that were the iconic markers of the Hitler Youth and the KKK, and their slogans such as “Blood and Soil,” “Jews will not replace us,” were chanted throughout.
Photograph by ROTH440K (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
A group from Virginia University, who learned about the torch carrying victims, gathered to disrupt the rally at the Thomas Jefferson monument. This confrontation resulted in clashes and a ban of the march from the police. The next day, at a large protest against the neo-Nazi march the day before, a fascist driver ran his car into the crowd, killing one person, injuring many. This clear exposition of cruelty, however, did not deter white nationalists from their victim play and they continued to claim that all they aimed at was to defend the monument.
This event triggered discussions about the rising right in the US, Trump’s role in encouraging right-wing violence, the historical role of white supremacy in the US, among others. Along with these discussions, that of the historical-political role of the monuments occupies a particularly difficult one. Is the demolition of a monument an attack on the historical memory that should be preserved regardless of its current political intent? Here it could be helpful to remember what Henri Lefebvre wrote about the conflicting nature of monuments in his Urban Revolution. In order to clarify this inherent conflict, Lefebvre lays down two short unresolved Kantian fashioned antinomies called “against monument” and “for monument.” For Lefebvre, on the one hand, monuments are sites of collective social life, aesthetic and ethical abodes of transcendence. They bring people together around a collective imagination of utopia and proclaim a sense of joy and hope. On the other hand, they are repressive instruments of powerful institutions. They colonize the space organized around them and entrench the role of the authorities. They evoke the memory of the powerful and side with the conquerors.
This duality within the social-political nature of the monument obscures some of the discussions around the monument of General Lee and partly paves the way for the arguments of the radical right. Like any monument, isn’t that of General Lee an artwork that embraces the collective memory of an era? Aren’t those who want to remove the harmless monument, or even are bold enough to damage it, simply provoking the law-abiding, heritage-loving citizens? In such a case, what could these dutiful skinheads do but take their torches at hand and march in the streets chanting their racist, anti-Semitic slogans?
This is where the white nationalists aim at carrying the discussion. However, the monument’s relation to collective memory is quite different than that of an artwork. Beyond preservation of historical memory, a monument is a political agent that wills the past content in the present through and through. The glorious presence of General Lee on his horse at Emancipation Park foreshadows a youth who will gird on Lee’s weapons and defend the enslavement or massacre of blacks, Jews and Muslims. Lee’s monument does not institute a neutral space of memory, it rather is a political-symbolic pedestal which racist bigotry can rise upon.
In that sense, it is important to see the “war of monuments” devoid of surrounding obscurity. If the issue is not to protect cultural-historical memory, but to fortify racist politics in the present, what would be a better response to this monument but the one with a sledge hammer?