24 January 2019
The racial clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, were triggered by a heated debate between liberal elites and right-wingers over political correctness. Photo:
The racial clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, were triggered by a heated debate between liberal elites and right-wingers over political correctness. Photo:

General Robert E. Lee and the Charlottesville riots

The recent racial riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, have shocked the world, and everyone, including US President Donald Trump, have condemned the violence, even though he has obviously pulled his punches on the white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan who organized the protests, which later turned into deadly clashes.

However, in my opinion, racial violence in the United States is unlikely to end in the foreseeable future, no matter how harsh and widespread the condemnation might be.

That’s because the way the American mainstream liberal elites, who have been obsessed with political correctness, condemn racial violence would only lend further political legitimacy and momentum to right-wing extremist groups in the US.

The Charlottesville riots were triggered, to a considerable extent, by a heated debate between liberal elites and right-wingers over political correctness.

Back in April this year, the city council of Charlottesville passed a resolution to change the name of a local park named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee and remove his statue from the park.

The decision immediately sparked a fierce backlash from the local population, which is predominantly white, and eventually led to last week’s violent protests.

Some Chinese readers might have never heard of Robert E. Lee. However, as the commander-in-chief of the Confederate army during the American Civil War in 1861 to 1865, Lee is definitely a household name in the US.

He is regarded by many southern white Americans as one of the greatest military commanders in the country’s history.

To many indigenous white southerners, Lee was an undisputed war hero despite the fact that he and his troops were defeated by the Union Army in 1865.

Lee has also been considered by many mainstream American historians as a patriot as well, mainly because he rejected the proposal made by other Confederate generals to launch a sustained insurgency against the Union after he had been defeated in 1865 and instead called for national reconciliation.

Suffice it to say that Lee was instrumental in facilitating peace and unity in the US in the wake of the Civil War, without which the country’s rapid recovery from that brutal conflict would never have been possible.

Unfortunately, despite his enormous contributions to rebuilding the nation after 1865, Robert E. Lee still remains a “politically incorrect” figure in the eyes of many American liberal elites because of his “original sins”: he was a slave owner, a white supremacist, not to mention that he fought against President Lincoln and his emancipation of black slaves during the war.

At first glance, the mainstream liberal elites might appear justified in disliking Lee. However, they are actually employing double standards.

They have gone to great lengths trying to erase Lee from the public memory, but they are turning a blind eye to the fact that President Lincoln wasn’t an abolitionist right from the start either, and that he declared war on southern states in 1861 not because he wanted to end slavery, but because he was desperate to stop them from seceding from the Union.

I believe all historical figures, whether in the East or the West, should always be examined and judged in the historical and cultural context of the time when they lived rather than by modern standards, or else it would only create unnecessary controversies and open old wounds in society.

And the Charlottesville riots are simply the latest testimony to the divisive and destructive nature of such a wrong approach to judging historical figures.

What really boggles the mind is why the mainstream liberal elites in the US, many of whom are so highly educated, just don’t understand this simple principle.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 15

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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