Repainting the General Lee Won’t Erase What It Symbolizes from History

“General Lee”-themed vehicle at auction, 2008. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty)

The General Lee is to be put out to pasture, its signature insignia washed clean by the madding crowd. ESPN reports:

Saying he didn’t want to offend people, Bubba Watson on Friday elaborated on the rationale behind his decision to paint an American flag over the Confederate battle flag on the General Lee, the 1969 Dodge Charger featured in “The Dukes of Hazzard.” “After all of the controversy and everything, I don’t want to offend anybody,” Watson said after his second-round 68 at The Greenbrier Classic. “The car is American history, so why not the American flag on it?”

It is time, Watson said with a note of panic in his voice, to “remove [the Confederate flag], hide it, whatever you want to call it. And make sure nobody is offended by it.” Thus was an admirable attempt to rid Southern governments of insidious and inappropriate symbolism confirmed to have spun dangerously out of control.

There is a clear and necessary answer to Watson’s rather naïve inquiry, “Why not the American flag?” That answer: Because the General Lee is a piece of America’s cultural history, and civilized people do not vandalize their antiques.

The argument in favor of removing the Confederate battle flag from the property of the state is a solid one. By their very nature, representative governments must serve all who fall under their charge, and, in consequence, they should decline to offend where possible. A frank reckoning with American history reveals that it is difficult to reconcile this presumption with the continued endorsement of vanquished Confederate regalia. From the various instruments of separation, from the altered presumptions of its constitution, and from the blunt words of the rebellion’s own vice-president, it is clear that the “cause” that was taken up under William Porcher Miles’s flag was a rotten one. The South’s unique “new Government,” Confederate Vice President Stephens confirmed in 1861, was “founded upon exactly the opposite ideas” of those that Jefferson had laid out in the Declaration — its foundations having been laid “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man” and “that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” Whatever its present meaning may be, to fly the flag that embodied this “new nation” is rife with complications, and it should be. My vote, for what it is worth, is to take the thing down and be done with it.

The General Lee is a piece of America’s cultural history, and civilized people do not vandalize their antiques.

These arguments, however, do not — and cannot — apply meaningfully at the individual level, which is why those who have seen fit to recommend change have tended to a) draw a hard-and-fast line between the private choices of free American citizens and the collective actions of the state, and, b) to urge the flag’s defenders to recognize the difference between a society’s “honoring history” and its doling out consolidated affirmation. “Take the flag down from government-maintained grounds,” our champions of removal have cried, “and put it in a museum where it belongs.” Their message, at least as delivered: “Yes, we must remember what has happened in this place, and we must respect the decisions of private individuals; but we should not accord to all of history the present imprimatur of the state.” This distinction, alas, appears to be wholly lost on Bubba Watson. Because he is a nice fellow, one can only imagine that Watson believes his voluntary actions will blunt the sharper edges of our present anger — adding a grace note, perhaps, to the measures that have been taken up by the powers-that-be. But, in reality, I suspect that the opposite will be the case. Indeed, should the roof of the General Lee receive a sparkling new paint job as intended, it will not be confirmation of closure so much as a clear indication that this fight has been moved outside of the statehouse’s grounds and into the museum itself.

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It is fashionable in our age to seek unity in all things, but the “General Lee” is not a statehouse, responsive to and reflective of the popular will. It is a historical artifact and cultural totem that sums up a particular moment in time. By amending it to suit contemporary fashions Watson is seeking, in effect, to erase that moment from history. This in my view is extraordinarily dangerous. If, per Watson’s suggestion, our instincts continue leading us to bring our venerable “American” rarities into lockstep with au courant American thought, we will soon find our archives transmuted into glass menageries. Questions abound: Must the owners of Monticello take Wite-Out to Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, lest the more egregious passages offend our modern sensibilities?; Must the custodians of vintage Aunt Jemima boxes throw them into the Mississippi to atone for their ugly anachronisms?; Must Congress contrive to paint over the uglier stereotypes on display at the World War II museum in New Orleans? I should certainly hope not, for societies tend to learn the most from their histories when they determine to preserve and to show them — and in their original form to boot. To take any other course is to risk becoming akin to the fictional Senator Finistirre in Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking, who, when asked if his plan to digitally remove cigarettes from old movies could be reasonably construed as “changing history,” replies with a stony face that he prefers to think he is “improving” it.

To remove the Confederate battle flag from the General Lee — or, for that matter, to rename the vehicle: perhaps Watson might go the whole hog and rechristen it the “General Sherman”? — would not in any meaningful sense be to improve upon it. Rather, it would be to deface it. Just as to burn an unwanted book is not to kill its author, to paint over the roof of an attitude-laden car is in no way to go back in time and to eradicate that attitude from the record. Naturally, it is incumbent upon no man to act as curator of those historical chapters he disdains. If Bubba Watson feels uncomfortable remaining in possession of his elements of American history, he is well within his rights to dispose of them. But he would be well advised to do so by handing them over to another collector — a collector, perhaps, who grasps better than he that there is no salvation to be found in reburying yesterday’s skeletons, and who understands deep down that hope comes not from a hastily arranged paint job, but from the reluctant acceptance that we are wiser because of our scars, not despite them.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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