Lee statue: propaganda in bronze

Five years ago, my wife and I visited Charlottesville, Va. It’s a lovely little city as well as the home of one of our finest colleges, the University of Virginia. I thought Charlottesville could be a nice place to retire.

Statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va. For some it is to be revered. For others reviled.

Among the sights we saw was a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee riding his famed horse, Traveler. The sculptor created a beautiful depiction of the Confederate military leader, who cut a striking, majestic figure atop the pedestal upon which the statue rests. At the time, I thought little of it, since statues of General Lee and other monuments to Confederates are common throughout the South.

Fast forward five years. The statue has become a flashpoint ever since the Charlottesville City Council voted to remove it. White supremacists, members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis have come to Charlottesville to demand the statue stay put and to rally on behalf of racism and intolerance. The most recent protests, this past weekend, led to three deaths and gripped the national conversation, especially after the President voiced sympathy with the organizers of the rally.

What I did not know, and learned in the course of following the controversy, was that the Confederate statues were more than just a memorial. They were part of a concerted effort to whitewash the sins of the South and promote white supremacy, no pun intended. These figures, erected in parks and in front of courthouses, ascribed heroic qualities to those who fought for the “Lost Cause,” but made no mention of what that Lost Cause was.

When the Civil War began, the South framed the dispute as an argument over states’ rights. The North fought to keep the Union indivisible. It wasn’t until President Lincoln made the war about eradicating slavery that the tide turned.

The rebellion continued after Lee had surrendered at Appomattox and the Confederacy was disbanded, however.  Local militias fought with freed former slaves and occupying Union forces. The old guard eventually regained control of state and local governments as the northern soldiers withdrew; and they imposed “Jim Crow” segregation in everything from schools to railroad cars to drinking fountains. They also looked the other way as the KKK and lynch mobs terrorized African Americans and their supporters. The purpose: keeping white supremacy embedded in the social and cultural fabric of the South.

In a similar vein, the Nazis used propaganda to glorify the German people as the master race and to denigrate those they considered inferior, especially Jews. The effort to annihilate the Jewish people through the concentration camp system did not manifest itself in the early years of the Third Reich. Rather, the Nazis ratcheted up the pressure gradually by imposing increasingly tougher restrictions and using stronger rhetoric. Eventually, many Germans viewed their Jewish neighbors as less than human.

Thus, it was disturbing to see the intersectionality of racism and anti-Semitism on display in Charlottesville, even though this is not a new phenomenon. Even more troubling were the President’s statements, which one day condemned the bigotry seen in Charlottesville and walked back that position the next.

Propaganda and public relations are often confused in the public mind. While both attempt to change peoples’ thinking, the difference comes from the truthfulness of the messages. A public relations practitioner’s reputation rests on his or her credibility. I don’t see much of a future pushing “alternative facts,” and I like going to bed knowing that I did my job honestly.

The musical “Hamilton” ends with the company asking “who tells your story?” Whoever it is, make sure they tell it right.

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