We live in a culture of digital now-ness, twitter-surfing, trivia bingeing — which has become a culture of not-knowing history. I became acutely aware of the imbalance at the time of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last August. Suddenly, there history was — an old history of American racism and nativism — speaking to the present loud and clear.
The rally was built around a single object: an equestrian monument to the Confederate leader and Civil War hero Robert E. Lee. A small alt-right army had gathered to protest its threatened removal by the city from a public park. Probably no one had given the statue a serious glance for years. But the alt-right had, and understood its power, which lay in its twofold history. This sculpture represented the Civil War, but it was of a later date. It was made in 1924, when a brew of Lost Cause nostalgia and resurgent racist anger was saturating the South. In that context, the image of Lee was both a memorial to the past and the standard for a white supremacist future.
The Charlottesville rally was, as it was meant to be, explosive. And in the aftershock came a wave of monument-fever. In Charlottesville itself, anti-right protesters pulled down and smashed a second Confederate statue. In the same week, in Baltimore, Md., on an order from city hall, workmen hoisted four Confederate statues onto flatbed trucks and drove them off into the night.
The iconoclastic impulse spread north to New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to review a number of controversial monuments, not necessarily Civil War-related, that stood on city property. He called together a group of historians and artists together to take on…