How can Americans in the South learn history if no local monuments commemorate Union Generals Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Meade or even the Unionist Virginian, George Henry Thomas? And how can residents of the American South learn about Lincoln, if virtually all of the American memorials and statues of Lincoln are located outside the former Confederacy?
With all the erasing and, in some locales, failure to record history with statues, where is one supposed to go to learn Civil War history?
Maybe a school, a library, a bookstore, Amazon or the internet?
Facetiousness aside, learning about or erasing history isn't what this cultural moment is all about. It's about disputed social meanings, and ultimately the psychological meaning of the statues, especially as they pertain to identity.
People aren't fearful of erasing history. They're afraid of erasing their identity. At the most primitive level, these people fear – all people fear – being erased, ceasing to exist. Full Stop.
The neo-Nazis didn't go to Charlottesville to protect the statue. When they marched through the darkness of night, bearing torches and chanting "JEWS WILL NOT REPLACE US!" the neo-Nazis might just as well have been shouting: "you will not erase us."
The statue itself wasn't important. Confederate history wasn't important to them. Few of the identified neo-Nazis even came from the South.
They used the statue to lend credibility to their odious identitarian ideology, because they saw in more widespread feelings about statue removal, a common anxiety about existential erasure.
They hoped that tapping into this common anxiety would lend credibility to their modern Nazi movement. It makes sense that they would see it this way because those statues are factually linked with historic white supremacy in the United States.
But I think their calculation was off, and the effect was either a wash, or they further discredited the statues rather than building credibility for themselves. Instead of sanitizing their own image by borrowing sanitized sentiments for the statues (history, "heritage"), their very presence – their chants, their flags, their aggressive posture – underscored the statue's fundamental entanglement with America's undeniable history of white supremacy.
Ironically, most of the Nazis were young, but it is with the younger generation that their appeals to fear of identity erasure are most likely to fall flat. I'm not saying their alarm won't resonate with some young white people, but the current younger generations are more cosmopolitan than any previous generation. Or really, not so much cosmopolitan as they are less and less provincial.
Most of the world is less provincial. Mobility of residence, travel, education, movies, television and the internet, change our perceptions of who we are and who is like us. Provincial identities are the inevitable losers in a world that offers increasing opportunity to see beyond differences that were once the boundaries and defining markers of identity. We still have and will continue to have identities, but the defining boundaries are changing.
Part of the reason for the current panic on both sides of the political divide is that provincialism is dissolving, pitting those who feel that they will be erased with the erosion of old identities, against those who rely less on the old markers of identity and, more pointedly, those who feel that the old social and cultural markers of identity are constantly erasing them.
I'm not suggesting that there aren't significant and consequential policy differences between political parties and ideologies, but identity imbues these differences with passion, much more so than many people care to admit. (See: Cultural Cognition Project)
There are powerful reactionary forces within all of us that resist shifts in identity, but ultimately the old identities will give way, within ourselves to an extent, but especially across generations. And in an increasingly mobile, cheap-information world, it's happening faster, which makes it more frightening.
The only way the erosion of provincial identities can be slowed is through authoritarian measures such as restrictions on movement, education and communication. And if the communication itself can't be stopped, then the war will be on information itself. This is the power of the phrase "fake news" as it's applied again and again to easily verifiable truth.
This isn't just an American phenomenon. It's happening across the world. Those who embrace authoritarians, whether in the US, Russia, Turkey, Pakistan or the Middle East, call on these figures of power to stop the inevitable erosion of old markers of identity, but their methods always entail symbolic, if not actual violent erasure of others.
In light of what I've said, complaining about identity politics is naive. For regardless of your political beliefs, your identity informs and impassions your politics. It influences what you see, how you see it, what you care about and what you can't see.
If you think Jesse Berney's tweet was merely a gotcha, then there is something you're not seeing because of the way your identity informs what you see. No black person would ever tweet what Matt Walsh tweeted without modifying "historical figures" with the adjective "white."
On the other hand, many white people would read Matt Walsh's tweet without noticing his implicit erasure of black people. And black people encounter similar erasure all the time, far more often than most white people realize.
This most mundane form of erasure may seem benign, but it's cumulatively pernicious, a constant message that says, you don't matter, you don't count, you don't exist. (We can argue about critiques of Black Lives Matter another time, but it isn't a movement with the goal of erasing white people. It's an organization spawned by the literal erasure of black lives.)
Returning to the implicit erasure of black lives in Matt Walsh's tweet, it isn't just black people who notice this constancy of erasure, both symbolically and literally. Other minority members, women and even white men can experience these feelings. But if you're a white person, especially a white man who protests that your history or your identity are being erased by increasing social diversity or the removal of your old identity markers, don't be surprised that those who have felt erased by the cultural dominance of your identity, shrug and say, So what? You don't care about erasing me. You hardly noticed that you erased me. So pull up your big-boy pants, and deal with it.
This white man's protest, by the way, is what the word "privilege" really means when people refer to white privilege and male privilege. Privilege is never having to feel threatened by erasure, whether symbolic or literal. Or at the least, it's the feeling that one is entitled to never feel the threats of erasure that everyone else feels by virtue of an ordering of the social and political world that you endorse. It's an expectation that everyone else should suck up constant feelings of being erased, coupled with an unmerited expectation that I'm never supposed to feel the threat of erasure, even if that threat arises from the inevitable progress of humanity.