This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the Unite The Right rally and counter protests in Charlottesville, Virginia that claimed the life of Heather Heyer and set off a firestorm around President Trump’s remarks about who was to blame for the violence. One year later, the Robert E. Lee statue at the center of the controversy is still there, and it seems the conversation about what it stands for has stalled.
The Lee statue is part of a complicated public memory about the south’s Confederate past. These shared stories of the Civil War and what it means make it difficult to change the conversation and have a productive dialogue about how to move forward.
Joining us to unpack the public memory around Charlottesville is Brad Vivian. He is the director of the McCourtney Institute’s Center for Democratic Deliberation and a professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Penn State. Brad studies public memory, particularly around Confederate iconography. He also grew up in the Charlottesville area and recounts some of his experiences there during the interview.
We are excited to begin the second season of Democracy Works with such an important and timely topic. If you like what you hear, make sure to rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts.
- What are your memories of the events in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017?
- Do you think that the national narrative following the events was focused on the right issues?
- What do you think leads to the development of an inaccurate memory of past events? Especially ones that tend to look at past actions through rose colored glasses?
- How do you think the concept of public memory relates to democracy?
- What do you think we can do to ensure that the story of past events maintains more truth over the years?
[2:20] What was it like growing up in Charlottesville and what went through your mind as you watched the events unfold there last summer?
Brad: It is sort of a closely held secret. It is a great college town. It has sort of this small town living with a sort of metropolitan feel to it. Sort of like State College. The town is part of this growing corridor from DC down to Richmond Virginia. A lot of those coming here to study from Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey are turning a once red state into a purple or even a light blue state.
[3:50] While you were growing up there, was the Robert E. Lee statue something people would talk about?
Brad: Everyone knew it was there but it wasn’t really a part of the discussion in the circle I was in, which consisted of the university. Surprising, after the riots, we didn’t really talk much about the statue. What we did talk about was Thomas Jefferson and his legacy there.
[6:20] What is public memory and how does it form?
Brad: It’s really a metaphor. For example, people say we have a collective memory of what the civil war was like. The way this is formed of long ago events is how they’re talked about in the immediate aftermath by those who experienced them. This then gets carried on throughout the ages. Part of these stories might have some accuracy to actual historical fact, but they don’t have to in order for this memory to form and take hold. There is a lot of fact but also mythology here. This sense of memory is very important in that it creates a personal connection to the event.
[10:00] What many don’t realize is that these statues didn’t go up until long after the end of the war. How does this speak to your concept of a public memory?
Brad: Public memory can become very political when a certain group wants to change the way that a particular story is told in public. In my view, this can be a very anti-democratic practice especially when this group tries to use the threat of force to effect this change.
[11:50] How do you have conversations around something like these monuments when so many have personal connections to wanting to protect and keep them?
Brad: One of the reasons this is so difficult to do has to do with the way the main stream media frames discussions. What the media does is light of these sorts of events is put attention towards what power holders say. In the case of Charlottesville, it was the comments by Trump that got all the attention and drove the narrative of the discussions after the event. Another problem is the softer mythology of the Civil War and its figures, such as Lee. For example, the textbooks in the south portrayed the war as a battle between two honorable sides. This is not a good framework for having a discussion as to what these statues actually mean. In order to get to important conversations such as what these statues really mean in terms of southern pride, we have to break the trend of the media coming in and setting the narrative around comments of those holding power.
[15:00] Where can people go to get these conversations away from the established narrative from the media?
Brad: One place to go would be southern black communities. There are millions in this community that don’t identify with the idea of confederate pride image of southern pride. We need to acknowledge that the south is a rather diverse place with different ideas of what the culture is and what pride of the south is.
[16:20] At what point does public memory start to form? For example, when will the memory of the events in Charlottesville begin to form?
Brad: I think it will be a relevant point for a while. Especially in black communities. I’m still concerned that we aren’t going to be able to have important conversations, such as one about the events in Vinegar Hill around the issue of desegregation. I think the people in the city will be debating this issue for a long long time. I know the city is still divided over it.