Heatwole: W&L flag decision is disappointing
1 image STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times/
When I attended W&L, I had a brilliant history professor, Dr. Jenks, who could take complex events in history, paint a picture of the various forces that created the complexity and fully describe the characters in the pivotal roles. His lectures were invaluable to understanding history and how to learn from it.
When you enter Lee Chapel, Lee’s statue and the battle flags paint the same kind of awe-inspiring picture of history as one of Dr. Jenks’ lectures. There before you: the father of the honor code but also the battle flags he fought for, with all their varied connotations. The flags not only represented the South’s struggle for states’ rights — an honorable struggle, as the South saw it — but also the defense of the odious institution of slavery. A lesson in history displayed for all to contemplate.
My time at W&L in the late ’60s was a time of student protest against war. My class was also the first at W&L to include black students. We absolutely understood the dichotomy of those flags. The display in the chapel of both Lee in repose and the Confederate flags taught just how complex his times were — the paradox of an honorable man whose wartime involvement supported a dishonorable institution.
Vietnam also split the nation. The chapel display reminded us that men of honor who came before us also had to face the judgment of history as best they could.
Now the flags will be removed. They will be relegated to the museum downstairs, where they will not offend the delicate sensibilities of the incoming freshmen students. Henceforth, the picture of history in the chapel will be incomplete.
What is most distressing is the contradictory and illogical rationale for removing the flags. President Kenneth Ruscio states that “the purpose of historic flags in a university setting is to educate.” Correct! Then he contradicts himself by saying they cannot educate because they are displayed without information or background about what they are. Does he think his students are ignorant of the Civil War? Are not the flags themselves information and background enough? His explanation is pure weaseling.
Ruscio also says the reproduction flags are not historic and therefore should be removed. He adds that he will borrow authentic flags from the American Civil War Museum in Richmond for display. According to his own reasoning, the authentic flags should be displayed in the chapel. But alas, they will be displayed in the museum. Does he not see the obvious contradiction?
“The Committee” demands the flags’ removal, averring they are an offensive presence during the honor code ceremony. If so, how much more offensive must be Lee lying there in the full uniform of a general in the Army of the Confederacy? Logic dictates Lee’s statue also must be an offense and therefore it should also be removed from the chapel. Follow this to its logical conclusion, and you end up with the newly named Washington University at Lexington.
Finally, contemplate this potential scenario. A group of eager law students in 2064 forms a “Committee” to petition for the return of the Confederate flags to Lee Chapel. “The Committee” insists the removal of the flags effectively disassociated Lee from a powerful symbol of slavery and therefore has whitewashed his image. They demand Lee be remembered for his involvement in the defense of slavery. The flags must be returned to the chapel immediately or protests will commence.Makes you want to tear your hair out, doesn’t it?
All of this lunacy is on parade when people try to co-opt history and manipulate it for their political cause du jour. “The Committee” takes positions that are absolutely illogical, and President Ruscio makes himself look silly bowing to political correctness while trying not to irritate influential constituencies. If it weren’t so sad, you would have to laugh.
History should be inviolable. The good, bad and ugly parts of history teach us how to live our lives today. It does a grave disservice to all of us to hide controversial historic images to satisfy some present-day political fad. In fact, it ends up making everyone involved look stupid.