ESPN decided this week to switch the assignment of Robert Lee, an Asian-American football announcer who was scheduled to call a University of Virginia football game.
This was necessary because, well, it’s hard to picture the meeting where the Worldwide Leader in Sports reached this decision.
“He has almost the same name as the statue.”
“Let’s stash him in Pittsburgh until this blows over.”
“Who can we substitute in there? Is Marv Hitler available? No, wait! Same problem!”
It’s the kind of decision you would make if you didn’t understand the controversy. The problem in Charlottesville, Va., arose from our divided understanding of the Civil War, which in turn arose from divided understandings of our national foundation.
Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, said in 1861 that the Confederacy was necessary in order to correct the falseness of the notion that all men are created equal: “… its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
There is a statue of Stephens in the U.S. Capitol. The state of Georgia, which donated the statue, should get it the hell out of there.
And that’s why people object to a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee, who led men into blood-soaked battles on behalf of those very ideas laid down by his vice president. Secession was about the preservation of slavery. Stephens, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and other leading Southerners made that clear in indelible language. In their writings after the war they — what’s the word? — lied about that and claimed the whole mess arose from a head-scratchy civics puzzle having to do with local self-government.
I guess what I’m saying, ESPN, is that the problem isn’t the name of the guy on the horse. A Lee by any other name would smell as foul.
ESPN does not do the history thing so much. Two days after Charlottesville, ESPN2 aired a Fantasy Football “auction” in which — I’m not kidding — a fast-talking auctioneer held up the faces — often black — of NFL players on a stick and took bids from an audience of young white men and women. When a limit was reached, he would shout “Sold” and some dude would “own” Odell Beckham Jr., who pronounced himself “speechless” on social media. Search out the clip. I don’t know how to do it justice.
So, to recap: Guy-with-bland-name-coincidence equals too much to handle. Thing-that-resembles-slave-auction equals fun for the whole family.
I kid ESPN, mainly because it managed to stand out as stupid in a week when the president stared directly at an eclipse with unshielded eyes. No easy feat.
But we’re all going to struggle with the questions of how much of the past to erase and why. King David slaughtered two-thirds of his Moabite POWs as they lay on the ground. This is an atrocity but not a case against Michelangelo’s statue. (I’m willing to bet more people have complained about the penis.)
Closer to home, we’re opening a national park in Hartford this year at Coltsville, a complex encompassing the estate and factory of Samuel Colt.
It would be a mistake to do this without having intelligent conversations about Colt, who marketed his repeating pistol to Southern plantation owners as a way of protecting against slave revolts.
Colt was an amoral arms merchant who would sell guns to anybody. His last shipment of guns to the South headed for Richmond three days after Fort Sumter. To me, Colt is repugnant, but I don’t mind the Coltsville project as long as, once in a while, we openly debate the question of his moral status.
Some monuments really need to come down. Others need to be talked about honestly. Stephens was correct in the sense that the original sin of this nation was claiming all people are equal when the claim did not include slaves, native peoples and, in some aspects, women.
We can’t fix that by sending Robert Lee to a different football game.
Colin McEnroe is a radio host and a frequent columnist for the Harford Courant. Readers may email him at [email protected]