They may call themselves “white nationalists,” but the adjective nullifies the noun. In Charlottesville, Virginia, few of them hoisted American flags. They marched under banners the United States took up arms to fight. Their stated cause was preserving a statue of a man who committed treason against our country: Robert E. Lee.
Confederate flags, statuary and memorials have defenders who wish to have nothing to do with neo-Nazis or white supremacists. They say that they mean to honor the valor of Confederate soldiers rather than the cause for which they bled. Or they say that we should have visible and uncensored reminders of our history. If Lee statues go, they ask, will Monticello be next? Mount Vernon?
Our national mythos has come to celebrate Thomas Jefferson less than it once did: His reputation has suffered, as it should have, as we have reckoned with slavery. We remember Jefferson the slave master; but we also remember the Declaration of Independence, the University of Virginia, a role in our national history that is not reducible to his slaveholding. Jefferson Davis, on the other hand, to this day has a highway with his name on it in Virginia because, and only because, he tried to found a nation with slavery as its cornerstone.