In the current dialectic, conservatives’ natural role is to argue for understanding and appreciating history, against those who do not see value in it rather than whitewashing it and undermining their own case by doing so. They can, and should, be the adults in the room, arguing for appreciation and, especially, simple knowledge of history, without reducing it to hagiography.

This may be too complex for soundbites and bumper stickers, but is a reasonable enough case for commentators and elected leaders alike to make. Conservatives would be wise to argue that America is not perfect, but that it is fundamentally worth preserving and that its historical figures who made important contributions be subject both to respect and honest appraisal about their deficiencies

To that end, those conservatives who continue to defend Confederate statues should retreat and retrench to those other areas of historical commemoration where the individuals being commemorated actually contributed something positive to America. Conservatives can and should argue against condemnation of historical figures for failing to live up to modern standards; they can and should argue for appreciating the contributions of imperfect people. But they do well to stop short of defending people who, largely for the worst of reasons, tried—and failed—to destroy the United States.

This is more than simply a pragmatic attempt to avoid a “bad look,” but a key element of our principles. Conservatives should concede the point that the Confederacy was a wrong turn for America that was rightly corrected. Moreover, the case for retaining the commemoration of imperfect contributors like Ulysses S. Grant or George Washington, or originators like Columbus who are otherwise almost Martian to us now, will be made stronger if they do not also defend those who, at a critical moment, actively tried to undermine America.