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The Knockdown, Drag-Out Society

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Civilized disagreement -- that's one thing. But flagrant insult, direct or strongly implied, as a lever for moving public policy along -- I don't believe I'd call that persuasive, uplifting or even very useful. I would call it another mark of the disruptive, disrupted times we live in, when every difference of opinion is a fist fight, every debate a collision waiting to happen.

We could put the name of Donald Trump on the table for diagnosis, but my present concern is the vocabulary of disparagement brought to bear on long-dead Confederates and those opposed to displacing long-standing memorials to them.

They don't want just to take down the statues, it seems; they want everyone to be aware they do so in the name of repudiating racism and treason. To that level of discourse, if you call it discourse, we have descended since the horror more than a week ago in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Any rhetorical get-together involving President Trump and the "alt-right" is bound to confuse, and, oh, has this one ever confused and bumfuzzled. It seems now that because, uninvited and hungry for publicity, white nationalists aligned themselves in Charlottesville with Confederate images, "respect the Confederacy" types are regarded as a bunch of exotics: Ku Klux Klan apologists; sympathizers with the Third Reich; or nostalgic elderly folks. Only Donald Trump could put up with such an aggregation. Alas, his praise of Confederate statues seems only to have made things untidier.

Oh, and Robert E. Lee was a traitor. He turned his back on his country. We've heard that a lot this week, from, among others, a self-styled conservative military officer who writes for The American Conservative magazine.

Put together all these deductions from (essentially) nothing of substance and policy alters overnight -- by force, justified by insult and calumny.

Among the latest leaders of the tar-and-feather brigade is the president of the University of Texas, one Gregory Fenves. On Aug. 21, he disclosed his unilateral decision to remove three campus statues of Confederate leaders, Lee included, plus, for good measure, a statue of progressive Gov. Jim Hogg -- the first governor since 1869 who hadn't fought in the Civil War.

Fenves writes: "Erected during the period of Jim Crow laws and segregation, the statues represent the subjugation of African Americans. That remains true for white supremacists who use them to symbolize hatred and bigotry." Not that white supremacists have been lurking around UT, campaigning for the restoration of hatred and bigotry. But you never know about people who find a grain of honor in Confederate generals, apparently.

An obvious corollary follows: If you object to his hauling off the statutory -- on his personal authority, naturally -- you're probably in favor of hatred and bigotry. You need not even confess. They know what goes on in your mind.

And so division -- political and moral -- widens in consequence of political and moral dogmatism. We don't look for compromises: middle ways of adjusting differences to allow continued, or resumed, relationships to flourish. We go to the mat. Victory, as the anti-Confederate-statue crowd evidently sees things, would put in their place the racists and Klansmen and nativists who, according to them, constitute the Republican base. That would cause said base to go off on its own and let the progressives return to winning elections and imposing government solutions. The progressive base really dislikes the conservative base, and so it depicts that base as uncivilized. Just look.

Yes, let's do look. All that most Lee-defenders desire is a fair shake, a chance to reason with opponents rather than accept the slanderous language -- '"Racist!" "Traitor!" "Bigot!" -- that the other side deploys with such aplomb.

Our age -- the age of the instant accusation, the flat, declarative dismissal of the other side's case for anything -- has a style that works fine for winning elections and pulling down other people's memorials. For uniting, moving to a better place, fixing things, affirming life at other than the knockdown, drag-out level -- well, that's another matter. Obviously.

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