Monuments tell the story of a people. Overlooking the town of Sylva, North Carolina, stands a Confederate War Memorial. The statue was erected in 1915, at the height of Jim Crow in the South. Bands played and dignitaries came from as far away as Asheville. The copper soldier stands guard atop a stone base in front of the courthouse, with a commanding view of the town below. Inscribed on the monument reads:
Back (west), plaque: TO OUR VALIANT FATHERS:- / CHAMPIONS OF RECONCILIATION WITH / JUSTICE, OF UNION WITH MANHOOD, / OF PEACE WITH HONOR; THEY FOUGHT / WITH FAITHFULNESS, LABORED WITH / CHEERFULNESS, AND SUFFERED IN SILENCE. / TO OUR HEROIC MOTHERS:- / SPARTAN IN DEVOTION, TEUTON IN / SACRIFICE, IN PATIENCE SUPERIOR TO EITHER / AND IN MODESTY AND GRACE / MATCHLESS AMONG WOMANKIND.
Front (east), plinth: 1861 CSA 1865
Front (east), base: OUR HEROES / OF THE CONFEDERACY
If you read Cold Mountain (or saw the movie), then you know that the people who lived on the slopes of the Blue Ridge were reluctant participants in the Civil War, for the conflict brought nothing but chaos, murder and starvation to this remote corner of North Carolina. It took decades to recover. Northern money brought the region back, as Sylva became a manufacturing center, its paper mill belching white smoke into the valley up until the present day.
I was in Sylva for a job at interview at Western Carolina University. I’ve been coming to the region for twenty years, ever since friends moved here from Florida – a very common story. The mountains are filled with Floridians retiring from Florida to North Carolina.
Trump supporters are proud of a map colored red, all those counties away from the coasts voting for a new kind of war against the federal government.
But the red states are red just barely. In Asheville, which went for Clinton, restaurants and coffee shops make a point in identifying their bathrooms as “all-gender,” appalled by their legislature’s bumbling efforts to regulate toilets.
The cities and towns are blue, while the rural areas are red. A man who worked in a remote valley said that people just assumed that he voted for Trump. After all, he was in his 60s and white. But he didn’t. Old enough to remember segregation, he recognized wrong then and he recognized it now.
“We fought the civil war once already,” he told me, not interested in another red versus blue battle.
On the way home, I took I-26 from Asheville, NC, to Johnson City, TN, a four-lane highway soaring over the Eastern Continental Divide and down into the green valleys of Tennessee. It’s a monument to the genius of American construction, with passages blasted through granite and tons of concrete used to create ramps and bridges, allowing me to drive 70 mph over mountains that formed an impassable barrier during the Civil War.
I nearly had the road to myself, just me and a few other drivers enjoying the monumental views of the Blue Ridge. Where other generations valued segregation and identity, this generation values progress, as memorialized in the monuments that they build. Rather than crafting fictional depictions of a lost cause, they’re connecting cities with highways.
During my interview, I kept being asked professors and university staff, “What’s going on in DC?” Even in the mountains, people recognized that calamity in the nation’s capital would eventually touch their lives. Research depends on grants from the government. Retirees can only afford to live in these red counties with Social Security. The federal government battles the opioid epidemic that plagues trailer parks in the hollows. And highways like I-26 are only possible due to the largess of the federal government. Progress is only possible due to the federal government.
But the federal government is a monument that some would tear down upon themselves, happier to live among the rubble of a destroyed system. Like those who precipitated the Civil War, they would rather see the country burn.
A great America is only possible with a great American government. If you truly want to make America great again, then you need to make the federal government great again. It’s the monument that we all depend upon – and one that we build together.