The Battle Over History Never Ceases

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by Jock Yellott 

Visit the Virginia Regulatory Town Hall, and you will find that the Department of Historic Resources is fast-tracking regulations governing the contextualization of “monuments or memorials for Certain War Veterans.”

I object to this fast-tracking. The new regulations will expedite the promulgation of Woke propaganda to litter the Virginia landscape.

The fast-tracked regulations could take effect within months. But if ten people object, the regulations have to go through a full two-year vetting. Which would allow time to add a dose of common sense.

One hopes at least nine more people will add their objections to mine. The 30-day public comment forum commences today, March 14, 2022. That’s the only opportunity to object. So, log in and say something now.

Why the regulations are objectionable

A few examples of what is wrong:

  • All Virginia localities “shall” apply to the state Department of Historic Resources for permission to contextualize a monument or memorial on public property. The context must address a checklist of required topics. Approval “is in the Board’s sole discretion.”

Judges interpret the word “shall” in a law or regulation as an absolute mandate. The Department of Historic Resources brings to mind George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in the novel 1984, the Thought Police censoring history. What do their regulations require?

  • Localities proposing an historic marker on public property must describe “[t]he parties involved in the process of creating the monument or memorial and what their motivations were” and also who was “excluded from the process of creating the monument or memorial.”

The Woke Party Line, an article of their faith,  is that commemorating Dead White Males is intended to exclude everybody else. A statue of Thomas Jefferson for instance, by celebrating him averts our eyes from slavery; exterminating Native Americans; disenfranchising women. Mandating a description of everybody excluded means the familiar Woke recitals adorning each monument, everywhere.

Furthermore, just as a practical matter, listing those excluded means what — everybody not solicited for a donation? By name? By ethnic group? Impossible, absurd, but still to become a regulatory mandate.

  • Contextualizing can use any “sources that can be cited to explain the circumstances, influences, and conditions that existed at the time.”

Not just letters-to-the editor, but Twitter feeds, activist rants, any published propaganda, any opinion that “can be cited” is eligible source material. Necromancy to conjure up imagined motives of folks 100 years dead? Instead of historical fact, we will get later-day-interpretation as the Woke call it, that White Supremacy underlies and contaminates all our monuments.

  • The regulations allow only one sign. There is no requirement that the sign describe whom the monument commemorates.

This boggles the mind. So intent are they on nefarious motives, “the circumstances, influences, and conditions that existed at the time a war memorial or monument was erected” (i.e. Jim Crow, in the case of Confederate memorials) that the regulations neglect the most basic, most obvious questions: who is this? Why notable? And limiting localities to a single old-fashioned sign is oppressive and myopic; pre-web, pre-cellphone.

These are just examples; there are more problems discussed below. You can read the rules for yourself (footnote below).[1] An objection need not be elaborate. Just an email to say: this is controversial/questionable/nutty and it needs more careful consideration than fast-tracking allows.


In 2020 the Virginia legislature substantially altered the law protecting monuments and memorials. It used to prohibit localities from disturbing or interfering with listed war and veterans’ monuments, once erected. The amendments let localities relocate them for placement at a museum, battlefield, historical society, or another government.

Repeat: placement. A new place to stand. The legislature denied localities the authority to “alter” or “destroy” monuments twice, first in the 2020 regular session and then again in the special session. Charlottesville’s City Council illegally contracted to melt down the Confederate General Robert E. Lee monument. That faces a court challenge. A different subject for another day.

The 2020 amendments also allowed a locality to “contextualize” monuments. And virtually unnoticed tucked away at the end this single pregnant sentence: “… the Board of Historic Resources shall promulgate regulations governing the manner in which any monument or memorial may be contextualized pursuant to the provisions of this act.”[2]

We pause to note the legislature gave the Board authority only to regulate the manner. Does that allow the Board to dictate the text? Or just devise a process?

The Board of Historic Resources is part of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, an Executive department ostensibly answering to the Governor’s cabinet level Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources.  They are not an independent agency. The Governor, and the Attorney General, can tell them what to do.

The previous governor and the previous attorney general signed off on these regulations at the last minute: December 31, 2021. Governor Youngkin, Attorney General Miyares? Heads up: the dead hand of your predecessors is reaching out from the political grave.

If we succeed in subjecting these regulations to the regular review process, fine. If not, the Governor may need to fix this. Which he can with a stroke of the pen.

Not that it’s all bad

Localities do need guidelines and standards, if historical accuracy is to survive the political tug-of-war. The Board of Historic Resources should take the time to think through better, more workable standards.

Memorials themselves are simple. A visual announcement: “this is worth remembering.” They seldom say why. Often the only information is a name, sometimes not even that. Contextualization properly done could serve an edifying purpose.

There is of course a limit to the narrative sophistication, the depth of understanding, you can expect from a single sign.

Take that Jefferson statue. What should its sign say? One might expect the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, maybe also his part in the French Revolution; Jefferson as President; the Louisiana Purchase; the Lewis and Clark expedition; the University of Virginia. Jefferson’s death almost simultaneous with John Adams on the 50th anniversary of  the Declaration, July 4, 1826.

How much room is left to explain that all of this took place in the context of slavery? Should that be the major focus?

Maybe the whole approach, the “manner” is wrong. Perhaps the Board overreached in arrogating to itself vetting signs for required text.

How about just publishing guidelines for balanced (and verifiable) history? Localities can propose the text, maybe online, and invite public comment. That is another glaring omission: these regulations offer no opportunity for public comment.

If there’s a dispute about historical veracity, or balance, or perspective, the Board can serve as arbiter. An administrative appeal process, instead of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth with “sole discretion” as to what the public is allowed to read.

Over a recent lunch, a thoughtful friend remarked: these historic markers should start a civil conversation. To that end, how about encouraging questions, rather than declaratory sentences? Like: “was [insert monument name here] a memorial to a beloved leader, or a salute to White Supremacy?”

The guidelines should exclude — or at the very least flag with disclaimers —  politicized opinion, to distinguish it from historical fact.

And the guidelines need to apply not just where monuments stand, but where they once stood. Highway markers memorialize what was once there, as the cars speed past.  So should these.

Here in Charlottesville Woke depredations cost us five monuments, several of them works by renowned sculptors. “At The Ready,” a generic figure representing all the Confederate soldiers formerly standing at the Albemarle County Courthouse; Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea titled “Their First View of the Pacific” (Charles Keck); George Rogers Clark (Robert Ingersoll Aitkin); Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee (Henry Shrady/Leo Lentelli) and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson (also by Charles Keck), all gone.

In the parks the emptiness itself is eloquent, speaks in a sad way. The space should be contextualized as a cautionary tale, of what happens when the censorious Woke censor history.

Others may celebrate Charlottesville’s loss. They’re wrong in this writer’s view, but there’s room for debate. A Jefferson quote published before in this blog about the “”illimitable freedom of the human mind” at the University of Virginia: “Here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.” One wishes that extended to all Virginia’s public spaces.

Contextualization should edify. If feasible maybe not just truncated history on signs but websites too, more detailed storytelling that could pop up on cellphones like Pokemon Go. The current regulations don’t even imagine such a possibility.

In sum, instead of mandating a wooden recital of the Woke Party Line,  littering our landscape with diatribes looking at yesteryear through today’s Left-wing political prism — the regulations should promote diversity of information. Differing perspectives. Jefferson’s “illimitable freedom of the human mind.”

Jock Yellott is a retired attorney living in Charlottesville. He is an occasional contributor to Bacon’s Rebellion.