ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We're going to talk now about an argument that President Trump raised yesterday when he talked about removing statues of prominent Confederate Civil War figures, the argument of the slippery slope.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This week it's Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson's coming down. I wonder; is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
SIEGEL: That's a line of argument that was also used by one of the groups that organized last weekend's Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. This is from a video by a white nationalist group called the Traditionalist Worker Party, a video promoting that event.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They will soon be coming, after they've removed all the Confederate monuments, for the monuments to Union soldiers because of course many Union soldiers didn't have a progressive view on race or...
SIEGEL: In a Washington Post op-ed, law professor Ilya Somin of George Mason University argues that there is no such slippery slope and that Confederate monuments should be taken down. He joins us to talk about it. Hi.
ILYA SOMIN: Thank you very much for having me.
SIEGEL: What clearly distinguishes a Robert E. Lee statue from a George Washington statue or a Thomas Jefferson statue since all those men owned slaves?
SOMIN: There are two big distinctions. One, nobody honors George Washington precisely for the fact that he owned slaves, whereas the Confederate leaders, when they're honored, are honored almost entirely for their service to the Confederacy, which was created for a purpose of perpetuating and extending slavery.
Second, while I think it's very much correct to criticize the Founding Fathers for owning slaves, those of them who did, they also had great achievements in other areas which do legitimately deserve honor. By contrast, the Confederate leaders - very few of them would be remembered today but for what they did in the Civil War to protect slavery.
SIEGEL: One of the arguments that's heard is that a statue of Robert E. Lee reminds us of a dark chapter in our past, that it's part of our history. Removing it is akin to erasing history. Does that argument hold any water for you?
SOMIN: I don't think so. We should definitely remember this period in our history. And in fact, nobody proposes that we forget. But there's a big difference between remembering history and honoring people who fought in defense of slavery. And what these statues do is they honor these people. They don't simply commemorate them. If the goal was just simply to remember what happened, that could be done with museums, or that could be done with more appropriate public monuments, ones that actually acknowledge the evil of slavery.
SIEGEL: Now, I asked you about two slave-owning Founding Fathers, Washington and Jefferson. But there are people in more ambiguous situations. Woodrow Wilson was a 20th-century president, a segregationist - on the other hand, led the country through World War I, proposed joining the League of Nations, won a Nobel Prize. Should his name be taken off a school at Princeton or the Center for Scholars in Washington D.C.?
SOMIN: I think this is a tougher case than a Confederate leader is. To my mind, I have no problem with removing his name. But I can see people on the other side of the debate who say his segregationism, his violations of civil liberties and his poor performance in forging peace after World War I - that these are outweighed by what they consider to be his achievements in other areas. It's an arguable issue, and reasonable people can differ. On the other hand, with the Confederate leaders, their legacy is much more one-sided. It consists almost entirely of their war in defense of slavery.
SIEGEL: Is it perilous, though, to judge historical figures by the moral and ethical standards of the present time?
SOMIN: In some ways, it is. But we don't have to do that in this case. There were plenty of people who in 1861 realized that slavery was wrong and that seceding for the purpose of protecting it was wrong. They included not only many people in the North but also many white Southerners. A large number of Army officers from the state where I live in, Virginia, actually chose to fight for the Union rather than support the Confederacy as Robert E. Lee did.
SIEGEL: There's another kind of monument certainly throughout the South that is not for a general or for a Confederate leader but for a Confederate soldier, just as there were doughboy monuments after the first world war, commemorating the locals who had died - different category for that kind of monument?
SOMIN: I think so. I think it's possible to commemorate people who died in a war without necessarily justifying their cause. For example, in Germany, there are cemeteries for German soldiers who died in World War I and World War II that commemorate the deaths without, at least at this point, honoring the causes that Germany fought for in those wars. So similarly, I think cemeteries and similar monuments whose main purpose is to commemorate the dead are very different from statues that honor the people that they depict and justify their cause.
SIEGEL: Professor Somin, thank you very much for talking with us.
SOMIN: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Ilya Somin is professor of law at George Mason University. His op-ed in The Washington Post is called "Why Slippery Slope Arguments Should Not Stop Us From Removing Confederate Monuments."
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