As widely reported last year, a statue of Arthur Ashe has joined those of the Confederate heroes that grace Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Were the issue only, or even principally, the desire of Richmonders to commemorate the life and accomplishments of their native son, the proposed memorial would have excited little debate. But these days, even the dead are subjected to political bickering and intrigue.

Controversy surfaced not about whether to erect a statue to honor Ashe, which for most residents was acceptable and even desirable, but rather about where to put it. Inevitably, attention focused on Monument Avenue. Anticipating and, indeed, welcoming a showdown, the national media responded with predictable glee. The juxtaposition of evil Confederates and offended blacks was apparently too delicious for most of them to overlook. Would the citizens of Richmond cling thoughtlessly to an outworn and vicious racism, pundits wondered, or would they open their minds and hearts to “racial healing”—whatever that is—put aside their resentment, and embrace at least the conciliation of black and white?

But the emphasis on racial antagonism, which in fairness some city officials tried to downplay, obscured the real story, and not only from worthies in the media. With the vox populi still ringing in their ears, the Richmond City Council voted seven to zero, with one absentee and one abstention, to place the statue of Ashe on Monument Avenue. Afterward the members strained muscles congratulating themselves for their courageous support of democracy in action. Mayor Leonidas B. Young, who had initially suggested two alternate locations for the statue, proclaimed that “I am proud of this City Council, because you have dared to do what others have failed to do. You have listened to the people of this city.” The council had heard the voice of the people, and the people had declared in favor of placing the statue of Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue. Or had they?

According to a poll that Media General Research conducted, only 22 percent of the people in Richmond, Chesterfield, and Henrico and Hanover counties favored the Monument Avenue location. Sixty-four percent favored another site. Among blacks, 41 percent preferred Monument Avenue and 59 percent wanted the statue erected elsewhere. In the city of Richmond proper, fully 67 percent opposed situating the statue anywhere along Monument Avenue. Without a doubt, had the proposal gone to a popular referendum, it would have suffered a stunning defeat even among blacks.

The dispute over the location of the Ashe monument did not reflect the democratic convictions or instincts of a free people. Instead, it offered another instance of demagoguery in which leaders flattered and deceived their constituents, to say nothing of appealing to their worst fears, prejudices, and hatreds, all to curry favor and maintain power. These tactics, I should add, had nothing to do with whether a statue of Arthur Aslie eventually ended up somewhere on Monument Avenue, or whether he merited a place there. For most partisans, that objective and that consideration were secondary or irrelevant, a mere pretext that enabled them to exploit the situation for their own ends, to provoke a confrontation with their antagonists, or to enhance their own visibility and status within the community.

Nor did these schemes convey anything about Ashe himself. For although they were allegedly implemented in his name, Ashe, whatever his vulnerabilities and foibles, was by all accounts affable, diffident, refined, contemplative, and brave—just the sort of fellow for whom politics holds no attraction. But this scrambling for political crumbs had everything to do with the corruption of American civilization, which in microcosm it exhibited.

Modern democracy has failed so spectacularly because, among other things, it encourages self-indulgence. In this case, the politicians were not even concerned to appease the will of the majority, for which they showed a callous disregard. Instead, they pandered to a narrow strata of opinion among a determined, vocal, and powerful minority—in other words, a faction—and represented it as democracy, to justify their decision they then spoke of its “moral correctness,” and invoked “symbolic” rather than “popular” reasons for supporting the placement of the statue along Monument Avenue. But the final choice of location rightfully belonged to all the citizens of Richmond, not to a select few, and certainly not to a City Council accustomed to settling disputes and solving problems by legislative fiat. So much for democracy. So much for government by consent.

Those who wanted the statue of Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue complained that their opponents, men and women who stubbornly continued to admire the Confederacy, could not or would not let go of the past. But it is insecurity and hatred, not love, that make people obsessive about getting their own way, pressing their particular worldview, and assailing, discrediting, silencing, punishing, or eliminating their enemies. Those who wanted the statue of Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue got it. To their delight and satisfaction, 130 years after the fact, the last Confederate stronghold in Virginia has been broken. But in their zeal to accomplish this purpose, they unwittingly disclosed why remembering the Confederate dead is so important, and why we forget them at our peril.