M ost forms of ancient idol worship are extinct, so at first glance, it is incomprehensible that a statue of Robert E. Lee, who in today’s parlance would be called a “failed general,” could trigger such emotion.

After all, the Civil War, at least the way it was taught in the Northern states, was a battle for morality. One that pitted the Union states — which favored relegating slavery to the same historical dustbin as idolatry — versus the Confederacy and its pampered plantation owners, who sipped cool drinks in the shade while their slaves picked and baled cotton in the hot summer sun.

That perspective was rudely shattered during my four years as a journalist south of the Mason-Dixon line. Two of them were spent in Charlotte, North Carolina, today a cosmopolitan Southern city of 800,000 people. But even then, in the mid-1980s, it was a booming sunbelt city of 400,000 and a regional financial capital.

Southern gentility was as bountiful as the sunshine. Strangers greeted each other on the street. No one honked their horns at a slowpoke on the road. Wearing an overcoat, even in the winter, was taboo, as if to avoid any admission that anything in the South, including the weather, was inhospitable.

Chalk it up to good-natured ribbing, but my newfound Southern-bred media colleagues often called me a “Yankee” due to my New York upbringing. My protestation that I was a Mets fan was my weak stab at humor, but I had to delve deeper. Was “Yankee” a euphemism for a “polite” form of anti-Semitism? Or was there something else at play?

After engaging my colleagues, I soon discovered that Southerners maintained a seething resentment, and even a sense of aggrievement, over the war that “they” had lost and “we” had won. To Southerners, the Civil War was not the “civil” war, but the War Between the States. Slavery was just one of several polarizing political issues being contested, a battle that predated even the Constitutional Convention, and continues to this day over the division of power between the states and the federal government.

Southerners still take pride in virtues they see as distinct to their area. Family values. The church. Individualism. And Southern hospitality. You could get away with being a Yankee — that was an accident of birth — but being rude would land you in the doghouse.

But even worse than being considered rude was being termed a political liberal. If the South still festers over its wounds, they were only compounded during the eight years of the Obama administration, which featured political domination by liberal Democrats from Yankee states, and their Amen chorus in the media.

“Their assault on traditional American values has stirred up more bitterness than I’ve seen in my life,” says Harry Hoover, a lifelong Charlotte resident, and a former media colleague from my working days there.

Charlottesville, Virginia, is not the first jurisdiction to fight over statues or symbols of the Confederacy. South Carolina, New Orleans, and St. Louis have also seen bitter public debates over removal of Confederate flags and memorials. USA Today reports that as many as 1,000 Confederate monuments in 31 states — in public parks, courthouse squares, and state capitols — have become rallying points for protestors and counter-protestors.

To some, their removal is cathartic, erasing a blemish of America’s racist past. To others, passing a law to haul off a statue of Robert E. Lee and changing the name of the space it occupies from Lee Park to Emancipation Park is a capitulation to the politically correct and, worse, an assault on time-honored Southern values.

Such quarrels provide raw meat for groups itching for action, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the “alt-right,” and their leftist opponents, including Antifa (anti-fascist) activists, to take to the streets and foment their brand of racism, anti-Semitism, lawlessness, and even anarchy.

Theirs is a growing malignancy that is gaining momentum; not just in America, but in almost every “free country” in the world. Law enforcement authorities must devise ways to keep the two sides apart, but it’s more than just a law-and-order challenge. Civilized societies must find ways to raise the level of discourse that has fallen into the gutter. It’s our last chance to bridge the widening gaps between the political right and the left, conservatives and liberals, and even the religious and irreligious, before those gaps become insurmountable — if they haven’t already. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 673)