Thursday, August 17, 2017

Lost cause

"The beauty that is being taken out of our cities..."
Image result for forrest statue in nashville  has frightened generations of children, black and white, in Nashville.  This is Nathan Bedford Forrest, traitor and co-founder of the Ku Klux Klan.  Any resemblance to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson or James Madison is purely coincidental.

Donald Trump managed to type one sentence that was not self-serving bullshit:  "You can't change history, but you can learn from it."  It is impossible to learn anything of value from staring at a statue.  The Lincoln Memorial in Washington carries no reference to his party affiliation, which might explain why Trump only learned he was a Republican last February.  Now he presumes to give history lessons to the rest of us. 

Nobody wants to "change history."  The facts are well known and easily available.  Serious men and women have devoted their lives to the study and interpretation of these facts, which is why books continue to be written and documentary films assembled.  It is generally agreed that a war fought for the preservation of chattel slavery and its extension to new territories was a war against the founding principles and ideals of this country and was well lost.  Those who led armies against the United States are properly called seditious and escaped punishment solely for political reasons.  Their likenesses and their flag were erected in public places years later, not as celebrations of defeat but as monuments to Jim Crow and, later, as a raised middle finger to the civil rights movement.  By then, the South had invented its own narrative of "Northern aggression" and white supremacy and how slavery was actually good for the enslaved.  To its shame, the north largely let them get away with it, which is why we are still, painfully, learning from history. 

Can we agree on one thing?  There is no equivalence between Washington and Robert E. Lee.  The issue is not owning slaves, but fighting against this country.   Who cares if their battlefield tactics are studied at West Point?  So are Napoleon's, and probably Rommel's.  The question is what qualities we seek to honor, and the line is clear.  This is why I have a small problem with Baltimore's removal of the Roger Taney statue.  Yes, he was the slaveowner who wrote the Dred Scott decision, but he was also Chief Justice and he never took up arms against the United States (possibly because he didn't live long enough).  Wouldn't it be fun if Taney was replaced by Earl Warren?  Of course, Warren was the California governor who interned thousands of Japanese-Americans for no offense except their ethnicity, so we can argue about that while we weigh it against Brown and other cases, and debate the meaning of "all deliberate speed" and finally agree that people are complicated and should be seen in their entirety. 

And that's history. That's why you can't learn it from tweets or soundbites or statues.  Or movies, or novels, or whatever white nationalist websites Donald Trump consults.  History is harder than marble or bronze.  Before you enter the discussion, learn a few facts.         



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