December 19, 2018

Know and preserve the whole story


Growing up, I loved learning and reading about the Civil War. I read about both sides equally, admiring the merits of different characters, and noting the flaws shown on each side. I loved it so much I took a course on the Civil War in college. Our textbook was “Ordeal by Fire” by James McPherson, a large but excellent and balanced overview of the war.

I never found anything that compelled me to put labels of hatred onto the Confederacy as a whole. Except those who stooped to unlawfulness — many Northern soldiers did so as well, such as in Sherman’s march — they still seem to be as American as myself. I have ancestors who fought on both sides, and I am fascinated by each of them.

So when I heard that people were defacing statues of Robert E. Lee, among others, in the name of anti-racism, I couldn’t help being sickened.

Back in 2011, someone had spray painted “No hero” at the base of a statue of Lee in Richmond, Va. There have been many other instances of graffiti since, and in May of this year Confederate monuments in New Orleans and Charlottesville, Va., were defaced and are scheduled to be taken down. Some have filed a lawsuit against the city of Charlottesville for its decision to take them down, which is ongoing.

I loved going to historical sites on family trips and still enjoy any I come across today. I know I would have enjoyed seeing the monuments in question (many of which date back to the late 1800s) and getting pictures of them, as I also would for any monument relating to the North. In our culture, monuments such as these not only honor men, but tell a story. They’re our history.

It’s great to raise your voice against racism. We get it, it’s wrong. But first of all, don’t raise your voice in the form of defacing any public property. Next, don’t raise your voice in the form of drowning out others, and drowning out all the facets of history.

It’s true that if one were to draw a complete picture of the Civil War, it could not be done without mentioning slavery. It was part of that time period. But we must be careful in learning and teaching history not to make sweeping associations and oversimplifications. “Civil War = slavery/racism” is not accurate.

I have always found that states’ rights were one of the largest forces driving the war, more than slavery or racism. McPherson also wrote a book called “Why Men Fought the Civil War,” pulling from soldiers’ own letters to tell what motives drove them. Fighting for or against slavery was generally not one of them.

In the same way, neither is “Robert E. Lee = Civil War = slavery/racism” accurate. Yes, he was a slaveowner. He was also a man of his time.

In a documentary about the play “Hamilton,” playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda said something to the effect of wanting to bring history to a modern audience and make it relevant to them. It sounds good, but this idea can also be dangerous. Rather than bringing history to you, shaping it to resemble your views, go to history and learn from it; learn the context and the thought processes of the time.

Historical characters will always be found to have flaws, and each time period also has collective weaknesses. They are not to be excused or hidden, but neither can we throw down a person’s memory in disgrace because of those weaknesses, especially if the person was honorable in other ways, as I believe Lee was. Let’s take the good and bad, and learn from the entire, comprehensive picture. “Those who do not learn from history…”

Too often we repeat history without realizing it. Sometimes in the name of anti-racism or anti-hate, groups and individuals perpetuate the very evils they are trying to fight — including the suppression of differing views.

Personally, I do not feel any shame or hatred toward the Confederate flag, but feel it is part of our history. For some, it has morphed into a symbol of slavery and racism — an idea goaded on by the KKK. But for many — in this northern region as well — it continues to be the symbol of states’ rights, and by extension nowadays, individual rights. For many it stands for pride in their “country” roots and the spirit of freedom (and rebellion) that comes with that. It is also a warning call against tyranny in government.

It should not be called wrong or racist to hold this different view.

For all of us, before assigning interpretations and meanings, be informed. Learn the whole picture. Use a level head. Go back to the books, and choose wisely; find ones that focus on stating history, rather than pushing a viewpoint. In doing so, you will have less need to block out history, and block out others’ views and expressions of it. You may find yourself taking less offense.

And that might be a good start toward getting along a little better.


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