Saturday, August 19, 2017

We Must Be Clear

Lotta talk recently about statues going down.

That reaction you just had to that first sentence? I know how you feel. I know it sounds silly, but regardless of where you stand on this, I know how you feel.

I don't expect you to believe me. Not unless I give you something first. Probably not even then. But here goes.

During the last few days, some of you have recast the talking point from the Trump speech: "What about Washington and Jefferson? They owned slaves. Do we take down their statues too? Where does it end?" Here's what goes through my head.

What a load of horseshit. You're talking to me about history? I revere history. The last fucking thing in the world you wanna come at me with is history, because you will lose. So take your absurd slippery slope argument, stick it up your ass, and walk away before you embarrass yourself even more than you already have.

That's self-righteousness, and I'm not proud of it. I'm admitting it so you see that I'm aware of my baser motivations, and strive not to act on them. But that's only the first reason why I've been working so hard not to condemn those who disagree with the removal of Confederate statues.

The second reason is that I know well that feeling of violation that comes when someone tries to erase history. I felt it when I heard that Disney has never released a home video version of "Song of the South". I felt it when I found out just how hilariously wrong history remembers the Spanish Armada. I felt it when I learned why we remember a skewed version of the Battle of Trenton. I feel it every time I see the chasm between the story and the event.

But the third reason... that's the thorniest one of all. And it's northern liberals like me who most need to look it square in the eye.

When I was a kid, I had teachers tell me the Civil War wasn't about slavery; it was about state's rights. We liberals love to point out that dastardly retcon. But we don't tend to talk about the other one: the lie that the south was for slavery, and the north against it.

I seem to recall one or two teachers telling me that plenty of northerners were pro-slavery, and plenty more didn't care, and I give them a lot of credit for that. But it didn't take. I would never have known the depth of my misapprehension if I hadn't studied my genealogy.

After I discovered that my great-great-grandfather was an assistant surgeon in the Civil War, I found some newspaper articles from around that time that contextualized his enlistment. Boy did they contextualize it. I went down a rabbit hole that led to an uncomfortable clarity. Many northerners were against abolition, for reasons ranging from a belief that "the negro" was better off as a slave, to a conviction that peace was worth more than emancipation, to simply not caring at all.

So while the Civil War was about slavery, support for slavery did not divide along clean geographic lines. That's where I see my liberal peers falter. Too often I see them pointing triumphant fingers at the false dichotomies of north and south, city and country, intellectual and redneck. It does not work like that, and it never did.

This, more than anything else, is why I feel we leap too easily to gleeful support for toppling statues of Confederate generals. Some of my friends denounce them as traitors, and they're not wrong. And. Had they been born in another state, most generals would have fought for the other side. Vicissitudes of birth and geography cloud the question of heroism and villainy.

And yet, with all that said—despite my revulsion at historical revisionism and my understanding of the moral pitfalls and logical fallacies—I still land solidly on the side of taking those statues down. Hell, the simple fact that they attract Nazi vermin would be enough for me to support those who want them gone. But that ain't it by a long shot.

I support taking those statues down because there is no such thing as pure history. That chasm between the event and the story I mentioned? It's never not there.

It's not about the history. It's about the historiography.

History is alive, mercurial, shifting from moment to moment. We are always crafting our narrative, always looking back to find new context, new interpretations, new sources of inspiration. We always have, always will, recast the previous generation's vision. We always have, always will, take down statues.

So, even if we didn't take into account the violent agenda that was operating when most of those statues were erected, we would have the moral authority to take them down. Without self-righteousness, without undue rancor, we select from our past those facets on which we want to reflect. We get to choose, with wisdom and perspective, that which best illuminates our shared history.