June 9th, 2020

old whig

Editing the past

The Secretary of the Army has announced that he is now "open" to renaming Army bases named after Confederate generals. This editing of the past seems bizarre to me. Leave the past in the past, I say. Deny none of it, but learn from it.

Still, the desire to pick sides and settle old scores is a long-standing one. When Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, he named a warship after Oliver Cromwell. The king asked him to reconsider; three hundred years after Cromwell's interregnum, the royals still felt a grudge. Churchill replied that whatever else Cromwell was noted for, he built up the Navy, and the Navy should acknowledge that.

Meanwhile, the Mayor of Indianapolis has decreed that a memorial to Confederate soldiers who died at a prison camp in Indy during the Civil War will be dismantled. After the war, the monument was paid for by private donations and erected at the cemetery where the Confederates are buried. That cemetery came to not want the massive thing, so the city moved it to Garfield Park years ago. The city has been asking for a museum to house it, but no museum has stepped forth, so the Mayor wants it gone, in order to cleanse the city of any memorial to Confederates. I find this appalling. Only barbarians violate grave markers. Even the Romans refused to violate Christian burial sites during their various persecutions, leaving the Christians at peace in their catacombs.

But our American Taliban want our history scrubbed. Such iconoclasm thinks the present and future can be divorced from the past. But the past is there, and it has to be lived with. I think the Norman Conquest was a terrible thing, but after nine hundred and fifty-four years, there's no going back and fixing what was done wrong. The villains are part of our history just like the heroes, and sometimes they are the same people. At Saratoga, there's even a monument to Benedict Arnold -- or, at least, to his wounded leg. Before he became America's iconic traitor, he was a talented officer who was greatly wounded in our country's cause.

My great-grandfather and his brother were captured by Morgan's Raiders, who talked openly of killing them to obtain their silence (they were eventually just dumped somewhere, miles from their home). Young Andrew Jackson Pulliam was so angry that he lied about his age in order to join the Union Army. He fought with Sherman and marched to the sea. He had no truck with Confederates. But I feel no sense of outrage over history markers I see here and there on the route of Morgan's Raid. I think, rather, that we should remember the past. Perhaps I would feel differently if my ancestors had been slaves. But while I wouldn't have thought naming Army bases after Confederate generals a generally good thing at the time, renaming them now looks petty. Better to name new facilities after today's heroes, and leave the more ancient dead in peace.

And even if one tries to edit the past, place names have a way of lingering. After JFK's assassination, the gummint tried to rename Cape Canaveral, "Cape Kennedy." All in vain. Everybody still called it Cape Canaveral. So the space launch complex was renamed the Kennedy Manned Space Center, and the cape on the coast was, as always, Cape Canaveral.
old whig

Making peace with the past

In the late Nineteenth Century, after the Civil War and Reconstruction, a movement for reconciliation grew up in the US. Conscious attempts were made to bring together the embittered people of North and South and unite the country. This was largely successful. At battlefield reunions, you can see old soldiers of both sides greeting each other as friends. The reconciliation was real, and it was broadly felt. By the time the US entered the Twentieth Century, the heroes of both sides had been mostly accepted as American heroes, all. (This, I presume, is the background for naming Army bases after Confederate generals.)

As I say, the reconciliation was real and broad, but it wasn't entirely inclusive. African-Americans -- especially in the South -- were mostly left out of it. The soldiers on both sides of the Civil War had been mostly white, and this turned out to be a reconciliation between white Northerners and white Southerners. Segregation in the South and discrimination in the North continued.

This is not to say that the reconciliation between the North and South was not important, only to say that it was incomplete. We still await the reconciliation between Black and White. Whether we will get there by the means currently employed by those shouting the loudest right now is an open question.

But I remain hopeful. If you go to the Little Bighorn battle site on the Crow Reservation in Montana, you will see a Peace Monument there. The Sioux and the US Army finally reconciled their differences and made peace. But they were not alone: this is a monument to a three-way peace. For the three peace-makers were the Sioux, the US Army, and the Crow. The hostility between Sioux and Crow is an ethnic conflict of long standing. The Crow aided the US Army against the Sioux. But the Sioux and the Crow have now made peace, too.

Someday, I hope to see monuments to racial reconciliation. To do that, ordinary people of all backgrounds have to engage each other. We have to build a world of shared values and shared heroes. Letting the most bitter and most rigid try to impose their version of reconciliation upon us only prolongs the agony.
old whig

America's original sin?

A lot of lefties want to proclaim that America’s “original sin” was slavery, along with the white vs. black racism it spawned (or which spawned it). I don’t dispute our painful history of slavery and discrimination, but I don’t buy the neo-Marxist a.k.a. Critical Race Theory a.k.a. Intersectionality (“wokeness”) ideology. Those interlocked ideologies require me to buy into too many things I know not to be so, to accept their explanation of our “original sin.”

For that matter, if I were to talk about our “original sin” as racism, I’m not sure I’d start with white vs. black. I might be inclined toward talking about white vs. red. Europeans – especially, English – coming to North America began with various approaches to the Native Americans, but by King Philip’s War (1675-78), all the ingredients of all later white vs. red conflicts were established. It’s a story quite as depressing in its own way as the adoption of black slavery (primarily) in the southern colonies. And, of course, it begins earlier. The first permanent English settlement was Jamestown, founded in 1607. That founding set up an encounter with the Powhatan people, an encounter that went from hostile to friendly to hostility again, and ended with the dispossession of the Powhatans. This story was repeated many times in many ways over the next two hundred and fifty years. The first African slaves only reached these shores in 1619. So if our “original sin” is racism, then Native Americans and their continuing plight ought to figure more prominently in our national conversation than they do.

But actually, if we were to examine the prejudices and preoccupations of the English who founded the Thirteen Colonies and later, our nation, there would be another ugly conflict more fundamental to the American situation than race relations: Religion.

The English who founded what became The United States were locked in an existential war with other Europeans, even as they explored and settled this continent. The ideology born of that war became our national ideology. It colors everything about the Founding. In a word, the English explorers and settlers and Founders were Protestant, and the enemy – variously Spain, France, or the Pope – was Catholic. Anti-Catholic prejudice affected our diplomacy, our legal system, and our later public school system. Even after “Protestant” lost any real connection to a particular religious belief system (of the Founders, Jefferson was a Deist, Adams a Unitarian, and Franklin – well, whatever he was), the one thing it knew for sure was that the devil was Catholic. Public holidays in early America included some on which the Pope was burnt in effigy. Later, we had “Blaine amendments” to privilege public schools (led by Protestant thinkers) over Catholic parochial schools. When John F. Kennedy was elected President, a lot of people I knew were amazed; they didn’t think a Catholic could be elected president in their lifetimes. Even William F. Buckley at the height of his career at National Review described himself as “a member of a minority group.”

This has a bearing on the idea of “whiteness,” which the Awokened constantly reference. For them, it is obvious that all whites start with an idea of white supremacy over all other races. But race itself is a social construct, and “whiteness” hadn’t yet been fully constructed when the English began establishing colonies over here. Differences between English, Germans, French, Italians, Spaniards, and Dutch which seem trivial or arcane to us were glaringly obvious to the Europeans of those days. And the Protestant-Catholic theological/political divide loosely matched a cultural divide far older than the Reformation. For the Mediterranean countries were part of what we call the “wine and oil” culture, whereas northern Europe was in the “beer and butter” culture.

Previous to the Reformation, the cultural superiority of the European South was presumed. After all, it was the South where the Pope lived, who (the story ran) had sent missionaries to convert the Germanic barbarians of the North centuries before. Even after the Reformation, this presumption of cultural superiority was retained in Catholic countries. You can see it in the conflict between courtiers at the beginning of Amadeus, where German-speakers and Italian-speakers lobby the Emperor over which language an opera to be commissioned from Mozart should be sung in. Once the ideological lines were set by Reformation and Counter-Reformation, however, every possible social resource was marshalled to fight the enemy, including language and cuisine. The English sneered at “snail-eaters.” The Pope pilloried Luther as “a drunken German monk.” The French, whose people straddled the cultural divide, were nevertheless a Catholic country, and the culture of the court reflected the European South. The English sneered at French casseroles and ragouts, preferring for the next four hundred years plain butcher’s meat – roasted, boiled, or fried. The French replied by giving the English the dismissive nickname les rosbifs (“the roast beefs”).

Along with the cultural stereotypes, there arose ethnic ones. The Mediterranean peoples were described as “swarthy” and “sweaty,” and their sexual attitudes became not alluring (as they had been) but “coarse.” In the Nineteenth Century, debates on immigration centered on the undesirability of people from southern (and later, eastern) Europe gaining admission to the US. The Irish, a northern European people who were decidedly pro-Catholic (and anti-English) suffered under many of the same stereotypes, often being described as subhuman.

Well, we’ve come a long way. Catholics and Catholicism are now mainstream. I don’t know any who would today think of themselves as members of a minority group. Catholics are even one of the mainstays of the American conservative movement. Catholics form a majority of Supreme Court justices. This should give us hope that other old divisions can be healed.

Nevertheless, it should also give us pause. If religion is actually more fundamental to American thinking than race, then we begin to see the culture wars that convulse us today as a clash of religions – or of ideologies taking the place of religions. This distorts the actual practice of religion, of course, but it also explains why there is so little grace to be found in our public debates. People see Those Others not as political opponents but as heretics, to be kept down or burnt at the stake, or treated in whatever fashion necessary to advance the holy cause. People who disagree with you are not merely wrong, their very opinions constitute a clear and present danger to the peace of the nation. They must be made to conform. Some of our most “liberal,” “progressive” leaders talk in the language of the devot. Like Savonarola, they call for a public bonfire of vanities; and if any of their own side wavers for an instant, they burn him or her, even as Savonarola was burnt in the public square of Florence. And the mob always enjoys a good public execution.