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Erasing History

Driving down Virginia’s John Mosby Highway recently, I wondered how long we will keep this name alive, given that Mosby was a fierce Confederate partisan during the Civil War. Should we rename the road? But if we remove Mosby, what do we do with the Jefferson Davis Highway? This is called a “slippery slope.”

While it is appropriate to remove Confederate symbols from official sites, it is quite another matter to attempt a wholesale intellectual departure from any vestiges of history, however unpleasant they may be to current sentiments. It is also practically impossible. There are over 500 highway signs, monuments, statues and other fixed memories of the Confederacy in Virginia alone.

The first problem with this is: where do we stop? Having eliminated some relic of the past, say, from Harvard’s flag or from someone’s fraternity house, why not all of them? There’s a built-in hypocrisy in removing some while leaving others.

A related problem is how to discern what to remove and what to keep? What is the criterion? Practically all of the removed items from our national landscape stem from the issue of slavery. The country once joined practically the rest of the globe in the historic institution of slaveholding. So we’re not unique. And, what do we emphasize, the deaths of 750,000 white soldiers to eliminate the institution or its existence in the first place? If we remove all memories of this, why can’t we insist on a total and global cleansing of the same everywhere, just as we have for all other aspects of “human rights”?

But where is slavery in the historical spectrum? Certainly better than genocide and probably worse than indentured service. But is a “wage slave” a form of the same institution? Do we remove America’s corporate “robber barons” from memory? Was slavery worse than the forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral homes, discrimination against the Irish, Italians, Jews, Germans, and other white “minorities,” lack of voting rights for women, child labor, the Great Depression, the Vietnam War etc.? If we expand the point beyond slavery to simply “things we don’t want to remember,” then there is little history left to erase.

What about the draft and the unnecessary deaths of whole generations? Over 57,000 American servicemen were killed in Vietnam within several years for a now-lost cause. How many slaves were killed in a comparable period? We’ve seen more attention to Freddie Gray than the memory of Vietnam. Isn’t justice supposed to be “even-handed”? Maybe we need a new movement, “Soldiers’ Lives Matter.”

What about our ally, England, that stood by while 1.5 million Irish starved to death from 1847 to 1850? The same country supervised 60,000 casualties of its young men in a single day (July 1, 1916). Their commander was Douglas Haig, so why is his name still honored?  

If there are too many questions without answers here, I apologize but will not accept responsibility. It would be comical to watch our most fervent destroyers of the past wrestle with these and other such contradictions.

One who will not is Emerson College Professor Ted Gup, who wrote a recent editorial against those who are “waging war on the dead at Harvard” (Washington Post, March 20, 2016). Recently, the Harvard administration retired the Law School seal since it was inspired by a slave-owner some 200 years ago. With this logic, Gup writes, most of Harvard’s other luminaries with properties in their name should also be retired. These included segregationists and racists of all stripes, anti-Catholics, anti-Semites, anti-women’s-rights proponents, euthanasia advocates, anti-gay donors, famous Americans who fouled the environment, etc. Gup called the current ideologues to be on a “fool’s errand,” but why should an intelligent society suffer fools gladly?  Or has the society lost its intelligence?       

That is the heart of the issue. If we were to eliminate the past and judge it by current standards, whether they are correct or not, we would, in effect, have no history at all. On a larger scale, there would be no worth to a national society that condoned slavery or allowed slums. There is no room for understanding or perspective from a society fixated with tunnel vision. Abraham Lincoln was far ahead of his contemporaries in 1863; today he would probably be called an unapologetic “racist.” Franklin Roosevelt led history’s greatest war against global fascism, but he also imprisoned 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry. That fact alone would probably disqualify FDR from any claim to authority, much less greatness.

The American people are often dismissed as “ahistorical.” Fair enough, but there should be a distinction between indifference and hostility. Otherwise, there’s no George Washington, no dead soldiers, nothing worth celebrating.      

That means no Fourth of July.