August 19, 2017
The Politics of Change
Recently I received a request from Faithful America (a liberal Christian-based political organization) to sign a petition demanding that the R.E. Lee Episcopal Church in Lexington, Virginia change its name.
I did not sign it (and I also asked that they stop sending me emails.)
First of all, separation of church and state is a two-way street. Second of all, as far as I am concerned, they can call themselves whatever they want. At least half of the streets in the neighborhood where I grew up (from 1972-1978) were named after Confederate officers (I literally grew up on a civil war battlefield). Never once did I think of the streets as encouraging or supporting racism and that changing their names would make the world a better place. Were there racists in that neighborhood? Sure. But their racism was not linked to the Civil War any more than the racists in my neighborhoods in Pennsylvania and Illinois. And believe me, there are racists and white supremacists in Pennsylvania and Illinois.
Personally, I have no problem toning down the worshiping of the Confederacy. I’m not particularly inclined to worship much of anything—which is supposed to be an inalienable right in these parts. I had great-great-great-grandfathers and their brothers and cousins on both sides of the Civil War (mostly Confederate, but a few in East Tennessee stayed loyal to the Union). I also have had ancestors in every American war, most of which were sickening imperialistic excursions driven by greed, started by politicians, and fought by soldiers from the lower economic groups and immigrants taken straight from the ship and forced to serve (Look it up. Many families, especially those from Ireland or other English speaking regions, were forced to hand their sons over to the US Army upon arrival or have the whole family shipped back to from whence they came.) I harbor neither shame nor pride in these facts of my lineage. But I do harbor respect.
As in all wars, the soldiers dying knew little of the true causes or the political motivation for the bloodshed. They just knew what they were told. For most in pre-20th century America the only “news” was word of mouth anyway — some guy standing on a stump in the middle of town shouting. The government prescribed to the age-old technique of “tell them whatever ever they need to hear to get them riled,” a process that has continued to the present day, though it started falling apart with mass media because it’s harder to lie when things are being broadcast live (see War, Vietnam).
The War of 1812 was the first such “official” war of imperialism (it didn’t work), then the Mexican-American War (God wanted the US to have that land, not Mexico) and the Spanish-American War (this is how we got Hawaii and many other “possessions” and also how we became mired in a decade long struggle in the Philippines that they didn’t teach you about in school. Over 3,000 US soldiers were killed after the so-called Spanish-American War ended. This is also when the General Pershing myth that was claimed to be fact by our current president supposedly happened. Dipping bullets in pig’s blood brought peace for 20 or 30 years, depending on which speech you heard. It didn’t happen. Just lots of senseless violence and death happened in the name of imperialistic growth.)
Of course the wars of genocide against the natives to this continent began before the US and continued until the native population was decimated, or nearly so. The final purge was led by generals (Sheridan, Sherman, Custer, etc.) from the righteous Union side of the Civil War, the ones some believe led a Holy Crusade to the South in 1861. Against Native Americans, a favorite tactic was to raid and burn villages while the warriors were occupied elsewhere. Kill the women and children and the issue of regeneration is solved (Custer assumed he was headed for such a scenario at the Little Big Horn. Bad intel and poor judgement, to say the least).
So, righteous wars? Maybe one. Maybe. The one Studs Terkel called “The Good War.” Certainly it seemed like all options were used up regardless of what led to the war and by 1941 the war was unavoidable for the US. But even that one has enormous greed and slimy politics on the US side of its underbelly.
My view: what we are seeing today isn’t about history. It’s about the hate and racism of today, period. Whatever era you want to revisit and compare to today’s world, their beliefs will be out of context with the current situation. Bring Ben Franklin back and see if the great man doesn’t express some highly inappropriate views on gender and race. And I picked Ben because he’s probably the safest and most enlightened of the so-called “founding fathers” to place in our society. And, ok, because he’s a personal favorite of mine.
What is in context is the racism and hate being expressed today. The monuments are, at worst, symbols of hate and racism. Symbols. A symbol represents something else. In and of itself, it is nothing. Pulling down a statue that is a symbol for racism does nothing to confront racism. Would removing crosses mean the end of Christianity? Historically the answer has been proven time and again—no. The ideas are not embedded in the symbols, merely represented thereby. Clearly the subject needs to be addressed in our present society, but don’t confuse symbols of hate and racism with hate and racism.
The laws regarding what can be displayed publicly can be challenged and changed. Personally I am offended neither by statues nor their removal. I am offended by the hate and violence, and when the symbols become indelibly linked with hate and violence—such as the Confederate battle flag—I admit I cringe. But I don’t go and pull the flag from the pick-up truck expecting the driver to cease being racist. What I would expect him to be is pissed off, and I’d be in a fight. Since I don’t carry a gun, Confederate battle flag guy probably wins that one.
I advocate taking whatever peaceful means are at our disposal to deal with such tangible issues. Use the democratic procedure. It’s imperfect, that’s for damn sure, but it’s the best option thus far. Take a vote. And if the vote doesn’t go your way, accept it and work toward other means of civic change—and remember that there will be other elections. Ben Franklin wanted the national bird to be the wild turkey (peaceful) instead of the bald eagle (fierce and aggressive). He was voted down. As far as I know, he let it go. Bring that back up for a vote, and I’m going for Ben’s choice, but that hasn’t been discussed much of late.
Now remains the issue of confronting racism and hatred (which I also wrote about here). The lessons I have learned say that such a confrontation can only be successful when it occurs within the heart of the individual. A change can be influenced from the outside, but not forced. You can’t beat the hate out of someone. But you can continue to question your own views and expressions. Nothing spreads love like being loving. Oh, I know that it doesn’t always work; life has also taught me that there are people roaming the earth—hugely—who are not interested in change. So be it. But that doesn’t stop the process. While it may seem close, ultimately love and hate are not equally balanced on the scale. When hate is being stirred, the scale reflects the weight; and vice-versa. So forgive me if I sound like Ringo, but “stir the love.”