Several days ago, while surfing the Internet – probably cnn.com – I came upon a poll. I forget its precise wording, but it was something like this: “Should southern states commemorate Confederate History Month?” I didn’t give my response any thought – these Internet polls rarely deserve any thought – but merely reacted viscerally by clicking on the response that said “yes.” Then, I was shocked to see that 80 percent of the respondents had said “no.”
How strange, I thought to myself. Is this political correctness gone crazy? The confederacy is an important part of our nation’s history – and a particularly momentous part of the history of the south. Why shouldn’t it be commemorated? I’ve long since internalized the famous phrase of my fellow Spinozist, George Santayana, who penned “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When visiting Richmond, you’re damned right I felt compelled to tour some of the Confederate shrines. History is history – why should we turn a blind eye to any portion of it? Besides, going to the Museum of the Confederacy isn’t exactly like walking into Dachau – but even if it were, I would have visited, just as I visited Dachau on my very first day in Germany.
After the shock had warn off that most people would rather forget the more unpleasant portions of the past (or at least that’s how I interpreted the poll), I started ruminating about what a Confederacy commemoration ceremony might look like.
I envisioned a political scientist explaining that on these shores, at the time the Confederacy began, people lived in the United STATES of America, whereas once the Confederacy was defeated, they lived in the UNITED States of America. Back then, people didn’t just demagogue about states’ rights. Back then, your state was your country.
I envisioned a sociologist discussing some of the unique cultural institutions and mores of the South in addition to the one everyone talks about – the literature, the architecture, the clothing, the food and drink, the manners, the pace. In short, I envisioned a tribute to what is commonly known as “Southern Charm,” something that any visitor to the region cannot help but notice even today.
And I envisioned a military historian discussing the Confederacy’s brilliant generals and their valiant troops. The historian would surely tell compelling tales about men like Robert E. Lee, who were schooled at West Point and yet were given no option but to fight against their old mentors and friends and on behalf of their own “country” (i.e., their beloved state). The Confederate Army did a masterful job to come close to victory against such steep odds. I’ve always admired their military leaders, and refuse to think of them in terms of their views on slavery. Besides, we know nothing about those views; we know only that these men were soldiers whose homeland was at war.
But yes, I also thought about slavery, and how pathetic an institution it was, degrading to the whites who owned them even more than to the blacks who served as slaves. Then my mind turned back to the soldiers who gave all they had for the Stars and Bars. According to researchers, only about 10 percent of them owned slaves and only about 20 percent of them expressed pro-slavery convictions. Like many other fighting forces in our species’ history, the Men in Grey were an army in which poor people fought to their graves to preserve the values of the rich. Of course it’s a sad commentary on the legacy of the Confederacy. But we all deserve to know about it – just as we deserve to know about the brilliance of Stonewall Jackson, or the appeal of the mint julep.
Now back to the poll in cnn.com. It couldn’t have been more than an hour or two after I cast my vote when I saw why this issue was suddenly in the news. Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell had recently declared April to be Confederate History Month. And to be consistent, I applauded his decision. Little did I know then, however, HOW he would make that declaration.
You’ve surely heard about the debacle by now. The proclamation issued by the Governor’s office had seven paragraphs, and not a single reference to slavery. When confronted with the omission, McDonnell responded that he included those issues that he felt were the most “significant” to his state, and that the goal of his proclamation was to promote tourism for that state.
A day later, McDonnell was in full damage control mode. He decried slavery as an “evil and inhumane practice that deprived people of their God-given inalienable rights.” But the damage was done. What should have been a hallowed activity, teaching about history, was turned into a cheap stunt to make money for the tourism industry. And if the way to get the job done was to literally whitewash that history, so be it.
For those who think McDonnell’s original explanation was a complete fabrication, think again. During the past week, the walls of the Washington, D.C. metro stations have been littered with advertisements taken out by the Virginia tourism industry. It truly is making a huge push to get the residents of D.C. and its suburbs to visit places like Lynchburg and Charlottesville, and in making that push, it is emphasizing the state’s history every bit as much as its natural beauty (both of which is incredible). As a student of Jefferson specifically and Virginia history generally, I applaud what the state’s tourism industry is trying to accomplish -- that is, until the Governor took his foot and jammed it all the way up his mouth. Better that we ignore history than that we distort it. Indeed, what McDonnell has done is taken an opportunity to honor his state’s name by facing up to its past, and instead applied the old adage that history is something that rich, white people feel free to manipulate to serve their own parochial agenda.
What this reminds me of is the debate as to whether the public schools should teach about religion. I’ve always sided with those who believe that religion is too important to be excluded altogether from the school curriculum and that it remains the obligation of the public schools to teach neutrally about religion. But at times like this, I am reminded of the admonition of those who say that if you give the teachers in the Bible Belt the right to talk about religion, they’ll abuse that right and indoctrinate people to become Fundamentalist Christians. I’m still not quite that cynical – I still believe that teachers all over the United States would generally rise to the occasion and respect the Constitution of the United States. And yet, two weeks ago, I also wasn’t so cynical as to believe that the Governor of Virginia could make a lengthy proclamation about Confederate History that leaves out that “non-significant” fact known as slavery. Don’t you hate it when the cynics are proven right?
Tomorrow, across the Potomac from Bob McDonnell’s Virginia, I am planning to attend a commemoration of yet another period of human history. Tomorrow is Holocaust Remembrance Day and my synagogue will be showing a film and engaging in a discussion to mark the event. Given my connections with the local Muslim community, I was tasked with approaching the mosque with whom we “twinned” last November and explaining why we needed a good turnout from the mosque. Yes, I told my Muslim friends that the Holocaust was such a powerful moment in history that everyone, Jew and gentile, needs to come to grips with it and to learn whatever lessons it has to teach us – politically, theologically, psychologically, you name it. But what I emphasized even more in hyping this event is that everyone can be assured that this synagogue will treat this hallowed topic with the kind of sensitivity and dignity that it deserves. Indeed, I analogized the task of putting on a Holocaust Day event with that of practicing medicine: “first, do no harm.”
As we look back to what the Washington Post Express has labeled the “Retreat in Richmond,” McDonnell’s mistake was not to take on the job of announcing a Confederate History Month but to do so in a manner that ignores the Hippocratic Oath. Santayana spoke the truth; we absolutely mustn’t forget the lessons of history. And the blacker the era, the more we must remember it. But taking on history’s darker periods is not easy. It requires adults who have proper veneration for what they’re talking about. For that reason, Bob McDonnell might want to leave the city of Richmond and head out a Charlottesville. Let him take the bus up that “little Mountain” known as Monticello, and go on one of those tours I never seem to get tired of taking. He’ll hear about slavery. It won’t get whitewashed. But he’ll also hear about a man who revered politics, economics, natural science, agriculture, anthropology, literature, philosophy, music, art, and yes, history. And then Governor McDonnell can contemplate how it could be that such a Renaissance Man could allow his beloved country, not to mention himself, to get so embroiled in “the peculiar institution.” That alone is a question worthy of a month’s contemplation.