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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Guillotine And Learning History–Build More Statues To The Old South

A 1959 picture of French children playing High Executioner with a scale model guillotine at first seems a bad idea, sending the wrong message, etc.; but on second thought, probably a very good way of teaching history. The French, no matter how hard they try, cannot airbrush The Terror from the history books that children read.  After the glorious days of storming the Bastille heads rolled by the hundreds – aristocrats, loyalists, sympathizers, and suspected sympathizers.  The Terror was McCarthyism in blood, a post-revolutionary gory excess to match any in history.

The armies of Genghis Khan decapitated thousands and impaled their heads on pikes on the high road into town, raped, pillaged, and marauded from Bulgaria to China.  The Crusades slaughtered everyone in their path as they entered the Holy City of Jerusalem.  Millions were killed or murdered by Stalin in his political purges and Siberian gulags; millions more by Mao in the Great Leap Forward and the famines that resulted; and six million by Hitler, and many millions more by Pol Pot.  Russians, Germans, Cambodians, and Chinese need to a moral reckoning.  Even in the amoral sweep of history, a series of coincidental, random, or planned events which resulted in mayhem, destruction, and death need to be considered, if not remembered.

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Guillotine for Kids

Here in the United States, we want no part of our history.  Many are on a juggernaut to remove any and all references to the antebellum South, the Civil War, or anything to do with the slavery, Jim Crow, punitive Reconstruction. and Radical Republicanism that tore the country apart and continues to divide us.  It never happened.

Of course it did; and if the juggernaut retains its momentum and gains some, revisionists might indeed be successful in sweeping most of the unpleasant past under the rug; but it will never be gone.  A look at the inner cities of Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington, and Chicago are testament to our regretful past.  There is no greater testament to the failure of Reconstruction.  These dysfunctional neighborhoods are an indirect but clear result of punitive policies – the arrogant attempt by Northern, vengeful idealists to impose their idea of racial equality, free labor, and Puritan enterprise on the South.  How could these Radicals have so badly underestimated the South’s resentment and the power of its landed, vested interests? What did they expect when they elevated newly-freed slaves to state legislatures? Or attempted to gut the Cavalier system of the South?  Had it not been for Lincoln’s assassination, the ascendancy of Andrew Jackson, and The Terror of Reconstruction, we might be in a far better place.

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So rather than take down the statues of Southern statesmen, war heroes, and political leaders, we should put them up.  It is better to be reminded of the folly of men’s ambitions then to forget them.  Instead of renaming Jefferson Davis Highway, Jeb Stuart High School, and Fort A.P. Hill, we should name other institutions, roads, and parks not in honor of the South or in fond remembrance of it, but as a reminder of what men can do.

The South was America and after the Civil War it was again.  Lincoln’s greatest challenge was keeping the Union intact; but the greater challenge was accommodating it once it returned.  As much as Northerners love to vilify the South, land of bass boats, rednecks, bass boats, and megachurches, it is us.  As ugly, untamed, retrograde, and un-woke as the South may seem to Northerners, it is America; and unless we understand what it is, where it came from, how it has persisted, and where it is going,  we will never understand American history or America.

Statues and names are usually reserved for heroes, and since Virginia was part of the Confederacy, it is not surprising that there are more statues to Southern heroes than elsewhere.  It might not have been the first to secede, but it was the seat of the Confederacy, and until Richmond fell, the war would not be over.

History is, after all, an amoral enterprise.  Anyone trying to sort out moral from immoral actions on the part of kings, princes, emperors, and popes will have a hard time.  Europe was aflame from the Medieval onward – the Hundred Years War, the War between the Roses, the wars between England and France, England and Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire against all were common, perennial, and expected.  There was no better or worse.  Laurel wreaths were given to the victors, purely and simply; and the tendency to extend that glorification by statues and naming is understandable.  Yet in an amoral struggle, are not both sides commendable or at least significant? No one pretends that Spain never existed before or after the Armada.  It was a great imperial power who happened to be outmaneuvered by Nelson and the British fleet.  No one in England consigned Spain to the dust bin of history.

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How is it then that such a censorious, ignorant, and self-serving political movement, bound and determined to remake history in its own fashion, has gained so much influence?

The progressive Left in the United States has attempted to cloture all contrary (offensive) speech, to re-write history to exclude the nasty bits, ignore biology, sexual imperatives, and demographics, and to carry on as if the past never happened, that there are no lessons to be learned, and that only the future matters.

Pol Pot claimed once his troops had taken Phnom Penh  that it was The Year Zero – all that had come before existed no longer.  There was no past, only the glorious socialist Cambodian future.  His internment and concentration camps were nothing new.  Every autocratic regime before Pol Pot  had isolated dissidents in punitive, and unremittingly harsh labor camps in what was publicized as education but which was nothing but a torturous attempt to get them to recant.

Statues should be erected to Pol Pot, Stalin, and Hitler as reminders  of what can be and what will most certainly be unless we learn their lessons.  Movements to remove them from public memory are sure to resurrect them, if not in person then in spirit.  The past will come again.

Would we feel comfortable with statues to Pol Pot, Genghis Khan, Tamburlaine, Hitler, Stalin and Idi Amin? No, but that is not the point.  Feeling uncomfortable with history is the only way of assuring reflection upon it and  avoiding repetition of it.

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There has been a movement to rename Yale Colleges  Historians have found that John C Calhoun was a slaveholder, ardent racist, and anti-abolitionist; but so were the men whose names appear on almost all of the residential colleges; and, most troubling of all so was Elihu Yale, the founder.  The reason why residential colleges were named after these men was not because of slavery but statesmanship, patriotism, duty, and excellence.  In this censorious era, we want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the most worthy and brilliant member of The Founding Fathers owned slaves in an age when Southern gentlemen all owned slaves; and yet there are those who prefer to sully his memory with Sally Hemmings.

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We need more dioramas of Simon Legree and of Charleston slave-trading markets.  We need to be a witness to history as it was, not how we imagine it should have been.  There is no movement to remove Charlemagne and Roland from the French pantheon because they beat back the Muslim hordes and saved Europe from Islam.  On the contrary, they saved Europe from the assault of an anti-liberal, fundamentalist pretender.  Despite multiculturalism and the increasing heterogeneity of French society, there is a limit to revisionism.  Statues to Charlemagne, Roland, and the heroic victory over the Saracens at Roncesvalles will be and need to be preserved.

Political progressives assume progress towards an inevitably better world, and therefore the detritus of the discredited past is of no interest and should be discarded.  Conservatives assume no such thing and conclude that to simply moving  in any direction requires a look from all angles.

If anything, we are simply products of our past, one in a long line of unknowing, reproducing organisms influenced by what came before.  Nothing more, nothing less; but since few of us believe that nihilistic destiny and are still persuaded by our important place in human society, then not only our future and our present matter, but our past  Nabokov wrote that since the future is only a possibility and the present infinitesimally short, it is only the past that defines us, that matters. He wanted no moral filters on the past - it wasn't so much why and how things mattered and what they meant, but that they happened.

This is why remembering the past is so important - not to prove the old adage ('Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it'), but to validate existence.  As Tolstoy wrote in his Epilogue to War and Peace we are simply the sum of the events, and circumstances of the past.  We are part and parcel of the Antebellum South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction - our human nature contributed to the fiasco and the misery that followed.  We are all complicit in history.

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The Radical Republicans in Congress during Reconstruction had no less arrogance, sanctimony, and righteousness as any of the rest of us who over-zealously espouse a cause.  We are no different from the plantation owners of the South who responded with resentment, vengeance, and anger at a righteous imposition.  We all are violent, territorial, aggressive, and punitive; but we never like to recognize or admit it.  Forget progress, Utopia, or a better secular world.  Such understanding is existential, helping us to orient ourselves in the world, in the universe, and before God.

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