Thursday, August 17, 2017

Hate, Conscience, History, and Ugly Truth

I'm floored by how effective these racist displays of violence and hate seem to be at accomplishing the exact opposite of their intentions. Granted, lots of hate-filled racists are being emboldened by these moves and the words of the President, but it's also become an impetus for the removal of statues all over the South, in the same way the Charleston shootings precipitated the removal of the confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. While the Republican Party does still have a troubling racist element in its ranks, for the first time in my memory it's leaders are largely stepping up to the plate to denounce hatred, bigotry, and violence.

This all has to be said in the context of exasperation that we're in 2017 and this is what we're happy about. It shouldn't take 150 years to get to this point, but we are where we are. The words that people like Lindsay Graham, who's accent sounds like a caricature ripped from Django Unchained, use to condemn the President of the United States from his own party are pretty amazing. The critique that these words mean less than the votes these GOP leaders tend to cast in the opposite direction is entirely true, but the words aren't meaningless; it's progress, albeit small.

We like to think that the world which changes so quickly in some areas, should easily be transformed by truth and justice. It should. It really should, but it isn't. Love is patience; it takes time - painful, frustrating, unjust time. And despite the ease with which we see war and violence and hatred and racism rear its head around the world, there are plenty of signs that love does change people. It's not much, but it's something. Even if this show of conscience is, in its skeptical extreme, entirely politically motivated, the very fact that politics is playing in this direction is, sadly, progress for the United States.

For many white people, it seems like things are getting worse, but the reality is we've just largely isolated ourselves from the national racial tension, ignored it, and avoided the discussion that is now being thrust before us. The reality is, most of us haven't faced up to the prejudice that lives inside each of us because we just haven't had to do it.

That prejudice is real. The implicit bias test, conducted by Harvard researchers, shows that just about every person - black and white - has at least a subconscious bias against dark skin. We react differently to black people than to white people. The cliche shortening of breath, clutching of purse, walking to the other side of the road is not perception, but reality. Regardless of how we act, think, or speak, we should be able to say, "Sometimes, my first reaction is not one I'm proud of."

The difference between that - between you and me - and those lunatics rioting in Charlottesville is that they lean into it, they embrace it.
While I do believe the world is changing - and for the better - there is a reality with which we must deal before we can move on. There will always be prejudice; there will always be outsiders and "other," at least for the forseeable future - but the battle of prejudice doesn't have to be about race. That can change, but it's got to be dealt with.

Rarely, if ever, in the history of civilization, did the losing side get to keep its culture and identity relatively unchecked. There have been thousands of volumes written that analyze the aftermath of the Civil War, but the truth is, enforcing a culture change, resultant from war,
would've been a more difficult task than a still fledgling nation was willing to bear. The South got left with a don't ask/don't tell racial policy for generations as the can was kicked down the road.

Southern culture has made 150 years of gradual improvement - much as was expected (and hoped) when the nation left it to its own devices - but that underlying culture of racial superiority still exists in some measure and it's not just going to walk out the door on its own. I'm a student of history (literally - I've got a degree to prove it), more than anything I rue our current inability to understand historical context.
Well, I guess I thought I rued that more than anything - now it appears, even worse is the understanding of historical context poorly.

There might - and I say 'might' with the generosity possible understanding that this is merely hypothetical and not at all reflective of reality - be some case for statues or monuments erected in the 1860's, commemorating fallen loved ones with historically and culturally appropriate descriptors. That's an at least defensible use of historical context. When it comes to statues and memorials erected during the most intense periods of racial strife, celebrating "heroes" with incendiary and inaccurate descriptors, it's hard to make any sort of respectable defense. Real historical context, at least in the case of the vast majority of southern monuments, includes a lot of facts that don't appear on the plaques. That's reality, too.

Robert E Lee may have been a paragon of manners and civilized society, acting in accordance with a disciplined code of perceived honor, especially in contrast to many of the other less educated, less refined personalities we associate with the confederacy. That doesn't make him a saint. Maybe Lee really did fight for the South entirely because of his belief in States' Rights, and his association with those virulent racists was simply because of a common foe - that's best case scenario, right? Still, he didn't free his slaves to prove his position - and there's certainly evidence to the counter the long-held perception of the man that's worth looking at.

In the end, though, even Lee felt holding on to the culture and memory of the Confederacy was detrimental to the healing of a nation. He specifically spoke out against the kind of monuments so many towns would one day dedicate to and of him. The families of these "heroes" don't want the statues to remain, neither do the majority of the populations in most of the municipalities where they reside.

Some cities have changed the plaques to better represent the reality of the Civil War; sometimes they've added statues of civil rights heroes alongside to tell a more fleshed out story of our nation's history. There are ways to do this that really do keep history front and center, but which also avoid the whitewashing (now there's a word that's right on the nose, am I right?) or avoidance of the realities of race in the US.

I can't finish this overlong post, though, without at least mentioning the difficulties these kinds of considerations create for our future. People have gotten mad at Trump for asking if George Washington is next. I'm not sure why - it's a fair question. The man had no more forward-thinking or enlightened opinions about slavery than General Lee - he was a generally selfish and belligerent guy who was unfairly lionized due to some accidents of timing and his refusal to become king.

That doesn't make George Washington a "bad" guy - although I wouldn't want him as a role model to my kids. He's like just about everyone else in history: unfailingly human. We've got few true saints out there - and they'll be the first to argue there's none. We've got no real saints when it comes to people of power and influence - those things just don't go hand in hand.

I'll admit its difficult. Princeton has been dealing with the legacy of Woodrow Wilson for years now. The guy was smart - PhD, Ivy League President, Governor, President - he served through WWI and is generally listed among the 5 or 10 best Presidents we've ever had. He was also pretty darn racist, in overt and activist ways - an above-average racist at a time when average (or even below average) was still pretty darn racist. How do we deal with people who aren't just imperfect, but seriously flawed?

I suspect old George Washington gets a pass because we all agree on the value of the country he helped to found, we've all bought into the mythos well enough to leave things be. Would the mythos around Washington or Jefferson (or, God-forbid, Andrew Jackson) be any different than that surrounding Lee if Native Americans had survived in the same numbers and with the same voice as African Americans? Or if they'd simply lived a hundred years later?

I'm in total support of our difficult embrace of the racial problems in this country. Let's take down the statues and take a second look at the history books and the mythology and the stories we take for granted about who we are. We just can't stop when our liberal comfort is comfort is challenged or our white guilt starts to fade.

The world is a mess. Life is a mess. We are a mess. The solutions will not be easy or pretty or fun. We're gonna have to be okay with that and we're going to have to sacrifice as much, if not more, than what we're asking "those others" to sacrifice right now.

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