Historical Symbols, The Nature of Truth, and the Sides of History

14 07 2015

Thus far, apart from this post pointing out that the Confederate Battle Flag did not exist at the time of the First Battle of Bull Run, I’ve stayed out of the feeding frenzy that is the controversy regarding symbols of the Confederacy in our modern landscape. I’ve decided to dip my toe not as a prelude to diving in, but in deference to the rules of this site I think a mere dip is all I can take. Otherwise I – or you – may feel compelled to wade into modern political waters. And we can’t have that. However, I do feel there are issues of history involved which are altogether fitting and proper to discuss here.

It’s pretty clear to most that the Confederate States of America was founded to perpetuate the institution of slavery. It was the national cause. When it comes to what caused individuals to fight for or support that national cause – the personal causes, so to speak – I suspect there were as many causes as there were fighters and supporters, be they volunteer or conscripted soldiers, suppliers of their support in the field, manufacturers of the products necessary to wage war and support the government (and their employees), more-than-subsistence-farmers, planters, free- and not-free laborers, members of the media, elected and un-elected government officials, etc. We can’t of course assign to them the national cause as their personal cause. It doesn’t make sense. But we can’t exactly separate them. They existed hand in hand, effectively.

What we wind up with are symbols with multiple meanings: flags, monuments, place-names. And those meanings are as various as not only the individuals they commemorate, but as the individuals doing the commemorating. The simple fact that they are meaningful to a person tells me nothing – absolutely nothing – about that person.

I’m pointing this out simply to emphasize why I don’t have a problem with the existence and placement of these symbols in most – not all – cases. I recognize the schizophrenic and inconsistent nature of the symbols. In fact, I celebrate it. It’s fascinating.

So I don’t have a problem with Monument Row in Richmond, the same way I don’t have a problem with the biggest monuments to slavery on the planet:

13.-Pyramids-of-Giza-Egypt

Pyramids of Giza

or with this monument to a guy who was less than nice to Native Americans:

O. O. Howard

O. O. Howard

or with this monument to the man who ordered the mass imprisonment of US citizens of Asian descent:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt – In Washington, DC. I know, don’t get me started on that…

And before you say this is only because I’m not a Jew, or a Native American, or Japanese, I also don’t have a problem with the existence or placement of memorials to these guys, who were pretty brutal to my ancestors:

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

or of this flag:

1280px-Flag_of_the_United_Kingdom.svg

Which brings us to Truth, and the Sides of History.

As a Catholic school kid back in the early-mid 1970s, I used to play the hell out of my LP and (later) cassette copy of the original recording (that is, 1970 with Ian Gillan) of the Weber/Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar. At the same time, my interest in history was really taking off (it would be nipped in the bud by a high school guidance counselor soon enough – no future in it, he said.) One line in particular, from Trial Before Pilate really stood out to me then and has stayed with me over the years. Pontius Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king:

JC: It’s you who say I am. I look for truth, and find that I get damned.

PP: But what is truth? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Aren’t mine the same as yours?

(As an aside, these lines were changed somewhat in both film adaptations of the play. I’m sure there’s a story in there.)

Some might see Pilate’s question as rhetorical. I never did. Of course Truth changes, because Truth is in the eye of the beholder. Not only are times, people, and opinions different at any one point, but times change, and with it, people and opinions. Truth has its basis in belief, some might argue.

Today, the Truth of slavery is that it is an absolute wrong, legally and morally. This Truth is generally, overwhelmingly (though in varying degrees not universally) recognized. But, like it or not, in 1860 it was not, or at the very least was less so. Arguments were made for and against it on the basis of law, property rights, religion, morality, and the definition of human life. And those arguments were on a sliding scale, with different shades. Eventually, the Truth of the issue was decided to a nearly absolute degree. But this Truth does not change the Truth of 1860. Can you think of any issues like this today, with similar arguments, and supporters on both ends of the scale? If you can, keep them to yourself. Please. But also keep in mind that those current issues will one day be decided as well. Truth will win out, whatever it may be.

Once the Truth of slavery was established – or, at least, established as it stands today – believers and non-believers wound up on one of the two Sides of History: the Right Side, or what we call the Wrong Side. But these current sides do not change the fact that Truth was and is a moving target. Eventually, some current issue with multiple interpretations of Truth will be absolutely decided. And you and yours, dear reader, will wind up on the Right Side, or the Wrong Side. It will happen.

What do we do with the Wrong Side? Erase it? Write over it? Maybe it’s just too hard to interpret it. But isn’t that a historian’s job?

HD_mosbyJS2

John Singleton Mosby

Consider one John Singleton Mosby. Here was a man who fought for the Confederacy, took up arms to perpetuate slavery. There was no doubt in his mind why he did it. He admitted to it, to his credit, after the issue had been decided. He also accepted that the issue was decided. In a 1907 letter to a comrade, he lamented (at least, I think of it as a lament):

People must be judged by the people of their own age.

What did he mean by this? Well, I see him saying that his actions had to be viewed in the context of his times and their Truths, by people who understood those times and their Truths. And in 1907, many of those people were gone. So who takes their place? Isn’t that a historian’s job?

Before we celebrate or encourage the removal of Confederate symbols from the landscape, we would do well to consider the words of a wise Vulcan:

After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.





“The” Confederate Flag

13 05 2010

Friend Tom Clemens gives a quick lesson on Confederate flags:

In case you’re wondering, the Confederate flag in use at First Bull Run was the First National.  The Battle Flag didn’t come into existence until after the battle.  It’s possible that some units had Bonnie Blue flags, but I’ve seen no positive evidence of that.

Hat tip to Kevin.

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