Friday, August 18, 2017

Concerning History

We have a BIG problem. That may also be one of the biggest understatements I've ever made.

For this post I'm going to start off with a personal story. The year was 1998 and I was a 14 year old kid who was given the opportunity of my life (up to that point): playing in a soccer tournament in Belgium. This was something I was sent a letter and selected to participate in, and I was thrilled.

I remember the morning I left. We were going to be flying out of Toronto and my dad couldn't get me to our meeting spot in Buffalo without being late for work. So we decided that I would spend some time with one of my teammates for this trip, and he just happened to be a black kid. I'll freely admit I was nervous, not out of fear or anything negative, but because I hadn't spent much time around black people. I didn't know quite what to say, or do, they were listening to music that was foreign to me. Yet I wasn't afraid, or scared. I was just nervous, this was a fairly new experience. I think we ended up kicking a soccer ball around until it was time to leave.

We soon left for the bus to take us up to Toronto, and soon we'd be on our way to Belgium. Our time there was relatively short, just a bit over a week. Sure we'd have the games to play, but the rest of the time was spent sightseeing. We went to an amusement park, visited Brussels, Bruges, Waterloo, and a small fortification just outside of Antwerp, the city we were staying in. It was Fort Breendonk. Sure it's a funny name, but it has a terrible history.

It's service began shortly before the outbreak of World War I. The walls had been covered in five meters (over 15 feet) of earth to further protect it from bombing, and surrounded by a moat. It was built to help defend Antwerp, but the Germans found a way to capture the city without having to attack the fort. It's true horror though came during World War II when it was used as a prison camp and a transfer station to the bigger and more well known concentration camps. It was a particularly brutal camp. The prisoners were forced to remove the earth that had been built up around the walls of the fort, and they had to remove it often with little more than pick axes. The commandant would unleash his German Shepherd "Lump" on the inmates for his own amusement. "Trials" held at the fort often resulted in hanging or the prisoners in front of a firing squad, while the others watched. It is estimated that as many as 3600 people were held there between 1940 and the end of the war, though never more than 600 at a time.

The fort is very well preserved, actually considered to be among the best preserved prison camps from Nazi rule. The Belgian government has operated it as a museum since 1947, and it made quite an impression on me back then, and it still does to this day.

What I didn't think much about then however was how I initially felt just before leaving, and then seeing what fear, paranoia, and hatred of the "other" had led to represented by Fort Breendonk. It's easy to let fear, bigotry, and hatred get out of control and commit violent acts as a response. As much as we want to think our problems are in the past, they're not.

It would have been easy for the Belgian government to destroy the fort, to remove it from history because of what happened there. But they recognized that, as much as it represented evil, it could be used to educate future generations and maybe turn them away from the cruelty that occurred there and elsewhere.

That brings us to today, where we have the ongoing issue of whether or not memorials to the Confederacy should remain or be removed. I would say it's a debate, but that would be wrong because debates are supposed to be civilized exchanges of rhetoric to try to win support for your beliefs or cause and move others to join you. What we've seen in contrast is fringe groups on both sides turn to violent outbursts, even driving vehicles into a crowd. Meanwhile mobs have taken it upon themselves to not wait for official word and destroyed some of the monuments themselves. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, I would hope we could all agree that the destruction of property by a mob is going way too far.

Getting to the underlying issue however is how should our history be remembered? Is it right to say that the Civil War was fought for nothing but the preservation of slavery in the South and the abolition of slavery in the North? Well, we could say that, but would it be accurate?

I think one of the most prominent beliefs is that nearly everyone in the South had slaves, but that isn't true. What is true however is that the Southern economy, mostly agrarian, was mostly dependent on slavery. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that what the majority of the Confederate soldiers fought for was slavery, but within the greater context of preserving what they had come to know. This may be especially true if we consider that politicians were convinced that they were losing their influence in Congress, and many preachers were combining a sort of nationalism with a little bit of scripture taken out of context. Given that this is what they were exposed to, they might see their fight in bigger and more important terms than slavery, though let's not forget that slavery did provide the foundation for their way of life.

What about the North fighting to end slavery? Well, I don't believe that's entirely accurate either. During its colonial history, New England had been the place where slavery in the United States developed with Boston leading the way. Slavery was still legal into the early 19th century, but even after emancipation was granted attitudes didn't change in any meaningful way. Even with emancipation in the North, the economy, in particular the textile and shipping industries was still dependent on the institution of slavery and likely wasn't in any hurry to see it end. Union general Ulysses S Grant owned at least one slave and managed his father-in-law's property which had several slaves that he looked after. His wife Julia also had slaves who had been her playmates when they were children.

Let's not forget that though the North may have been emancipated, it didn't stop slave labor from happening, in particular the Irish.

This all leads me to believe that while slavery was a central and an important issue for the Civil War, there were many other issues along with that, and it's not entirely clear which side was more right than the other, although I should make it abundantly clear that I believe slavery, whether in its historical context or in its contemporary iteration of human trafficking, is abhorrent and should be brought to an end.

For me though, the real fight that we're dealing with today began in the aftermath of the Civil War. If the Civil War was fought to simply bring an end to slavery and the attitudes surrounding it, then the conclusion of the war should have been the conclusion of the matter. However, Reconstruction proved otherwise. While the "Radical Republicans" wanted to punish the former Confederacy, Democrats fought back and galvanized support against inclusion of the former slaves and black people in their participation of American life and liberty, even up to the late 1960s, 100 years after the War had come to an end.

History really is a lot more complicated than what it's made out to be, and we do ourselves and future generations a disservice when we try to reduce the complexities down to whatever suits our own narrative. The bottom line for me though comes down to this: I learned some history on the day I visited Fort Breendonk. Yeah, I had an awareness of World War II and why it was fought, but seeing the museum/monument forced me to confront it in a way that, almost 20 years later, I realize it affected me even more than I realized at that time.

Had Fort Breendonk been torn down at the end of World War II, what would the lesson have been? And what does this mean for us in the early part of the 21st Century in the United States?

Well, if we reduce the Civil War down to just "freedom vs. slavery", then it would be easy to say "Yes, tear down all those monuments." But I hope I've shown that it is more complicated than that, and that there were people on both sides who expressed attitudes and actions that we find disgusting. If Confederate monuments must be torn down because they represent slavery in our minds, why not be honest and tear down monuments to the Union as well, in particular those to Grant? Why do we forget that Lincoln may have signed the "Emancipation Proclamation" but also supported the former slaves leaving the country rather than staying. So why not picket The Lincoln Memorial as well? Or does fighting for the end of slavery really cover over the others things they did and attitudes they showed that aren't so good?

Furthermore, I wonder if those wanting to tear down the memorials also express an appreciation for Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Chairman Mao. If so, I find that to be an interesting...and disturbing...irony. It means values aren't grounded in anything other than whatever the popular trend is.

These reminders of our past force us to deal with the realities they represent. Nothing is accomplished by tearing them down, in fact we might be doing ourselves a huge disservice in the long run. Yet we also do ourselves a disservice by not digging deeper and discovering the truth. These monuments should be put in a context where that can take place. As the saying goes "Those who don't learn from their history are doomed to repeat it", or something like that.

The last thing I wish to mention though is tearing down monuments and statues will not erase ignorance, hatred, bigotry, and it certainly won't fix the sins of the past. Better laws, education, opportunity, communities, and societies can only go so far, but they can't heal the wounds either. The only thing that can truly bring about change is a heart that is transformed by the God who created all of humanity in His image, and desires that all take His offer to become part of His family and to be freed from sin and the desire to sin.

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