Last year was not a particularly good one for American Civil War combatants who, having fought for the South, were memorialized with statues.
The national debate over statues of those whose side had supported slavery became one more of emotion than of reason. It has led to the removal from public land of figures such as Jefferson Davis, Nathan Bedford Forrest and others.
The debate is not over. Discussions are currently underway about removing statues in various cities in Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, Texas, Kentucky, Alabama and Virginia. With Confederate flags already removed from many state facilities and universities due to an earlier tsunami of political activity sweeping through the South, all vestiges of the region’s 19th century heritage will disappear.
It is unfortunate these politically active statue topplers have chosen to isolate historical events in a vacuum. They see the South’s support of slavery as wrong, which it clearly was, but see the issue with all the advantages, human experiences and knowledge one living in the early 21st century possesses.
Having this advantage over those who fought the American Civil War a century and a half ago, there is a sense of arrogance these topplers bring to the statue debate.
What is morally and politically correct is clearly a learned skill, honed by evolving societal beliefs. The final destination of that evolution is a civil rights utopia or Shangra-la.
But how does one know, based on the point at which the evolutionary journey is joined, whether or not one – and society as a whole – has arrived at Shangra-la? Like the child in the back seat of a car constantly bombarding a parent with the inquiry, “Are we there yet?” who in the issue’s historical evolution had authority to announce “You have now reached your final destination”?
Years from now, even what we grasp today as a universal standard of equality for all human life could change. After all, we thought we were there 70 years ago.
In 1948, United Nation members, without a single dissenting vote, passed a resolution sanctioning all human life. The belief was that we had reached our final human-rights destination. However, in 1990, 56 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation limited the all-inclusive equality standard of human rights to only those recognized under Shariah. As a result, today Muslims only recognize equality of life for fellow Muslims.
What makes the journey’s end difficult to determine is the fact, historically, we all have joined it at different points in society’s evolution. Based on the extent of enlightenment society has gained up to that particular point in time, and from which we then benefited by joining a journey begun without us, we may well believe we are there. Undoubtedly, Jefferson Davis and friends – who were unenlightened as to the equality of all human life – thought they were.
But societies remaining open to enlightenment make course adjustments to reach Shangra-la. Thus, it is unfair for those of us who entered the journey at a much later mile marker to fault those who entered much earlier for lacking the knowledge and life experiences their history has given us.
Life’s experiences are learning experiences from which all gain enlightenment. Take, for example, the medical profession. Over 3,000 years ago, it gave credence to bloodletting as a healing process. Western doctors engaged in the practice well into the 19th century – and a 1942 medical textbook was still recommending it for treating pneumonia.
Interestingly, a debate still lingers within the medical community whether bloodletting caused the death of an ailing George Washington in 1799 at age 67.
Medical care has been a continuous journey of enlightenment for those practicing it. That journey has taken us a long way from the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans who would place the stump of an amputated limb into boiling oil to stop the patient’s bleeding. We would not suggest today these surgeons were quacks. We recognize, in their efforts to perfect surgery, they started their journey at a very early mile marker when medical enlightenment was in a primal stage.
Today, with the advantage of hindsight and looking back upon a civil rights road well traveled, we can easily see where those who journeyed before us took a wrong turn. But a certain level of arrogance comes into play when, with the advantage of our 21st century hindsight, we endeavor to hold earlier travelers to our standard of enlightenment. It is arrogant to impose today’s knowledge on yesterday’s heroes. And, it is ignorant to seek removal of their statues to obliterate their place in history for being less enlightened.
Emotion, coupled with ignorance, motivates some topplers. Last August, in Atlanta, Georgia, an antifa march led to a local park where members sought to tear down a Confederate memorial. The only problem was, what these political Neanderthals destroyed was not a Confederate memorial but a Peace Monument honoring those who had worked to reunify the country during Reconstruction.
Emotions ran high, too, at the University of North Carolina where students protested the statue on campus of “Silent Sam” – a nameless Confederate soldier. The debate on its removal again relied on emotion as activists claimed the conflict had “nothing to do with honor.” Perhaps these students need to spend more time studying inside the classroom. A large part of that war did revolve around non-slavery issues, such as states versus federal rights, internal improvements, taxes and tariffs. Estimates are that less than 5 percent of Southerners who fought actually owned slaves. But statues like Silent Sam are important, too, to remind future generations of the tragic consequences caused by a house divided.
America was built by mortal men, possessing both positive and negative qualities. By seeking to remove their existence from history for being on the wrong side of an issue, we undermine the memory of America’s long journey to civil rights Shangra-la. The story of our history must be told – warts and all. After all, as Winston Churchill observed, “The nation that forgets its past has no future.”