American history has been in turmoil these last few weeks.
For some who have been in the news of late, there is no hard truth to settle on. There are no certainties, no accepted “this is what happened” that forms the timeline and foundation of the American experience. For some, political points to be scored, personal grudges to be aired, are the shapers of the truth they accept for themselves. The truth is an inconvenience.
Earlier this week, a resident spoke to the Southold Anti-Bias Task Force about a Confederate flag he saw hanging from the back of a truck near Town Beach. In light of the recent horror show in Charlottesville, where the Confederate flag was carried alongside the Nazi swastika, this resident’s concern is easy to understand. The sight of the two flags together in Virginia was an obscenity.
In a historic American town on a summer weekend, white men in white shirts and dark pants, holding aloft Tiki torches as if proudly filming a remake of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Nuremberg,” carried Confederate and Nazi flags. The sight of the two flags together meant that both stood for the same thing, their histories had been merged.
It meant you can be for the South even though it fought to destroy the Constitution and the country so that slavery could continue, and you can be for Hitler and all that he accomplished in his reign of genocide and terror that slaughtered tens of millions of people in specially designed extermination centers.
These swastika-wavers are haters, their insides boiling over with resentments and grievances over their personal failures and the loss of privileges they believe they are owed. What they know about history wouldn’t fill a paper cup. They’ve invented history and conformed it to their views.
History does not blow in the wind. It is not whatever you want it to be. The study of it is based on oral histories, primary source documents and the accumulation of facts and events. Yes, there are different interpretations of events, but not whether the event occurred or did not occur.
The southern slave states initiated a civil war that resulted in an estimated 700,000 casualties from 1861 to 1865, all so a minority of southerners could keep their slaves and their hold on power.
All over the South debates are underway about what to do with statues of Robert E. Lee and the other leaders of the Confederacy. Debate all you want, but the fact is that Lee swore allegiance to the Constitution and broke that vow to fight for his home state of Virginia.
He knew the war was lost after he botched the attacks at Gettsyburg, but he kept it going another year and a half, resulting in tens of thousands more deaths. Just look at the last month, April 1865, to see the depth of the daily slaughter when Lee knew the war was lost.
At Washington and Lee University in Virginia — where Lee was president after the war until his death in 1870 – tour guides have reportedly stopped showing off the marble statue of Lee in his Confederate battle gear, which gives the impression he was some sort of southern Moses who tried valiantly to lead his people to freedom. After entering Pennsylvania in July 1863, his troops could kidnap free blacks and sell them into slavery back home.
If someone wants to wave the Confederate flag on eastern Long Island, well, that person is free to do so. But in post-Charlottesville America, what is the message?
Our history is in turmoil. We seem divided into factions, with each side believing its own narrative. No, George Washington and Robert E. Lee were not the same and should not be treated as if they were fellow Virginians who believed in the same things.
Washington fought to form a country; he was a Federalist. Yes, he was a slave owner, which should inspire us to study our past. For his part, Lee waged the bloodiest war in American history to keep men from being free.
Churchill might have been addressing the flag-wavers in Charlottesville when he said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Photo credit: flickr.com / Roger Sayles)