Archive | June, 2015

Gone With the Wind

26 Jun

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley ordered the Confederate flag removed from the Confederate Monument on the grounds of the state capitol in Montgomery earlier this week in the wake of the tragedy in South Carolina, no doubt initiating the final of the many waves in the rather prolonged last stand of the most embattled emblem in American history. Any remaining Confederate symbols across the South that have somehow remained on public view over the last few decades are inevitably going the way of the dinosaur and soon. Once part and parcel of life in the South, the flags of the Confederacy have been undergoing a gradual vanishing act as state leaders across the region have tried to distance themselves from the negative symbolism with which they are associated.

flag removal

As this longstanding debate has played out, we have often heard the Confederate flag compared with Nazi symbolism by those who oppose its presence in public, and we have often heard that it represents “heritage not hate” from those who advocate for its display. Both must be taken with a grain of salt, as both make exaggerated claims that conveniently overlook documented history and attempt to link the banner with the ideals they associate with it while disregarding the opinions of others. To link the Confederate flag with genocide is an outrageous and poorly informed comparison of historical events, but to advance it as purely a symbol of military honor for the deceased is just as disingenuous. The truth is the flag has represented a lot of things to people in the South over the last 150 years, some of them not controversial but most of them pretty negative by any definition of the word.





There is a rather muted protest about its impending removal by a small percentage of the population, some of them who no doubt would rather it stay up for reasons other than pure historical commemoration, but a larger percentage that are upset genuinely view it solely as a part of their heritage. If those who want the flag to remain on display want a target at which to vent their anger, it should not be modern political leaders who really can’t justify its continued presence in today’s society. They should be frustrated at their own ancestors who either allowed the flag to be coopted as a symbol of oppression, racism, segregation, and general defiance of the federal government or acquiesced in allowing their peers to do so. Had there ever been in the 1900s a concerted, thoughtful approach to display the Confederate flag in the South as nothing more than a recognition of a formative era in its past, I believe it may have flown alongside monuments for years to come. But that never happened until very recently. It became a prominent part of segregationist politics and a symbol of solidarity in efforts to deny a large portion of citizens basic civil rights beginning in the 1950s, and largely made its way into public life in the South during the height of the Civil Rights Movement with the full support, or at least not the opposition of, most of the region’s white population. Consequently, today asserting the flag should be viewed as is purely a historical item devoid of any connections with racism is a bit too little too late. The flag does not inherently mean hate, but its association with that concept is way too far engrained in the public mind for advocates to make any convincing case why it should remain on view.


On Money and Flags

23 Jun

Two recent national events, for very different reasons, have ignited some rather public debates about our nation’s past and the way it is remembered in symbols. I thought it would be a good time to weigh in again on one of the ongoing threads of debate on this blog and discuss again the concept of symbolism versus substance in historical commemoration.

Dixie Dollar

First, there seems to be a groundswell of support for removing one of the historical personages that grace our nation’s currency and replacing their portrait with that of a woman. Exactly which woman seems to be of secondary concern. Second, in the aftermath of the horrible shooting tragedy in South Carolina there appears to be a mounting effort to point to the atrocity as proof that the Confederate flag should be removed from the capitol grounds there. While I’ll acknowledge we probably don’t have enough recognition of the role of women in American history, and the Confederate flag is and will always be a divisive symbol, I’m not convinced such symbolic gestures will accomplish much more than making some portion of the population feel better in the short term. Alexander Hamilton is not responsible for suppressing women in American history and the Confederate battle flag did not carry a gun into a church and kill innocent people.

The real underlying reasons for the angst about such symbols are far more difficult to remedy than the actions proposed. We are a historically ignorant people. We don’t know enough about our own past, and we don’t teach it adequately in schools. I’m glad to hear that people take history seriously enough to be concerned about public memorials of these sorts, because it gives me some hope that history is still relevant to today’s society, but it also makes me wonder why we aren’t up in arms more over the alarming state of historical ignorance of our population than how it is symbolized in currency and flags. Informed supporters of both of these initiatives will say it is a start in the right direction. Perhaps so, but I’m reluctant to believe either will spark serious education about history, and that bothers me. Our past should not be reduced to a series of politically-correct symbols. It contains a lot of difficult lessons, and we’d do well avoid telling only the good stories and attempt to understand how all that came before—good and bad—shaped us as a nation.

I often hear two primary reasons advocated for altering the way the past is commemorated in America in instances such as these, both of which I find unsettling as a historian. One in various forms is the assertion that the less savory aspects of our past somehow aren’t worthy of remembrance because we don’t think like our ancestors did on certain topics. The other, appearing in a number of manifestations, is that because our symbols and monuments do not reflect the makeup of our nation today that they are no longer relevant and need changing on that basis alone. Advocates of both of these threads of thought are no doubt well-meaning, and the fact that they know anything at all about America’s past is reassuring, but I do wish they would consider what they are saying. To suggest the past is not relevant because it is uncomfortable or the major influences in our nation’s development not worth our attention simply because they don’t look like us in the present is about a myopic way to view history as one is likely to find. If you’re searching for people in history that look and think exactly like we do today on every issue, you look in vain. Further, to suggest that we have it all figured out and that we today can choose the best possible way to remember our nation’s history going forward by finding people from the past we think we would like the best today is pretty arrogant. I bet Mr. Hamilton thought he knew a lot about the world, too.



1 Jun

After doing some reading on World War II recently, the subject of Japanese internment camps in the United States has been in my thoughts.  Over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry (many were actual American citizens) were forced into camps during World War II due to fear of them working undercover to aid the Japanese military or government. These fears were heightened greatly after the attack at Pearl Harbor.  Over the past 20 years, the U.S. government has issued apologies and disbursed money for reparations.

Japanese internment

These camps are viewed today as a stain on our nation’s history and another example of racial prejudice. And living today in the year 2015, we have the benefit of looking back in time and understanding that the decision to place these innocent people in those camps was a horrible mistake.  But, this also shows us another example of the difficulties of telling history from our modern-day perspective. I am in no way condoning what was done, but if I place myself back in time in December of 1941 and having seen the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor and knowing how the Japanese empire had steamrolled areas of Asia and the Pacific, committing horrendous atrocities along the way, then I can understand the concern and fears of citizens as they went about their business while seeing people of Japanese origin.  I think I can understand their fears. I think anyone would! The world was in chaos as nation after nation was being conquered by the Axis powers. I think it is probably normal human nature to let prejudices take over during this climate of upheaval. Again, not condoning it, but I think I understand. My point is historians have the luxury of describing past events of this nature in the present and can cast all types of blame, ridicule, and aspersion on these matters without really taking the time to think about what they might feel or do in the same situation.

And in a nod to relativism, I see similarities to our current war on terrorism.  Today, people living in our country with a middle-eastern background or those who practice the Muslim faith are looked at suspiciously. Perhaps with good reason as we all think upon the events of 9-11 and other terrorist attacks. Historians can help deal with these issues by expertly explaining events so we can learn from the past to make better decisions in dealing with current threats to our nation.