How do we Change the Narrative of our History
It is difficult to discuss issues of prejudice and race, particularly in these emotionally charged times. All too quickly we find ourselves jammed into a corner somehow defending a more extreme position than you espouse. If you are outraged by a specific abuse of power and are sympathetic to the frustration of racial injustice, you must therefore condone violent protests and lawlessness. If you are supportive of our police or wonder why we are also not discussing the tragic issue of black on black murder within the broader “Black Lives Matter” movement, you are a racist.
Unfortunately, this leaves us with little room for rational discourse, which is what this country needs most today. Rather, we have provocateurs on both sides that are willing to inflame extremism in the name of political expediency. Our only two choices seem to be anarchy or fascism. I support neither and refuse to give up hope. I still believe in an America where “everyone” is treated with respect and has an opportunity to participate in the American Dream (however they define it).
So, how do we start? And, just as important: Where does it end?
It begins with a reasonable consensus about what we stand for as a country. What we support and who we honor must be consistent with our values. However, by definition, a country that is a “melting pot” will have a shifting set of norms and may ultimately never have a single self-image. Perhaps the real problem today is that the prevailing national mythology based on the European conquest of the “New World” and expanding to a superpower is now being challenged.
To some degree this is appropriate. There is not “one” story that fits all. Our Manifest Destiny was scarred with massacre, subjugation, and abuse. However, it is also a tale of innovation, perseverance, and hope. At various times, different portions of our population have experienced these conditions. The real issue is not how we obliterate the current record, it is how we incorporate all of the stories into our cultural understanding.
I fear that we are in a “shoot first, aim later” mentality (sometimes literally) in our approach. We attack symptoms rather than causes. We turn correlation into causality and often imply intent to actions for which there is little support. We are prone to knee jerk reactions.
This is nowhere more evident than in the tidal wave of tear-down and renaming that is gaining momentum across the country. Flags, statues, and military bases are all under assault (again literally). If there is a perceived slight, down it must come. This is not to say that change shouldn’t occur; however, it should not be in a radical spasmodic fashion.
Some of what we find unrepresentative of our ideals, like the naming of our institutions or erection of statues, represent a different period and consequent prevailing attitudes, While there are multiple explanations, we should recognize that much of this was an “in your face” reminder to blacks in the South that the people who enacted Jim Crow laws were in charge, as it was memorializing war heroes.
These should be reevaluated, and a coherent policy created. I know numerous Army officers who have questioned why many of our bases were named after relatively obscure military figures (including Confederate generals) while great names have gone ignored. The Navy was much more rational in creating a naming convention for their ships.
However, the broader rewriting of history is a dangerous undertaking. We have witnessed its devastating effects in totalitarian regimes like Stalin’s purges in the Soviet Union and Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Are we to be controlled by such orthodoxy?
Will our search for truth be circumscribed by “political correctness” and partisan politics? What is “truth” when perception is reality and we all have different perceptions? Will every historical leader be scrubbed by the moral standards of a different epoch? If so, nothing will remain but the pablum of mediocrity. Only those who did nothing will prevail.
Moreover, will we apply the same standards of evaluation to everyone? Will those who have been previously overlooked be given a pass on the flawed side of their persona in order to create new (perhaps equally flawed) icons. We want heroes that fit our world view and seem willing to cast aside their wicked parts while we vilify our opponents for those very characteristics. Simply changing the cast of the play does not alter the narrative.
Martin Luther King once spoke of a world in which people were measured by “by the content of their character,” rather than external characteristics like the color of one’s skin. But how do we measure that content? Is it the sum of a person’s worldly actions? Do the goods, no matter how great, ever outweigh the bad, regardless of the magnitude? Above all else, this requires an intellectual honesty to which few are willing to adhere.
We are long past due for change. Yet, we seem started down a slippery slope towards extremism. Will we rename everything with a negative connotation? What about the original colonies, like Virginia and Maryland? They were named after British nobility, against whose oppression we fought. Where does it logically end?
There is a prescient quote from George Orwell’s dystopian book, “1984” that sounds a cautionary warning, “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
Sometimes in life it is best to pause for a moment to collect yourself and understand exactly what the plan is before you start on a voyage. While time is of the essence, it is best to know your destination before you start the journey.