Do We Dare Forget?

Hunley v Housatonic

This isn’t science fiction art! Rather it’s an artist’s rendition of the first successful submarine attack, which happened in February 1864 during the U.S. Civil War.

I can’t think of a single cultural group whose practices and beliefs are all good or all bad. This doesn’t surprise me, as I also can’t think of any human beings that are all good or all bad. Even the worst of the worst often have some small redeeming quality.

But more and more, I wonder if I’m the only one who holds these kinds of opinions.

I’ve hesitated to speak of my dismay about the Confederate statues coming down in New Orleans, because the fact that my skin is white means that most who would hear the opinion would dismiss it as a racist or privileged attitude. That’s unfortunate, because the reason for my dismay is anything but. It’s rooted in the fact that black-and-white thinking and closing our eyes to the past are both practices that risk a disaster for the future.

If the Confederate statues come down, there won’t be any more discussion or questions about them. But that also means there won’t be any more chance to discuss the circumstances that caused them to go up in the first place. Why did entire groups of people find slavery worth fighting for? Were they all bad, or did they have nuanced arguments? Were any of those arguments valid, even just a little bit? If so, what can we do to address them without having to return to the evils of slavery?

After all, it’s not as if nothing good came of the Civil War.

There were significant advances in science, technology and military tactics that can be dated back to Civil War activity. Our Memorial Day holiday has its roots in observances that sprang up after the Civil War. It’s even arguable that the United States would not have successfully transitioned to an industrial society the destruction of agribusiness that came from fighting the war not made it a necessity instead of a luxury. All of this came in addition to the primary goals of ending legal slavery in this country, and paving the way for a more inclusive definition of citizenship.

Do we really want to risk having children grow up believing that these political and social improvements happened in a vacuum? Or, worse, that the United States was effectively established by a group of criminal overlords (the majority of the Founding Fathers were slave owners) who had to be overthrown later? How difficult is it to get from those attitudes to an attitude that the definition of citizenship becomes obsolete, or that the United States isn’t worth preserving?

Do we want people to forget the ways in which the Civil War led directly to other conflicts, up to and including World Wars I and II and the atrocities that we as a world have vowed to “never forget”?

This is why I don’t agree with taking the statues down. It might not be a pleasant conversation, but we as a society need to remember the Confederacy and the issues it raised, as well as the causes and effects of the Civil War. If we don’t, the issues themselves will re-occur we’ll end up with history repeating itself.

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