Politics and Resentment

Robert E. Lee 30¢ Stamp Issue of 1957

My posting the day before yesterday entitled “Bulldozing the Past” ran into some opposition from two old friends of mine. I have a slightly different point of view toward figures of the past such as Robert E. Lee and Christopher Columbus. Both have become, as it were, figures of myth. I have two questions to ask:

  1. How dangerous are these myths today? —and—
  2. How dangerous is it to attempt to bury these myths as if they never existed?

Now I could see wanting to eradicate even the memory of Nazism, the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot, the massacres between to Hutus and Tutsi, the racism of Slobodan Milosevich and Ratko Mladic, and any number of other episodes in the last several hundred years. One does not want to be associated with mass murderers.

Both Columbus and the generals of the Confederacy were associated with death on a large scale. Probably the quote that Lee is most famous for is the following: “It is well that war is so terrible. Otherwise, we would grow too fond of it.” As for Columbus, most of the death that came in his train was from diseases lurking in the Spanish caravels that laid low the native population of the New World by the millions.

The Italians of America, however, revere the memory of Columbus: The Genoan Admiral of the Ocean Sea was one of them. As for the Confederacy, the myths relating to the War Between the States relate to the Lost Cause beliefs that the South was right to secede from the Union. There were decades of resentment prior to the Rebellion as the South tried vainly to balance their slavery-based agrarian culture against the more industrial North. These resentments still abound today, so it is tempting to want to wipe the slate of history clean at several key points.

But didn’t Trump get elected because a number of flyover states felt resentment at being slighted by the Democrats, by the bi-coastal mafia, even by Hillary Clinton, who assumed she didn’t need their votes to win the presidency?

Erasing still active myths is a dangerous business.

 

Bulldozing the Past

Statue of Robert E. Lee on His Horse Traveller in Richmond

Liberals sometimes exhibit some nasty, ultimately destructive traits. I am dismayed by the current trend of paving over any tribute to Confederate heroes. Many of these Confederate heroes, I believe, deserve to be commemorated. The Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee, was by his lights a good man. So what if he owned slaves? He was a great military leader. Given what he had to work with, he was better than any general on the winning side.

General Braxton Bragg, after whom Fort Bragg is named, was nowhere near as deserving as Lee, but he was no ogre deserving only of ignominy. Even the memory of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the greatest cavalry general of the Civil War and the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, deserves to be honored—for some things.

There are no statues honoring Henry Wirz, the Swiss-born commandant of Andersonville Prison, who was the only Confederate officer hanged for murder after the war—and deservedly so.

I love reading about the War Between the States, and I honor the memory of the South’s greatest generals. Why mess with statues honoring them? Why change the name of Fort Bragg? Why ban the Confederate battle flag on NASCAR vehicles and displays? I am perfectly willing to coexist with history, even if some of my political allies are not.

Christopher Columbus Is Also in Danger of Having His Reputation Erased

Christopher Columbus is being eclipsed for the same reason. Again, by his lights, Columbus behaved like most Europeans loose in the New World. He was not an extraordinarily bad man like Pedro de Alvarado or Nuño Beltran de Guzmán, whose bloody careers led to the death of thousands of Mexican and Central American natives. I might not recognize Columbus Day as a major holiday, but few people do. But any attempt to blot out the history of his times only does all of us a disservice.

Who’s next to go? Thomas Jefferson? Abraham Lincoln? Where does it all stop?

 

The Old World and the New

Columbus’s Landing on San Salvador in 1492

Because of my extensive travels in Latin America, I have become interested in the subject of how the discovery of the New World impacted on Europe. Due to the circumstances of my Coronavirus related social distancing, I have been reading up a storm. One thin book I noticed in my history collection was J. H. Elliott’s The Old World and the New 1492-1650 (Cambridge University Press, 1970).

The discovery of America was such a big event with so many aspects to it that Europeans had a difficult time wrapping their heads around it. Even though so much of the economy of Spain and the rest of Europe was affected by the flood of gold and silver brought to Seville by the treasure fleets, and even though so many new foods and social habits (smoking) spread across the continent, Europeans were somewhat nonplussed for the first couple of centuries after the conquest.

Elliott quotes 1 Corinthians 14:10-11 to summarize the effect:

There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.  Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.

In his essay “On Cannibals,” Montaigne speculated on the Brazilian natives through the eyes of the Greek philosophers:

These nations then seem to me to be so far barbarous, as having received but very little form and fashion from art and human invention, and consequently to be not much remote from their original simplicity. The laws of nature, however, govern them still, not as yet much vitiated with any mixture of ours: but ‘tis in such purity, that I am sometimes troubled we were not sooner acquainted with these people, and that they were not discovered in those better times, when there were men much more able to judge of them than we are. I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato had no knowledge of them; for to my apprehension, what we now see in those nations, does not only surpass all the pictures with which the poets have adorned the golden age, and all their inventions in feigning a happy state of man, but, moreover, the fancy and even the wish and desire of philosophy itself; so native and so pure a simplicity, as we by experience see to be in them, could never enter into their imagination, nor could they ever believe that human society could have been maintained with so little artifice and human patchwork. I should tell Plato that it is a nation wherein there is no manner of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name of magistrate or political superiority; no use of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividends, no properties, no employments, but those of leisure, no respect of kindred, but common, no clothing, no agriculture, no metal, no use of corn or wine; the very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, detraction, pardon, never heard of.

Sometimes, I still think that Europeans still are trying to wrap their heads around the New World.

 

An Unnecessary Holiday

It Was Leif Eriksson Who Discovered America

It Was Leif Eriksson Who Discovered America

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue …

Okay, I’m willing to grant him that. He didn’t “discover” America, though. The original discoverers walked across what is now the Bering Strait (or sailed in from various Pacific islands) and scattered through North and South America thousands of years ago. If you’re looking for a European discoverer, your man is the Icelander Leif Eriksson, aided and abetted by information from one Bjarni Herjulfsson. He started a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland.

The Viking settlers did not stick around. They faced constant warfare with the Skraelings (i.e. aborigines) and gave it up as a lost cause. But they left behind an archeological record and wrote the experience up in the Vinland Saga, which you can read for yourself. Penguin Books has a good edition, which includes several related sagas bound in the same volume.

In the meantime, we are stuck with this holiday in October commemorating an Italian explorer who is reviled by generations of the people he called Indians. If you want to see what they really thought, read Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire. The Spanish and Portuguese colonial experiences left behind some very pretty churches and millions of tormented Indian slaves, if they were so unlucky as to survive.

Columbus himself was not himself an arrant villain, but he made it possible for real arrant villains like Pedro de Alvarado and Nuño de Guzman to control the lives of thousands of innocents. Okay, so maybe they had human sacrifice—but nowhere on the scale of death practiced by the Iberian newcomers.