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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Don't Know Much About History

Those who value history have taken a beating over the last month. The most recent example was Newt Gingrich standing before a rabid gaggle of conservatives and declaring that Barack Obama was the most radical president in history. I liked David Remnick's reply--"I thought George Washington was the most radical president in history. The only thing radical about Obama is that he is African-American and he's president."

Gingrich writes alternative-history novels, so perhaps he's slipped into one. That's no excuse for the governor of Virginia, who proclaimed April Confederate History Month but left out any mention of slavery. He recanted and made a half-hearted apology, but this once again brings up the bizarre fetishization of the Confederacy by some, and the notion that it was "The War of Northern Aggression." Whenever I visit Gettysburg and wander through the souvenir shops, the t-shirts and bumper stickers are overwhelmingly of southern sentiment, as if the war were still going on and it was a sporting event. Go team!

What Confederate apologists fail to grasp, or are too busy covering up, is that the war was, at its heart, about slavery. Sure, it was also about state's rights, but the right that the states of the South wanted was to have slavery (and have it imported into newly formed states in the west). Almost every issue that caused the war can be boiled down to slavery. Without it, there would have been no war.

Confederate soldiers were brave, in a fashion, but they were not heroes. Most of them were poor, dumb slobs who didn't own slaves and got sold a bill of goods by their leaders. Many of them were fine men, good and true, but they were screwed by history. That doesn't mean they deserve canonization, because, let's face it, they were traitors. Every person who takes arms against the government of the United States is, by definition, a traitor. And these traitors were fighting to uphold the enslavement of a race of people, and the treatment of them as sub-human.

I hate to bring out the Nazi comparison, but its apt. The Germans, to their credit, have done an admirable job in being ashamed of the Nazi period of their history. No doubt many German soldiers during World War II were decent men who didn't care a fig about Jews, but I imagine no one in German government is advocating a Nazi History Month. True, the planned extermination of millions of people is harsher than what the Confederates were up to, but only by degrees.

Here we are 165 years later and there are still people who are, in their minds, fighting this war. What can be the root of this, if it isn't racism?

Perhaps the most significant beating history is taking this spring is the one by the Texas school board. A bunch of yahoos, none of them professional historians, have taken out their anger at liberalism by mandating changes in textbooks. They want more attention paid to Ronald Reagan, less to Franklin Roosevelt. Less about Harriet Tubman, more about Phyllis Schafly. Gone is Thomas Jefferson as an Enlightenment thinker, in is Thomas Aquinas (this is apparently because of Jefferson's insistence on a separation between church and state, and not because he's become something of a Tea Party favorite for his quotes, "A little rebellion every now and then is good" and "The tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots.")

Of course to any sane person this is outrageous. I'm all for Ronald Reagan getting his due, but history class shouldn't be an arena where political squabbles get settled. And of course the school board of Texas, being a former Confederate state, wants the influence of slavery on the war elided, and Jefferson Davis to be taught equally with Abraham Lincoln. Davis, a man who was thisclose to being executed for treason, is now a hero to the clueless white bigots who have gained a chokehold on the school system of Texas. Maybe we should let them secede.

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