Opinion » Rhetoric & Reason

Inglorious past



I've been wrestling with this for months now, but I just can't seem to decide: Where would be the best place to put up a statue of Benedict Arnold? The nation's capital seems appropriate, but on the other hand so does his home state of Connecticut.

Why are you looking at me like that? I'm just trying to get with the zeitgeist. We have statues commemorating traitors all over the South, and I don't see why we shouldn't expand by including the notorious Revolutionary War turncoat.

I know these folks are under siege, along with so many other people, symbols and events that seek to exemplify the nation's greatness: Columbus, Father Junipero Serra, the Confederate flag.

Patriots from coast to coast, on the white supremacist airwaves and in the White House, have risen to defend them.

It's been a bracing battle; it's hard to not plunge in.

And so I shall, beginning with an admission: I don't really want to erect a statue to Arnold (he already has one commemorating his foot; Google it).

But I do welcome the attacks on Confederate statuary and flags, Serra, and Columbus Day, because they are forcing us to think about who we honor in public monuments, and why.

When we enshrine people publicly we are saying that we value or respect or honor that person and what he or she stands for.

In that context, let's start our evaluations with the easy one: Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and their fellow Johnny Rebs.

These people committed treason against the United States of America. That's not fake news; it's fact.

Treason all by itself seems like it should disqualify you for a public memorial, but there's more.

The Constitution of the Confederate States of America reads, in part, that no law "denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves, shall be passed."

That's in Section 9, but it's far from the only reference in the Confederate Constitution to "negros as property."

So, when you salute the Confederate flag or tip your fiddle-de-dee Scarlett O'Hara parasol to Lee and Davis you are saying that African-American human beings are in fact not human beings; they're property.

Whenever I see one of these ubiquitous South County off-roaders at the Oceano Dunes waving the Confederate flag I want to tell him to explain the flag's significance to his African-American friends. Then I remember that he probably doesn't have any.

Lee and Davis, to repeat myself, committed treason and believed blacks were property, not people. Loyal Americans fought them as enemies of the United States, the way we fought Hitler and Japan.

Do they really warrant public respect?

There's no ambiguity with that one. Norway doesn't honor Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling with statues, nor France the traitorous Vichy Regime. Why should we?

But what about Columbus Day? It's a little more nuanced.

Columbus sailed the ocean blue, facing unknown danger. Eventually, he sighted land in our hemisphere and put ashore, which turned out to be bad news for the people who lived there. The explorer and those who followed ended up committing near genocide.

It's too bad there wasn't a Carib Indian version of Donald Trump. He could have put up a wall to keep Columbus and his posse out and made Europe pay for it.

Still, you can see why Columbus' adventurous spirit would be honored—before we found out what he did to the locals.

That's the thing: New information comes in and it changes how we look at a situation. The same can be said for Father Serra. He "civilized" California's Indians, which has long earned him garlands from those of European extraction. It never occurred to his backers that the Indians may not have wanted to be civilized.

Today we know about the side effects of "civilizing" people involuntarily in this hemisphere, even as we know about the "civilizing" of Africans over the centuries by well-meaning European missionaries there: the dislocation, and suffering, and death, and destruction of cultures.

Honoring people who have done what we now know to be reprehensible things is not telling the truth about who they, or we, are. Shouldn't we be telling the truth?

I know, that's not easy. As Jack Nicholson said in A Few Good Men, "You [Americans] can't handle the truth."

But we should try. In a way, we really have no choice because time will force the deeper truth to come out, whether we like it or not.

Change is inevitable in all things; changing our minds about who we want to honor is not exempt. National holidays and statues are transitory.

Columbus Day, to cite one example, has been around only since 1937. We know more now than we did 80 years ago, and replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day seems reasonable.

While we're at it, maybe we could replace Labor Day with Plutocrats Day, reflecting the truth of today's American workplace and the life of the country's working men and women.

There's nothing to stop us from ditching that which we consider obsolete.

Things change. We change. We don't have to be stuck with glorifying a past that turned out to be inglorious.

Bob Cuddy is an award-winning columnist, now retired and living in Arroyo Grande. New Times is trying to figure out who the new contributor to the progressive side of things will be for Rhetoric & Reason. Send your thoughts to clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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