Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Remembering Versus Memorializing

History is important to me. My parents made a point of teaching history to me from the time I was a little boy. From them, I learned the meaning and the privilege of being an American.

At Ohio State, I graduated with a degree in Social Studies, which was composed mostly of the study of history. I’ve always felt that anyone who votes needs to study history in order to exercise the privilege responsibly. And I love visiting historical sites.

All of this means that I am following the current debate over whether confederate monuments and symbols should come down with deep interest.

Here’s the deal.

There’s a difference between remembering history and memorializing it. 

To remember is to be equipped for good citizenship. 

To memorialize is to honor people and movements from the past.

There are people and movements it’s important to remember. But you would never take up public space to honor their memory.

Two years ago, my wife and I were in Germany. In Berlin, across the street from the US Embassy, close to the Brandenburg Gate, is a deeply moving Holocaust Memorial. It honors those victimized by Hitler’s Nazi movement. Germany also has Holocaust museums, as we do in America, and young people there are taught about the horrors of Germany’s fascist past. All of this is wise because, as President Kennedy said, “A knowledge of the past prepares us for the crisis of the present and the challenge of the future.” 

The Germans believe that by remembering the worst of their nation’s past, they can work to avoid a repetition of its horrors.

But I’ve noticed something. In Germany, there is no Fort Adolf Hitler. There’s no Goebbels Air Base, no Himmlerstrasse, no memorials to Joseph Mengele or Albert Speer. And, with the exception of marginal kook groups in that country, the Nazi flag is only seen in museums.

Why? The Germans remember their past. But they do not honor the people who made hatred and murder into public policies. They don’t memorialize those who by their warped philosophy, brought death and suffering to millions, along with destruction and shame to their land. They don’t have monuments to those who denied that Jews, descendants of Abraham and Sarah, were made in the image of God.

There’s a lesson in this for we Americans. 

The confederacy was the most grievous and consequential act of treason in American history. A group of US States initiated a war to break up the union and destroy constitutional government in defense of their desire to extend the evil of slavery into new American territory. 

The confederacy was predicated on the belief that Blacks were inferior beings not made in the image of God.

In all of this, the confederacy denied the Christian faith it professed as well as the principles of America’s founding.

Even many in America’s founding generation, which had wrestled to form a union despite differences on slavery, recognized that slavery’s days were and ought to be numbered. (Thomas Jefferson was a notable exception.)

Franklin advocated for abolition. 

Washington recognized the unsustainability of slavery and its inconsistency with our founding principles. His will provided for the emancipation of his slaves on his wife’s death.

But the confederacy insisted that slavery, their “peculiar institution” with its plantations, more aptly described by someone as “slave labor camps,” needed to be extended into more of the United States. 

That’s why the embryonic confederacy attacked United States soldiers at Fort Sumter, then unleashed the horrors of the Civil War on the country.

We need to remember the demented ideology of the confederacy in the same way that Germany remembers the demented ideology of Hitler and Nazism. 

Remembering the confederacy should call us to a deeper patriotism, a deeper commitment to the twin principles of our founding: (a) liberty (b) guaranteed by our mutual commitment and accountability. It should call us to affirm our belief in the sanctity and value of every human life and the equality of all people.

We should remember Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the other confederate traitors the way Germans remember Hitler, his sick ideology, and the horrors he unleashed on the world. But the confederacy and its battle flag deserve no honor. Traitors and haters don’t deserve to be memorialized.

[New Orleans removed a large stature of Robert E. Lee from Lee Circle back in 2017. The photo, taken by the AP, is from NPR's story on the event.]

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