Remembering the Past
I grew up in a very old country. By this I don’t mean only Portugal, the political entity which dates back to the 11th century, but the land itself, the physical anchor of that political entity.
It seems like there were statues around every corner. Some statues were so old that nothing was left of them but a vague shape of a human in weather-beaten granite. Sometimes even the words on the pedestal were illegible. Sometimes you could read them.
When I was very little, I learned about the past of the region by going for walks in the woods with my dad. We tripped on abandoned medieval farmsteads and Roman boundary markers. Dad read I don’t know how many markers in Latin saying that such and such piece of land had been given to this and that legionnaire by such and such an emperor. Amazingly, some of them were old forms of local names.
When I went to school I learned about older battles and heroes. One of the heroes I was taught to revere was Viriathus, the leader of the resistance against the Romans. After that I was taught to revere Sertorius, a Roman who had helped the Celts resist the Romans. Viriathus was in fact what we learned he was, as far as sketchy life details go.
Sertorius… Well, this Wikipedia entry seems rather elegiac, but I’ve read things about him, elsewhere. He’s crossed the path of various other people whose biographies I read as a great debtor, and in the end a traitor to Rome, taking the part of rebels against his own people. There are statues to him in Portugal, by the way.
After that, well…. After Portugal was Roman we studied the Romans. And we studied them as “our people.”
I can’t say we ever studied the Moorish invaders as our people. Mostly the Moors got accorded the respect of the THINGS they introduced to the peninsula. Almonds, pillows (almofadas), and other things starting with al.
We did study the crusaders who freed the peninsula as our people, among them the Earl Afonso who claimed the territory, and whose son became the first Portuguese king.
Reading about these people, usually in the biographies of more important people from other countries, is eye opening. They too weren’t exactly as portrayed to us.
Weirdly, the Spanish kings that took over Portugal (legally by inheritance) and ruled it for six years we were taught to revile. I remember sitting in fourth grade while the teacher solemnly instructed us to deface the pictures of the Phillips in our school book.
But other than that, perhaps because we were taught so many successive waves who then became “our people,” we were taught to accept history. History is what it is. You can’t change it by shouting it at it. You certainly can’t change it by toppling statues and renaming streets.
Our plazas and streets had names of everyone from Romans to Celtiberians, good kings, bad kings, heroes, saints and invaders, now that they were past all in harmony. Children playing in the streets had the names of Roman emperors and those who’d fought against them. It never seemed to affect their friendships.
It wasn’t until we had socialists in power that old streets started being renamed with the names of “heroes of the revolution” and the old names erased from books and memory. It wasn’t until we had socialists in power that we started hearing the heroes of the past reviled. And most people simply couldn’t understand why they should care that so and so was an adulterer and so and so was a serial debtor. The questions would be “Yes, but was he a good general?” or “Yes, but did he discover new land?”
The remarkable thing about the owners of the new names given to streets is that they’d either done nothing at all except play political games, or they were mass murderers and villains with no other redeeming qualities. (That is, I’m almost absolutely sure that there was a street in the southern parts of Portugal named for Che Guevara.)
Perhaps it is because of this that I recoil at the frenzy of wanting to pull down streets and change names, and erase the past in the name of some flaw of those past heroes.
One can almost understand the fury against the confederacy. The war has been characterized as being for or against slavery, and people who are against slavery can feel the need to erase the memory of those who defended it.
The thing is, none of these monuments to Lee or Stonewall Jackson or any of them are for their defense of slavery. They’re eulogized as local heroes, as people who faced a terrible decision and took a part that was almost certainly doomed, but justifiable, because they were defending their homeland. That is, they’re not remembered for defending slavery, but for defending their region.
Were they defending slavery? Possibly. Even probably. After all they had to rally regional support to their side, and the best way to attract the rich was to claim they were defending their (human) property. Was that terrible and despicable? Sure. But that is not what is celebrated. What is celebrated is their heroism in war, their gallantry in standing for what they had to know was a doomed cause.
Also, one has to ask, after a century and more of the statues being unmolested, why are they now such a horrible offense, and why must they now be eradicated?
And then there is the craziness: people have started calling for destroying the statues of the founders, because many of them were also slave owners; for destroying statues of anyone deemed racist; for renaming parks and institutions and streets.
You can imagine what memories this brings up, and what unease.
Of course, great men of the past had flaws, some of them massive. At one point someone said something about a person having “the virtues of his flaws” and I remember it, because it made sense. Men who are brave and risk-taking in war might very well make speculative investments that fail. It’s the same character trait. It’s all in how you use it. One of the documentaries I saw about the American Revolution kept saying that George Washington was ambitious as though that were a flaw. Of course he was ambitious. A quiet, stay-at-home man with no ambition would never have struggled as hard as he did for our unlikely independence.
And yes, a lot of men in the past were slave owners. A lot of women too. I note that a lot of black Americans seem to love Nefertiti. Don’t they realize she too was a slave owner? Or does it not matter since her slaves might not have been black (even if some, inevitably, were)?
Slavery is an endemic sin of mankind. So is racism. It comes from being built on the frame of a great ape, a creature of the band and tribalism. Are we living in relatively enlightened times, when there are very few slaves (and those mostly in Islamic countries) and where the West has tried to eradicate racism? Sure we are, though leftists are doing what they can to bring back racism and group-judgement.
Shouldn’t we celebrate that we are where we are, and celebrate the great men in the past – including the founding fathers – who got us where we are, while acknowledging they were, as we are, flawed and imperfect humans?
The statues aren’t built because these people owned slaves or were racist. They are built to showcase the things they did that were right. Just like the statue of Sertorius wasn’t erected to him for being an ambitious player in Roman politics and unscrupulous with money, but for giving a defeated people hope of breaking free of the Romans.
Speaking of which, what is next? Are you going to demand every statue of the dead Caesars in Europe be levelled? Every statue of every king who fought against the Moors? Are you going to erase cathedral and palace because they don’t fit your image of the world?
What human feels free to judge the past that way? What human feels that they are so perfect that they can judge and condemn the giants of the past for what they think are flaws?
Don’t they realize their own stands, from the already morally dubious like “abortion at all costs” and “let’s revile white men” to what they believe is sacred like pushing women into the workplace, can and probably will be judged morally wrong and depraved in the very long time that the world will exist after them?
In this the left is strangely like Daesh (bags), two cults who build nothing and create nothing, both trying to erase the past because it gives the lie to their dreams of grandeur. They need to destroy statues and demolish monuments so they can claim – intellectually dwarfish and morally misshapen as they are – that they stand at the very apex of society.
But all they do is reveal their own inferiority and push a confrontation between people who aren’t paying attention.
The Romans and the crusaders, the discoverers and the kings could shrug and allow the statues to stand, so long as their features were obliterated and their names forgotten, with their smooth faces and their blind eyes to the sky, because they’d won.
American places can be named for English kings and queens and lords, the Georgias and the Virginias, the Charlottes and the Raleighs. Sure, the statues of George III were torn down in the heat of the revolution, but the rest was allowed to stand. No one sought to eradicate every vestige of the past.
Victors can allow the past to integrate with the present, to continue seamlessly into the future. Likely, like in the village where I grew up, there were descendants of each wave of defeated, of victors, of invaders and defenders, playing in those plazas, beneath those statues. History reconciles the irreconcilable past, and the children take the best of each side, and carry it to the future.
This is why the statues of Confederate soldiers were erected after the civil war. The North had won and could afford to be magnanimous.
The reason Portuguese children were instructed to deface the pictures of the Spanish kings of Portugal was because Portugal still felt insecure, still afraid the past would return.
This destruction of statues, this future against the past long after everyone accepted it as past, is the fury of scared children, who are afraid their version of history won’t stand and want to erase the heritage of the country that stands against them.
And this is why we mustn’t let them.