Sunday, April 11, 2010 continue

An addendum to yesterday's post--and I haven't planned this, just winging it. So the new Republican governor of Virginia has declared April Confederate History month, and of course, a whole host of people have their panties in a wad. Many are upset at the idea of "commemorating" a regime that supported one of the greatest crimes in human history. (The governor made no mention of Slavery). And another lot are pissed because the first lot are pissed. Why can't they let us remember our heroes in peace?

I suppose that's what the Turks are asking as well.

Again, I find the Americans and the Turks very similar. (In a Civil War documentary I watched, Southerners were described by a prominent writer as, I quote, "Proud, warm, brave, loyal, too swift to act at times. They value honor, but are incapable of analysis, have a tendency to act on feelings rather than thought, and are prone to suspicion. They have a violent nature." All these are stereotypes I see tossed around about the Turks, too. Particularly the warm emotional bit and how they act on feelings rather than thought.)

Well, why can't we remember our heroes in peace?

Because us celebrating an event that happened one hundred and fifty years ago says something about who we are today. Why did this Virginia governor decide to commemorate the Confederacy, now? In 2010? Why not ever before? Is it Obama's presence in the White House? Is it just another sign of the divisive extremes American politics have gone to? Why NOT mention slavery. The governor said he wanted to focus on significant issues facing the state of Virginia today, by way of explanation. Does that mean he thinks there is some relevance to the Old South's position that the Federal government was imposing policies that conflicted with their way of life? Opposition to Obama's presidency is problematic. There is on the one hand, a simple opposition to his policies, which is normal. But there is a racial element to it as well, and something I think a little bigger, a resurfacing of fundamental differences in attitude that date back to the Civil War. (I am thinking of the South's essential conservatism, the idea that reform and change are dangerous to society--that a government pushing social justice is a dictatorship dangerously imposing its reckless ideas on an essentially just and peaceful society in tune with God and Nature's law.)

There is of course a continuity here--the Civil War, to Jim Crow, to the Civil Rights Movement, to the rise of the conservative movement, to Obama and the opposition to Obama and maybe where you stand on the Confederate commemoration is a symbol of where you stand on these other issues.

Similarly, why are the Turks in such a tizzy about the Armenians? There is a continuity there, too--from the genocide, to the nationalism of War of Independence, to the ethnic cleansing in Dersim, to the Greek purges when all the Rum were driven out of Istanbul in the 50s-Fascist style, to the massacres of Alevis in the 70s, to the current heavy-handed handling of the Kurdish situation. (Using their language has only recent become legal and yet people are still being arrested and jailed for speaking it. Mehdi Tanrıkulu was imprisoned for insisting on making his courtroom defence in Kurdish.) Policies toward non-Turks then and the attitudes and paranoia that informed them have not changed all that much today. In part, these things are taught in how history is taught. And one way history is taught is through commemoration.

I saw in the newspaper the other day what I thought was a rather dated statement, "The only friend of a Turk is another Turk." In other words, don't trust outsiders. If you're taught from the beginning that your people were heroes, that the minorities were splittists trying to destroy the Fatherland, then, well, it explains why the murder of Hrant Dink was necessary, why the Kurds must not be negotiated with, ever, why you must constantly be on the lookout for Anti Turkish thought. Why anyone who disagrees with this is an enemy, as all non-Turks inevitably must be.

I don't know how, maybe it was a natural result of my personality, maybe I was taught in school, but I came out of Civil War studies feeling very ugly. The issue of race was everywhere. As a kid, I used to argue with my Dad, who called the Civil War "The War Between the States". He insisted it had not been about slavery, when to me, that was the central horror that simply could not be ignored. He said it was about economics (an economics based on slavery). It was about state's rights. (The right to keep slavery). It was about the Federal government imposing laws that had no relation to a people's way of life. (The keeping of slaves). It was about a fundamental difference of values between a greedy, industrialized North, and a genteel, agrarian South. (A hierarchal social system created, in part, to justify slavery).

But I was taught that slavery and the government that created it were shameful parts of our history, and I think that helped set me up for my future attitudes about Civil Rights, race, and equality. Who can see the pictures of the back torn apart by whippings, the stories of children taken away from their parents, the maimings of runaways, etc. etc. without feeling a deep revulsion to the whole business? And taught about these things, it was easy to see that the attitudes that made slavery were not dead. When my uncle talked of "hating the niggers" or my grandmother expressed shock that those "Cosby niggers" were on TV, I could see that this evil still lingered. And the revulsion I felt about the past could apply to today as well, and help me decide what stand to take when family members start talking about "keeping the uppity niggers where they belong."

On the one hand, getting all up in arms about this silly announcement by the Virginia governor seems like nitpicking. Who but a few nutballs and reenactors are going to celebrate anyway? But Slavery is one of the top ten crimes against humanity in world history. You can't waffle on it, anymore than you can "look into the justification" of the Holocaust (or, yes, the Armenian Genocide) without seeming a demonic.

One of Virginia's black politicians, Douglas Wilder, received a call of apology from the Governor. Wilder said, "Okay, cool." But he also reminded the governor that "Your actions project an image." An image that teaches how to feel about the past and how to form ideas today. Wilder has also been Virginia's governor. He commemorated the War, too. "But I made central the issue of slavery, describing exactly what the war was about, and did not celebrate the beginning of hostilities. And that what we should do is talk about the ending of the war, that we have moved on."

The history is there. Don't ignore it, but don't get selective either. Don't sweep one of the ugliest stains on our conscience under the rug. In commemoration, you teach people how to think about the past, and about how to think about the lingering effects of that past on the issues of today. You also teach your society what values it should hold dear. So yeah, have your Confederate History month--talk about Robert E. Lee and Jeff Davis and the weeping widows and fallen ancestors, but be honest. Also talk about the central issue that drove the Confederacy--the torture, enslavement, and centuries long humiliation of millions of people that still haunt the US today. And yes, commemorate your WW 1 Turkish heroes, but be honest about what else they did.

I want to end with a quote by a black writer from NPR. He helps explain why I feel so conflicted about this issue as well--on the one hand, who cares? Get your PC asses out of here and do something useful. On the other hand, why in the hell is he bringing up this Old South attitude in 2010. Shut up. I think it also parallels what many Turks feel when Americans and Europeans start talking about the Genocide.

"But, strangely enough, I think I understand part of the spirit behind what these Confederate heritage people are saying. They haven't been allowed to be proud of their history. White southerners are frequently mocked and looked down upon as intellectual inferiors by cultural and political standard keepers. They're widely maligned as racists by people in the North -- some of whom don't really do all that well with race themselves. Their acceptance within many circles of power is often conditioned on them rejecting their heritage. Frankly, that's not all that different from what black people go through."

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