My Turn, David Hagy: Can we see, understand decisions now?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 16, 2020

By David Hagy

What is the underlying purpose of statues of war leaders or anonymous soldiers? They give people from a country formerly at war a sense of pride in their country, culture and traditions and help those people memorialize their war dead.  

But what happens when the country loses? Those vanquished by Rome were marched to Rome as slaves. Losers during the Middle Ages were often killed. The answer to this question is even more difficult when the two sides are from one country. The answer often depends on whether the established government or the rebelling forces win.  

The United States of America honors its initial leaders: George Washington, Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and many more.  They were the leaders of the rebels. Had England won, some would have been executed and gone down in history as traitors.

Were these good or bad people? Each of them were like each of us with strengths and faults, but we honor them for their choices and their commitment to those choices that led to the formation of our country. 

And what of their choices; were they good or bad? One of their choices was to not abolish slavery as Jefferson initially tried to do in the Declaration of Independence, a decision which in many ways led to our country’s current racial inequality. Is it appropriate to honor these leaders who made this mistake? This is up to each successive generation to decide.  So far we (at least white Americans) continue to honor them. We do at least have our country with the rights these honored forefathers developed, and now these rights are, at least in words, available to all! (But what of the generations of Black Americans lost?)

The Confederate States of America, even though they lost, have for a century and a half, honored their leaders and their war-dead for their commitment to their ideals. For some — only some — these ideals included slavery. The main issue of the war was whether the federal government or each state government had more control over the people.  However, the emotionally driving issue of the war was the inhumane institution of Black slavery.

Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson, a southerner, felt that the country could heal better after the war if both sides were allowed their pride. The Confederate president and its officers and military were allowed to continue their lives in relative security. This was a decision of northern leaders. Was it right or wrong? It was a humane approach to the vanquished.

Compare this to the end of World War II. The vanquished leaders who were still living and who had been responsible for the attempted destruction of a race of people were brought before the Nuremburg tribunal and faced death or prison. Was this right or wrong? The Nazi leaders had gone one step further than the Confederate leaders in that they had not only made a race subhuman property but systematically tried to exterminate them. The allied leaders’ approach at the time was done as humanely as those leaders, who had lived through the loss of lives and seen the atrocities at the hands of German leaders, could come up with.

Can we (white Americans) see how members of the race who were enslaved would want monuments removed honoring those who participated with the government that called their race subhuman property? Can we (Black Americans) see how some of the heirs of those who fought for the Confederacy and lost need those monuments to maintain a sense of pride in their heritage?

In general, history is taught through the eyes of the winners. The rebels of 1776 are extolled; the rebels of 1860 are not. All of these rebels are our American forefathers; whether we extol them depends on our individual and accumulated view of what they did. Our statues acknowledge that some people carried out their beliefs in honor the best they could. We should not sit in judgment of them, sure of their being right or wrong, but understand and study their decisions to help us with ours.

What matters most to our country today is each citizen’s sense of values. All law-abiding citizens need to respect each other equally, knowing that our country is a melting pot of races, cultures, religions, orientations and creeds. This is a tall order for each of us, particularly with all the history we as children are taught by our parents and teachers establishing people of a different race, culture, religion, orientation or creed as not good — or worse even, evil!

Racism is taught, perhaps not purposely, but we are not born with it. Rodgers and Hammerstein said in “South Pacific,” “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a different shade. You’ve got to be carefully taught!” 

Each law-abiding American owes it to every other one to fight the racism they have been taught by simply not accepting it. As the writers of Avenue Q acknowledge, “Everyone’s a little bit racist.” What matters is how much we accept it in ourselves. I pledge to fight the racism I have and furthermore the racism I see. Will you?

David Hagy is music director of the Salisbury Symphony.