Whitewashing history only makes the old wounds sting
By PAUL GREENBERG
WELCOME TO Potemkin Village, U.S.A., formerly known as Little Rock, Ark.
It seems that a month before the Clinton Presidential library and shrine was formally opened here, Little Rock’s mayor — Jim Dailey — asked the state highway department to change some signs on the highway leading from the airport to downtown. He wanted, and got, Confederate Boulevard changed to Springer Boulevard.
That way, our more politically correct guests won’t be embarrassed by the reference to what the genteel in these latitudes refer to as the late unpleasantness. With luck, the geographically challenged among them might even assume Arkansas was somewhere in the Midwest.
Little Rock’s mayor doesn’t deny that the signs were changed for politically correct reasons. "We did have an incredibly significant event that was occurring here," says the mayor, "and that (the signage for Confederate Boulevard) was bothersome. We have a city that is in every way trying to dispel those things that divide us."
The mayor couldn’t have been more up front about hiding the past: "We’re all trying to be sensitive to the image this city has. This city has come a long way in addressing issues related to racism. This (the Confederate Boulevard signs) was overlooked, and it needed to be right." And by right, it’s clear, he meant gone. Erased. Down the memory hole.
When the mayor equates the old Confederacy with racism, he opens a whole can of wiggling historical questions. Yes, there are those of us who recognize slavery as the underlying cause of the war, and thank Providence the Union was preserved and men made free.
But in fairness we have to note that whole generations of historians have debated why the war came, or even if it had to.
To quote a saddened Danny Honnell of the Arkansas Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, "My ancestors were honorable people who were defending their homes because they were being attacked." Certainly that’s the way they saw the conflict — as The War of Northern Aggression.
To some, the late unpleasantness was but a disagreement over constitutional law: Was this an indissoluble union of indissoluble states, or a contract any state could terminate when it wished?
But perhaps the most impressive thing about the war, and its great difference from the ideological crusades that have bloodied old Europe since the French Revolution and its terror, is that, once it was over, Americans have had the sense to let it be over.
The leader of the victorious Union spoke of charity for all, malice toward none. The greatest commander of the Confederate forces, rather than re-fight the war, applied for a pardon and settled down to teach school, showing the same greatness in peace as he had in war. Veterans of the blue and gray joined their reunions.
And so, out of the crucible of civil war, the United States emerged as one nation indivisible. Not by erasing its history but by honoring it. What is history but the way the present comes to terms with the past? Just wiping out any mention of it, the way you’d erase Confederate Boulevard from a highway sign, is not to come to terms with the past but to forget it.
The genius of American politics has been our ability to achieve a consensus of our differing ideals and memories . . . till each symbol and hero belongs to all.
But Little Rock’s mayor has adopted the European style in these matters. Which is to blot out the names of the losers a la russe. To the victors belongs the past.
In these latitudes, memory endures, and grows even stronger when attempts are made to erase it. Sure enough, nothing has so powerfully brought Confederate Boulevard back into the local news and the public consciousness than the mayor’s attempt to wipe out this mention of it.
Suddenly it’s not just the name of another thoroughfare but a cause. As it says on those license plates you see on the occasional pickup in these parts: Forget, Hell! Trying to hide old wounds, our mayor has succeeded only in opening them.