I woke up this morning to an NPR interview with an Italian-American. The fellow being interviewed was a bit anguished. He understood, he said, the problem Native Americans have with statues honoring Christopher Columbus, the man who paved the way for what many have characterized as the genocide of Native Americans. But, he said, it was important for NPR’s listeners to realize that, when many Italian immigrants were coming to the United States at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, they were themselves often the victims of vicious discrimination, and were deeply grateful for the way in which, in some sense, Columbus validated their legitimacy on these shores. He seemed to be pleading for understanding, not racial or ethnic supremacy.
A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times Book Review published a brilliant essay by Eric Foner on “The Legend of Robert E. Lee.” In that essay, Foner defenestrates the admiring biographies of Lee that reached their apogee with Douglas Southall Freeman’s multi-volume biography written in the 1930s. Foner acknowledges Lee’s courage, military skill, leadership qualities, and statesmanship at the end, when he urged his men to lay down their arms. But, at the same time, he points out that other distinguished Southern graduates of West Point chose to fight for the Union, while Lee not only owned slaves, but characterized African-Americans as innately inferior humans (another way of saying that he was a white supremacist) and blamed the war on the abolitionists. Foner points out that Freeman’s work came out at about the same time that W.E.B. Du Bois came out with his “Black Reconstruction in America“, which painted a very different picture, an interpretation which has subsequently been adopted by most American historians. I finished Foner’s essay with a view of Lee that honored qualities in the man that I admire but believing that Lee was in many ways the incarnation of an image of the Southern cause that enabled the deeply racist basis of slavery to survive and prosper long after the South had been defeated in the Civil War.
One way of looking at the NPR interview and Foner’s retrospective is simply to say, as so many have before, that there is no historical truth; the ‘truth’ changes with the flow of time and the needs and perspectives of the writers and the readers at any given time.
That view, of course, would make it pretty easy for our beleaguered history teachers. They might have to find a hard-to-negotiate thread between various opposing forces in their own community, but they would be under no obligation to teach their students any particular interpretation of history or even any particular approach to coming up with such an interpretation, because all interpretations are equally valid.
I view that approach as cowardly. When there is evidence, we all have an obligation to honor it and to do our best to interpret it with honesty, integrity and the analytical capacities that come with the ability to reason. We should acknowledge the difference between the moral convictions of our own time and those of the time we are studying, but we should not be afraid of conveying our own moral judgments and the reasoning that led us to them.
I think this country now has an opportunity, an opportunity that these two stories exemplify. Maybe, just maybe, with the right kind of leadership, we have a chance to rise above identity politics, an opportunity to create a politics based instead on our need for one another, our ability to reach across all of our divisions to create something that only this incredible mixing of ideas, backgrounds, cultures, races and religious beliefs could create.