The Sins of the Fathers

For writers of historical fiction, our greatest challenge is embracing the mindset of another era and putting past events and behavior in perspective. As the French say, “Autres temps, autres moeurs,” i. e, “Other times, other customs.” It’s never easy, but it will happen if you’re a rational human being. When this isn’t done, as we’re seeing daily on the news, the consequences are civil unrest and misguided citizens destroying what they don’t understand. Confederate monuments aside, the epidemic attacks on statues of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Matthias Baldwin, Ronald Reagan, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, churches, mosques, synagogues and more are no less damnable than Al Qaeda’s destruction in Palmyra and the Taliban blowing up the Buddha of Bamiyan. (Even barbaric Genghis Khan spared the magnificent Buddha!) These rampant, senseless acts prove much of the public is incapable of considering, much less understanding, the thoughts and deeds of our ancestors.

My home airport is Reagan International serving Washington DC. Departing passengers cannot avoid seeing a large statue of Ronald Reagan. Some admire it, but to me it represents inhumanity on an epic scale. Reagan moved into the White House in 1980, the same year a deadly visitor came calling in New York. The latter’s arrival was unnoticed until gay men began mysteriously dying. Despite a skyrocketing death rate, Reagan refused to speak the word “AIDS” for five years! Not until 1987, and then only under pressure, did he appoint a committee to “investigate” the epidemic. By then, 47,000 people were dead. When Reagan left office in 1989, his ignorance and homophobia had contributed to the deaths of 89,343 people. I lived in New York in those dark times and cannot describe the horror, confusion and fear permeating every waking day, or the incalculable loss bequeathed by endless funerals and memorials. That terrible history always rushes back when I see that statue of Reagan, but do I want to deface it or tear it down? Of course not. It’s history, which, as any reasonable person knows, is far from idyllic.

As a resident of New York’s West Village, my neighbor was a statue of General Philip Sheridan in Sheridan Square. He was the much lauded military strategist who once quipped, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” While living in the French Quarter, I daily saw the iconic statue of General Andrew Jackson who, against staggering odds, defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans. As President, he signed the Indian Removal Law uprooting some 45,000 Native Americans from their homeland, but a far lesser known fact is that Jackson adopted a Creek orphan named Lyncoya and educated the boy along with another adopted son. I often attended concerts in Louis Armstrong Park, presided over by an exuberant statue of Satchmo complete with horn. The New Orleans airport is named after Armstrong, despite the fact that he was a self-confessed drug user and wife abuser. When I moved to California and toured the Spanish missions, I found Father Junipero Serra virtually deified with statues all over the state because he brought Christianity to the “heathen” Indians . Despite enslaving his converts, separating families and flogging those Indians who resisted or tried to escape, Serra was recently canonized by the Catholic church.

Clearly, every human being, hero or commoner, is flawed. Or, as Oscar Wilde opined, “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Yes, George Washington owned slaves, but he also led American troops to victory in our war for independence. Thomas Jefferson was another slave-owner, but does that negate the fact that he wrote the Declaration of Independence? General Robert E. Lee who led the Confederate armies was a slave-owner who called slavery a “moral and political evil.” General P. G. T. Beauregard fought heroically for the Confederacy, but later became a civil rights activist whose Louisiana Unification Movement demanded equal rights for blacks. Abraham Lincoln publicly freed the slaves but privately did not believe in racial equality and even espoused a program to deport black people! The truth about Lincoln’s racial views will shock many, but if Americans bothered to look at the facts rather than riot like oblivious rabble, they’d learn that history is riddled with wild contradictions which, with a little common sense, can be understood and, yes, embraced.

Take a moment to imagine yourself in the nineteenth century. How might you react to preachers justifying slavery with sermons about Abraham and Moses owning slaves or to horrifying news of the latest Indian massacre? You might find your nation suffering from political, social and religious divisiveness and fearful of economic disaster, even civil war. This latter scenario could be America in 1820 or 2020, and future generations will judge us as we are not only judging those who came first but erasing their legacies. Indeed, how will future historians gauge a U. S. president who continually lies and revels in corruption, bigotry, misogyny and hypocrisy? What will historians write about those millions who supported this reprehensible regime and/or endangered the lives of fellow citizens by refusing to do something as simple as wearing a mask during a global pandemic? No doubt they’ll ask themselves, just as we ask ourselves about slave-owners and Indian bounty hunters, “What were those people thinking?!”

Pathetic sign of the times, from Kentucky

We need to own our history and stop trying to delete or transmogrify it. If you think it can’t be done, look to Memento Park in Budapest, a repository for statues and plaques from the Soviet regime which oppressed Hungary, 1949-1989. As its architect said, “(The park) is about dictatorship, and because it can be talked about, described and built, it’s also about democracy.”

       Lenin among the ruins of his evil regime

The Hungarians even found a way to retain a twelve-story monument erected in 1947 to commemorate the Soviet liberation of Hungary from Germany. Finding the Soviets as evil as the Nazis, but admiring the beautiful monument, the Hungarians simply rededicated it to Hungarian freedom fighters and renamed it the Liberty Statue. A simple but brilliant idea.

              History Recycled in Hungary

Are we as a people incapable of equally adult behavior? Have we become so stupid that we need a disclaimer to watch Gone with the Wind, and so hypersensitive that we must remove Trader Joe’s whimsical “Trader Jose” labels? I, for one, am fed up with living in a nation smothered by political correctness, most of it absurdly self-serving, and afflicted by what philosopher Allen Bloom, in 1987, termed “the closing of the American mind.” I am equally disgusted by hooligans driven by a disrespect for history and consumed by their own agendas. All new nations pay for the sins of their fathers, and if Americans don’t understand and reconcile what happened in our past, we’ll continue to pay in blood.

           Can America sink any lower?





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