Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Lost Cause

The tragedy in Charlottesville and ensuing cacophony has inspired me to offer my perspective of the history involved.

The monuments in question, hundreds, even thousands of them, were erected by proponents of The Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War, a series of myths that sought to rationalize Southern suffering. The purpose of the monuments was to say, "We lost the war, but we will win the peace." These edifices and their inscriptions were the work of local groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of the Confederacy in the first decades of the 20th Century, people who did not personally experience the war. The monuments honored Confederate leaders and the common soldiers, but they stuck a thumb in the eye of the Union and the United States (there are at least as many monuments to Union leaders and soldiers).

The important thing about each of these monuments is that they were the work of local groups often with local political approval—a statue in a city park. Other monuments went up on private property. These were local decisions to put up the monuments and we see today local decisions to remove them.

The Lost Cause also dominated local and state textbook committees with myths like, the war started over states rights, secession was about unfair tariffs, the defeat was Jefferson Davis's fault (he was later rehabilitated), Robert E. Lee was a flawless leader, slavery was good for the slaves. They called the Civil War, The War of Northern Aggression. Southern children were imprinted with these faulty messages for more than a century. Even academics repeated many of these myths. In the 1960s, scholars started showing that the Secessionists sought to protect slavery and fired the first shots.

No matter what a Confederate soldier's personal motivations, he served a government that was protecting and even expanding slavery. A soldier drafted at gunpoint still served to support slavery.

Absent from any of the decisions to build monuments or draft textbooks were those most impacted by the Civil War, slaves. Their descendants serve today as local officials who exercise the same authority that the Confederate sympathizers had a hundred years ago.

These are local issues and the white supremacists who invaded Charlottesville are guilty of the same aggression they (erroneously) accuse Abraham Lincoln of.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Measure of Success

The email was a surprise and then it wasn’t. The man was in my scout troop in San Francisco thirty years ago and as a teen was not the best example of the principles of Scouting. In his first interaction with my son, Matt was left in tears. The man tracked me down on the Web in order to make amends. Although unnecessary from my point of view I recognized this step in recovery and agreed to help.

I became a scoutmaster mostly to insure that Matt had a safe experience. Boys can be bullies and some adults can be rather juvenile. It was best to take on some responsibility. The Boy Scouts are great with their training and they had wonderful resources for activities particularly camping. I enjoyed my own scout experience and had a great time in San Francisco doing all the things my first troop did not. My volunteerism became a part-time job and excellent managerial training for my day job. I never had a goal of transforming anyone’s life, but I hoped to add molecular experiences that nudged a few of them in positive directions. The man who wanted to talk on the phone was not one of the bright spots. By the time I joined the troop he had been there several years and had met other adult leaders. Within a year or two the man received his Eagle and left for college. My goal with him was to keep him from hurting others.

Fast-forward thirty years. He explained he was sober now and wanted to apologize for things he had done as a scout. I accepted his amends and offered the one enduring memory I had of him. The occasion was a Court of Honor, the annual troop awards ceremony attended by the families. The scouts received their merit badges and their promotions, and the adults got kudos for their contributions followed by juice and cake.

The seventeen-year old came to the event in his scout uniform with his dad in a suit and tie. The dad was falling down drunk, literally. The young man held his father up and, despite my low opinion of him the mortification and shame on his face just about broke my heart. His family secret was public as if his pants had fallen down. He remembered that episode too amid the rest of the violence and abuse as he grew up. Still, he did not sound like he blamed anyone else for his actions. He took full responsibility.

The man commented that my positive comments and my encouragement of him and the other boys really stuck with him. The other adults in his life were probably just keeping order and annoyed because he was such a jerk. I approached leadership and even parenthood and grandparenthood with how would I want to be treated here? How does a four-year old or a fifteen-year old or a rookie investigator want to be talked to, to feel respected?

Well I guess it worked. In addition to the call last week I’ve had other compliments like “best boss” and “someone to look up to.” Those are good to hear.

The man asked how he could make it up to the troop so I suggested he call the Scouts and volunteer. Maybe he will learn what I learned.