Any expat will tell you that the longer they spend outside of their home country the easier it becomes to dispassionately examine the current events happening there. Last week my eyes fell upon the headline, “South Carolina waves the white flag.”
After successfully campaigning to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from the grounds of the capitol building, the mob is now conducting a witch-hunt to remove that flag from National Battlefields, from graveyards, and if possible, even from people’s private property. Indeed, Apple removed, then restored, all Civil War games from its App Store in order to sidestep the controversy entirely.
I said, “Stalin” below my breath to no one in particular as I casually looked over the aforementioned article. For those who don’t know, in the pre-photoshop era, Stalin would have party members who had fallen afoul of him (read: disagreed with and then executed) removed from official portraits or even from casual photographs. These people literally disappeared — and hopefully, in Stalin’s eyes — from existence altogether. South Carolina bought into Stalinism last week: remove a flag = change history. American illiterati — both the sort who write articles named “Seven things you need to know about the Confederate Flag controversy” and those who naively read such tripe — would have you believe that the events of the past few weeks are some normal evolution in the way of things. A lot of outrage has been filmed. Where has this outrage been all these years, I wonder? That flag has been flying over South Carolina’s capitol (and many other parts of the U.S.) for over 50 years. Some horrible person murders innocent children and in a popular rage history gets murdered. By removing the flag, so many things get accomplished! Racism is now officially “illegal,” history has been corrected, and no more terrible murders will occur in the South. Right.
On this side of the Atlantic, Europeans who consider themselves quite knowledgeable about American history (because CNN briefed them) post Nazi flags on their facebook walls in mockery of the “heritage, not hate” slogan so popular in the South these past years. Indeed, who could deny people defending their homes from invaders are the same as a democratically elected regime that ruled for over a decade that had much public support until it was clear that the end was near! If only Americans understood that Southerners were Nazis!
The Europeans who would lecture me on my (American) history, much like the puffed-up Americans who pretend they know a lot about the Civil War because they watched the Ken Burns documentary, would have you believe that history is simple, when it is indeed profoundly complex. In this particular case, they want you to buy into the narrative of North = good = godfearing = abolitionists = fighting to defend the rights of blacks in contrast to the South = bad = backwards = evil = racist = fighting to keep blacks in chains until the end of time. This parody of the truth isn’t even remotely accurate, but the chattering classes of Europe and America only remember what they are told, not what they have studied (because they haven’t). Uncle Joe (a cheery nickname invented by Americans to humanize an “ally” that was an enemy) Stalin would be proud indeed.
Berlin is a not a city that I ever expected to enjoy as thoroughly as I do, but both chance and choice have allowed me to spend quite a bit of time there and I want to use just a segment of the city to illustrate what South Carolina (and indeed anyone actually interested in history and learning about it, instead of reading talking points, watching youtube videos, and scoring points in meaningless facebook “debates”) could learn from a city that has, like Charleston, survived multiple wars and lived to tell about it.
I’ll start at the Siegessäule, a column meant to commemorate (then) Prussia’s victory in the Danish-Prussian War. And yet, by the time it was finished, Prussia had also handily disposed of Austria (1866) and France (1870-71). This monument is par excellence a glorification of German martial might. Just down the road, as you go towards the Brandenburg Gate (and do walk it, there is a lovely park between the Victory Column and the Gate) there is a monument to the Soviet “liberation” of Berlin. Keep going. Now you can see the Reichstag building (now the Bundestag) — now an ultramodern building with great views over the city, but built over the ruins of the original, which was ordered burnt to the ground by Hitler, though he blamed it on a patsy. People have been using false-flag operations to manipulate public opinion for generations.
At this point your gentle and historical walk has brought you to the former site of the Berlin Wall, which is still visible on the ground in brick outline at your feet so you can trace the prison walls of hopelessness that enclosed Berliners of the Soviet past. If you head over to the eastern side of the city, you can see the part of it that is still up. But now you are under the Brandenburg Gate. Walk through and look up at the statue of Victoria, which seems to glare — if you trace her line of sight — right at the French Embassy. When Napoleon had taken Berlin he had taken this statuary back to Paris and the Louvre. As you may know, history follows a curving and sometimes circular path, and when Napoleon was defeated the statuary was brought back to the Gate and the plaza renamed “Pariser Platz,” demonstrating that despite how serious and hard-working the Germans are, an architectural joke like “Victory over Paris” was not beyond them, and that perhaps laughter was an appropriate way to deal with things as tragic as war and the theft of art and monuments.
If the Berliners were as historically ignorant as South Carolinians (or as “enlightened” — choose your adjectives as you wish), they would pull down the Siegessäule. Why glorify something that led to the most notorious militarism Germany is now primarily known for? Why not destroy the Soviet monument? Surely we have the ability to look at history with some corrective lenses and laugh at the term “liberation” in reference to that monument! Why stop there? Why leave some part of the Berlin Wall intact at all? Why, indeed. Berliners, or at least the people in charge of civic planning, it would seem, understand that destroying monuments or symbols not only fails to “change history” but worse, it hinders our ability to profit from the lessons those monuments would teach us if we weren’t so stupid. It is perhaps because we are beyond an age in which we consistently create meaningful public spaces or symbols that we can’t possibly understand why it’s important to see things in civic spaces, every now and then, that might seem troubling.
I hope the more intellectually consistent among those who targeted the Confederate battle flag this week will now train their sights on a much more visible target: a flag which has flown, in its basic form, over a country that was founded (by mostly slaveholders) on principles that a black person was 3/5 of a human being and that has often justified foreign military adventures as crusades for “freedom,” when the reality is that money, the oldest reason for war, was often the real (and only) reason.
One reason that the U.S. government and corporate media have had the temerity to tell the American people that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were about democracy and women’s rights is because since 1865, the catastrophe and lie that was Reconstruction has proven to be a winning formula: invade another country unilaterally on “moral” grounds, then after overwhelming military victory which included targeting of civilian homes and populations, militarily occupy, depose and disenfranchise the native population and its elite; bring in non-natives to show them how to obey their new masters; and then rewrite history to make the native population the lowest of villains and the conquerors the noblest of heroes.
We used these methods, while flying the Stars and Stripes, to subdue those “treasonous” Southerners (I’ve laughed every single time I’ve read that word in the last few days), to murder Native Americans to near extinction while constantly changing “treaties” we made with them, to provoke a war with Mexico for a land grab (ostensibly because we couldn’t just buy it), and to top it off, since 49 states weren’t enough, to steal Hawaii from a sovereign people with their own queen. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what Major General Smedley Butler, USMC, had to say about U.S. foreign policy:
“I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
So, the current American flag stands for “heritage, not hate”? Prove it. Or if you can’t, and are confronted with the possibility that there are no easy answers in history, and that loving one’s country doesn’t mean lying about its crimes, please climb back down into your cellar of ignorance, and take some history books and a flashlight down there with you. You might learn something while down there, namely, that history, like human life, is never as simple as we would imagine it. It is in confronting the paradoxes and heartbreak (and sometimes humor) of its many trails that we learn a bit more about who we are as humans, as peoples, as nations. Attempt to rewrite it according to whatever’s popular at any given time, and you will surely lose what matters, what teaches, (and was learned) at terrible cost.
Stephen Heiner makes his home in Paris, France, where among some of the finest beauties of churches and architecture and museums in Europe, he runs into that horrible tricolor flag and sundry monuments glorifying the murder of priests and nuns in a revolution inspired, in part, by America. He believes that loving one’s country and fellow countrymen isn’t always a straightforward task, and must involve at least as much patience and understanding as God grants us in our foibles.