Monthly Archives: August 2017

The Eternal Precedent of the Holocaust

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

While I was writing the article that I published here yesterday that I was not done with the subject, and that in the words of Hedy (that’s Headly) Lamar “My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives.” That being said I have been so busy that I am finishing this late today after driving of the the Washington D.C. area for an extended weekend. Tomorrow morning I am going to drive up to the Antietam battlefield which is just up the road in Maryland to spend the day walking that battlefield. I’ll probably write something later in the afternoon or evening rather than to push out another article for tomorrow morning tonight.

Yesterday I wrote an published an article about how easy it is to acquiesce and silently become an accomplice and bystander to evil. But there was so much more to write if I had the time to do so in the format of this site. Of course I am sure that I will use what I wrote yesterday in other projects and maybe even in a book format. I had a reader ask me yesterday if I didn’t think the continuing to brink up past evils such as the Holocaust and American Slavery was worse than letting them lie and to disappear into history far from memory.

It’s actually not a bad question but I responded to him by reminding him that Holocaust Denial industry has been going on for decades, and as philosopher Primo Levy, an Auschwitz survivor noted “Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it.” Since there are now very few victims, perpetrators, or bystanders left to remind us of that genocide in the flesh, the Holocaust deniers and the fabricators of fake history are becoming more numerous and some, seek to present themselves as legitimate historians with their own journals. This as I said is not surprising to me, especially in the United States which was physically unscarred by the war and where White Supremacy has long been part of our history and culture, and not just in the old states of the Confederacy. 

I would dare say that the vast majority of Americans have never looked at one of the victims of the Holocaust in the eye or seen their Auschwitz camp number tattooed on their left forearm. I have and I cannot forget. But the truth is, that the further into the past an atrocity like the Holocaust disappears, through ignorance or intentionality, there is a very real possibility, or shall I say probability is that those crimes against humanity will be forgotten and repeated by a new generation. That is the lesson of history and the human condition, that is why it is even more important not to forget or allow others to forget the magnitude of these crimes against humanity. Timothy Snyder correctly observed that “The world is now changing, reviving fears that were familiar in Hitler’s time, and to which Hitler responded. The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.” A growing number of Americans are comfortable in stating publicly their agreement with White Supremacist and neo-Nazi ideology, some 9% or 30 million in a recent poll. 

The Nazis, the American Slave Power elite, the Stalin and his NKVD mass murderers, their willing executioners, those who profited from their crimes, and those who stood by and said nothing, were not that much different than most of us given similar circumstances. In regard to the Holocaust it was not an anomaly of human history or something that could not be replicated in other places. Yehuda Bauer wrote:

“The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”

We have to remain on guard in order to ensure that such events, unimaginable to most people, never happen again. History may not repeat itself, but human nature doesn’t change and we are fools if we think that we are any more ethical or moral than Europeans of the 1930s or 1940s.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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“But the Jews Weren’t the Only Ones” How Ordinary and Terrifyingly Normal People Minimize and Accept Nazi Ideology

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have to admit that the amount of ignorance in the defense of evil that I see daily is simply mind blowing. It makes me shake my head. But then I cannot be surprised anymore. Over the weekend I saw a poll in which nine percent of Americans said that holding White Supremacist or Neo-Nazi views and ideology was okay.

Now nine percent doesn’t sound like a big number or anything to worry about until you extrapolate that percentage into the numbers of people who hold that view. Based on the population of the United States that nine percent equals about thirty million individuals. Now I’m sure that many of these patriotic Americans are not card carrying Klansmen or Nazis, but the fact that they would turn a blind eye to the evil of both in the name of some incomprehensible moral equivalence as did President Trump after Charlottesville is quite disturbing. Perhaps it is his example that enables them to be so open about their acceptance of evil.

Yesterday on my Facebook page a friend of a friend commented on an article which discussed new research that indicates that the Nazis in their occupation of the Ukraine killed perhaps a half million more Jews than previously believed. That woman made the comment that there were others, and yes that is true. Had the Nazis won the war tens of millions more of the Jews as well as the Slavs who they referred to as Untermenschen or subhumans would have been killed, either directly or through a policy of intentional starvation. But make no bones about it, from the months that Hitler spent in Landsberg prison for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 writing Mein Kampf until the end of the war as the Red Army closed in on his bunker in Berlin, the Jews above all were the object of his personal hatred.

Close to six million Jews and millions of others were killed by the Nazis. Millions of Africans were enslaved in the United States and even after emancipation were by law treated as less than full citizens. Under Jim Crow they were discriminated against at every level of government including states that were neither a part of the Confederacy or not even States when the Civil War was fought, they were impressed as forced labor under the Black Codes and thousands were murdered, often in public by people who brought their children to watch Black men die.

But these people were not just numbers. It’s all to easy to blur them into a mass of dehumanized humanity by talking about the millions, when every single one was a human being, yes, I believe created in the image of God. We have to see their faces and we have to recognize their essential humanity as men and women, children, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives, whose lives were in the case of the Jews obliterated as if they never existed, and others like African slaves who were simply property.

I explained that in quite a few fewer words and told her that she shouldn’t challenge me on the subject, which of course she did. So I went into more detail and shot her argument down in flames, to the cheers of other commentators on the post. When you have spent much of your academic life studying a subject it really gets old hearing people make excuse for evil by trying to minimize that evil, especially against the targeted people.

It’s like Confederate apologists saying that the institution of slavery which enslaved millions of Africans was actually worse for White people. Yes it is true that many poor whites benefited little from slavery, but they were not bought and sold as chattel, sold away from their wives and children, whipped, and marched across country in chains to new owners, or yes even killed simply because they were not considered human beings but property.

Sadly, as Dr. Timothy Snyder wrote “The history of the Holocaust is not over. Its precedent is eternal, and its lessons have not yet been learned.”

So there are about 30 million Americans who believe that holding Nazi and White Supremacist beliefs is okay. A few years ago I would believed that the number was lower, but after seven months of living in Trump’s America I believe that it might be even higher than the poll indicated. I only say this based on the postings I see on various social media platforms, news comment pages, the proliferation of websites that cater to these beliefs, and the lack of real condemnation of such individuals by the majority of the GOP Senate and House majorities, and the outright defense of them by other GOP representatives at the Federal and State level. These people have not learned the lessons of the Holocaust, nor American slavery.

Again I don’t believe that the majority of these people are real card carrying Nazis or Klansmen. Most would probably be considered great citizens: they work, they raise families, they go to church, and many would claim that they have “a Black or Jewish friend” so obviously they cannot be racists. But that being said they turn a blind eye to the evil of race hatred and White supremacy, and sometimes join in on social media meme wars where they mock the victims. But no matter what, not condemning the purveyors of White Supremacist or Neo-Nazi ideology, or by using the arguments of moral equivalence to minimize those crimes against humanity makes these people as complicit in the past, present, and future crimes of Naziism as if they were.

They may be ordinary people, as seemingly normal as anyone else, but as Hannah Arendt noted about Adolf Eichmann and other Nazis who advanced the destruction of the Jews was that they were so normal. She wrote:

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

That my friends is as true as the day she wrote it after Eichmann’s trial, as it is today, and why we must constantly educate people in every forum possible that it is all too easy to become either a perpetrator or evil or a bystander. As Snyder wrote: “It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander. It is tempting to say that a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of understanding. …Yet to deny a human being his human character is to render ethics impossible. To yield to this temptation, to find other people inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.”

Since they were human beings the Nazis were not unique to history. In every era of history human beings have committed atrocities, many in the name of some kind of ethnic, religious, or nationalist ideology of supremacy that held other people to be less than human. That may sound harsh, but it is all too true based on history.

Yehuda Bauer wrote: “The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn’t. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”

In the movie Judgment at Nuremberg the judge played by Spencer Tracy noted something important about the defendants in the trial. His words need to be heard today as well:

Janning, to be sure, is a tragic figure. We believe he loathed the evil he did. But compassion for the present torture of his soul must not beget forgetfulness of the torture and the death of millions by the Government of which he was a part. Janning’s record and his fate illuminate the most shattering truth that has emerged from this trial: If he and all of the other defendants had been degraded perverts, if all of the leaders of the Third Reich had been sadistic monsters and maniacs, then these events would have no more moral significance than an earthquake, or any other natural catastrophe.

But this trial has shown that under a national crisis, ordinary – even able and extraordinary – men can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination. No one who has sat through the trial can ever forget them: men sterilized because of political belief; a mockery made of friendship and faith; the murder of children. How easily it can happen. There are those in our own country too who today speak of the “protection of country” – of ‘survival’. A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient – to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is ‘survival as what’? A country isn’t a rock. It’s not an extension of one’s self. It’s what it stands for. It’s what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: justice, truth, and the value of a single human being.

It is high time that we learn that again and that we make up our minds to oppose the ideologies that made the Holocaust and Slavery possible. As Hannah Arendt observed: “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Presidential Twitter Storms and the Absence of Empathy

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

As residents of southeast Texas struggled against the unrelenting rain and floods of former Hurricane Harvey the President was on a Twitter spree recommending a book by Milwaukee Sheriff David Clark (his other favorite criminal Sheriff after Joe Arpaio) his determination to build a border wall, NAFTA, a visit to Missouri, the 2016 election, a slam against Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, and a few treats bragging about the great response to the hurricane.

It was a banal display of sordid narcissism by a man who shows not a bit of empathy for people, many of who voted for him. But then that should not surprise anyone because his tweets and his public statements have always had a mocking tone towards those most loyal to him.

Gustave Gilbert, who served as a psychologist to the major Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg noted that in his observation and discussions with them he had to deal with the nature of evil. He had to find the common thread among them that allowed them to take part in the most horrific crimes against humanity conducted by an allegedly civilians, western and Christian country. He noted that in his dealings with them they had one thing in common, they had no empathy for their victims. He said, “evil is the absence of empathy.” The common psychological term for a person who cannot empathize with other people is a sociopath. That is what are President is. It is a trait that he shares with the vilest criminals of the Twentieth Century. Yesterday was just another day in the life of our sociopath in chief.

I was have a beer with some friends this afternoon and a friend showed me some Facebook post of a mutual friend. They were posts and memes that belittled and mocked the people fighting the rain and floods caused by Hurricane Harvey. I could only shake my head when she asked me if he was a Trump supporter, because indeed he is, and he was belittling many people who like him voted for and continued unreservedly to support the President, at least until Harvey, we’ll see if they remain supporters. However, That being said, I do think that many of the President’s supporters are so far in the tank for he that he could shoot an kill one of their family members and they would continue to support him.

As I thought of these things last night I was reminded of the words of Hannah Arendt: “When evil is allowed to compete with good, evil has an emotional populist appeal that wins out unless good men and women stand as a vanguard against abuse.”

Now honestly I don’t think that the majority of Trump supporters are themselves evil or even bad people. But that being said I do believe that quite a few of the, perhaps a majority of them have surrendered to taking the path of least resistance and looking out for what they think are their interests first, even if the result of their decisions hurt people who are much like them.

As Arendt said, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

That is what we are watching happen before our very eyes. Some might claim ignorance, or claim that they are non-political and are in no position to judge the morality of this President and his administration, but that is the refuge of the coward. Karl Popper noted “Ignorance is not a simple lack of knowledge but an active aversion to knowledge, the refusal to know, issuing from cowardice, pride, or laziness of mind.”

The fact is that today, like in Germany between 1933 and 1945 no one can claim ignorance about the nature and character of our President, but if they don’t know it is simply cause they do not want to know, and for those in positions of authority who turn a blind eye, what Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and later armaments minister wrote “…being in a position to know and nevertheless shunning knowledge creates direct responsibility for the consequences…”

It is lack of empathy, an active aversion to truth, shunning knowledge, and perhaps worse, a refusal to know when in a position to know which allow people to look the other way in the face of evil and injustice.

Until tomorrow.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Embracing “Lawless Disorder”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

For nearly two years since President Trump began his presidential campaign in 2015 I have been warning that if elected he would become an authoritarian leader. After seven months in office many of his strongest supporters are beginning to discover that I and others were more accurate than any of us wanted to be. In fact I often said that I hoped more than anything that I was wrong about the President, but nearly every day his words or actions confirm my initial predictions of him becoming a true authoritarian leader.

Following President Trump’s pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio the Washington Examiner, one of the most conservative publications in the United States with a history of supporting Donald Trump declared “Trump, once the law and order candidate, embraces lawless disorder with Arpaio pardon.” The editorial went on to mention that “But “law and order,” if the words have any meaning, has to apply to government actors as well. Lawless sheriffs promote disorder, and that’s what Arpaio did to get himself convicted.” They properly understood that what Sheriff Joe did was lawless and that the President’s decision to pardon him outside the normal channel for granting pardons was an act that will cause the rule of law to break down and that in the case of this pardon “it’s clear Trump has abused that power for a friend and political ally.”

Senator John McCain released a statement condemning the President’s action. He wrote:

“No one is above the law and the individuals entrusted with the privilege of being sworn law officers should always seek to be beyond reproach in their commitment to fairly enforcing the laws they swore to uphold. … The President has the authority to make this pardon, but doing so at this time undermines his claim for the respect of rule of law as Mr. Arpaio has shown no remorse for his actions.”

But the abuse of power has been a hallmark of the President and in this case it is ominous because it sends a signal to prosecutors and the courts that if a friend of the President is charged with or convicted of a crime that this President will trample judicial decisions just because he can. In fact it was revealed that months before Arpaio was convicted that Trump pressed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to find a way to drop the prosecution. This is not the action of a man who respects the Constitution, the law, or the separation of powers, it is the action of an authoritarian who has no respect for the law who will use is capriciously to enhance his own power at the expense of the country. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote, “The essence of tyranny is not iron law. It is capricious law.”

The problem is that most people in the United States are still trying to understand the President’s actions and words through the lens of traditional American political norms. Gary Kasparov, the Russian chess champion and political dissident noted the error of this reasoning. He tweeted “People are still trying to see Trump through the framework of democracy. But he doesn’t understand them or care to. This was a display of power.” He went on to note that “dictators & would be autocrats do not ask “Why?” when it comes to using power for their advantage. They ask “why not?”

There are many people who did not believe, despite his words during the campaign about disrupting and destroying the institutions of the country that the President would do little harm, that he would be restrained by the courts and the Congress. While the courts have checked some of his unconstitutional actions, and the Congress has passed very little of his legislative agend, the President shows few signs that he respects the rule of law. In fact he attacks the courts, the Congress, the press, and individual citizens on a daily basis when they oppose him. Likewise he shows no respect for the Constitution that he swore to uphold, proving those who believed that he would act in accordance with our system of law and government wrong.

Yale historian Doctor Timothy Snyder wrote about those who make such assumptions when dealing with authoritarian leaders: “The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions—even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.”

When President Trump pardoned Sheriff Arpaio he crossed a political Rubicon. His course is set. I just hope those who know better in his political party finally, if belatedly, show the moral courage to stand against what he is doing to our political system. If they do not he will do lasting damage to our form of government that will long outlive him or his presidency. Former Republican Senator John Danforth has urged responsible Republican leaders to stand. He wrote these words in the Washington Post:

“In honor of our past and in belief in our future, for the sake of our party and our nation, we Republicans must disassociate ourselves from Trump by expressing our opposition to his divisive tactics and by clearly and strongly insisting that he does not represent what it means to be a Republican.”

The President is fast becoming an existential threat to both the party of Lincoln and the Republic. No matter how he and his surrogates try to exhaust his opponents, and to break them by the shear volume of his lies, and actions against so many in this country, to include the leaders of his own party, it is not time to retreat. We must all continue to speak, and we must begin again to that together as Republicans, Democrats, and Independents to hold him accountable and preserve a Rupublic that holds promise for all of us. If we don’t he will slice us up like salami into our little groups to dilute our power.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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God Help Texas, the United States, and the President before It’s Too Late


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am very concerned for all the people that I know who live along the Gulf Coast of Texas as category IV Hurricane Harvey makes landfall. That storm is likely going to be one of the most devastating to Texas and the United States in many years. I’ve lived through more hurricanes than I can count going back to Hurricane Gilbert in 1988 where I was the director of a Red Cross emergency shelter in San Antonio for refugees from the same region being crushed by Harvey. Unlike Harvey, Gilbert moved fast and wasn’t a huge rainmaker, but Harvey will be a killer, and all the President can do is pardon a man who violated the civil rights of thousands of people and who only has told the people of Texas “good luck.” Now he did sign a disaster declaration for the state but if he continues on with threatening a government shutdown and debt default if Congress doesn’t pay for the wall that he promised that Mexico would pay for, and his proposed cutbacks to every Federal agency that would normally be there to help citizens in such an emergency what will that matter? 

This is truly a frightening time. We have a President who shows no regard for the law or the Constitution and who cannot even mention the military personnel and police officers that died over the weekend during a campaign rally? I mean really. And now he goes to Camp David as Texas stands on the brink of disaster. Will he not at least do a flyover abroad Air Force One as former President Bush did during Katrina? Can he not interrupt his Twitter storm against people he believes are his opponents not to show a modicum of respect for dead military personnel and police officers? 

Actually he cannot because he has no moral center. The President has demonstrated time and time again that he is a narcissist and sociopath who cannot feel empathy for anyone, even his supporters, many of whom will die this weekend in Texas as Harvey parks himself over them. If you have been blessed not to have had to go through a major hurricane or lose property and money due to one you are fortunate. No hurricane, but especially category III and IV hurricanes are not to be trifled with. 

But then he does have the time to sign a ban against patriotic Transgender Americans who meet every physical and mental requirement to serve in the military from doing so. The fact that his order will be shown to violate the 14th Amendment and will be held up in the courts does not seem to bother him. The fact that he who enjoyed multiple draft deferments during the Vietnam War, including a medical waiver for having heal spurs even as he played college baseball and was being scouted by major league teams would forbid qualified Transgender Americans from serving when none of his service chiefs ask him to do so is dumbfounding. 

This week the President has called journalists the enemy, refused to honor the lives of 20 American servicemen and police officers who died in the line of duty, but whompardoned a man convicted of defying the courts in order to violate the civil rights of the prisoners in his charge in direct contravention of Justice Department guidelines on pardons. Yes, other Presidents have pardoned undeserving individuals, but this sends a message to Federal prosecutors, the Congress, and Special Prosecute Robert Mueller that if any of them dare to indict or convict individuals connected with the ongoing Russia investigation that he will pardon them in defiance of the law. It is setting up the very really possibility of a constitutional crisis. 

The utter contempt for the law, the Constitution, and the basic decorum of his office, coupled with his lack of compassion and empathy for anyone, including his supporters, and his lack of any strategic thinking in terms of foreign affairs is frightening. Only a despot would behave as the President does. 

My comments today are in no way disrespectful of the President, but are based on my respect for the office that he occupies and the Constitution of the United States. I do not know why the President is behaving in the manner that he is, but I have to at least consider that for all of the personal criticism leveled against him and his actions that the demands of the office are harming his mental and psychological capacity to function. He seems to be cycling down before our very eyes and truthfully I am as much concerned for him as I am the country. But it doesn’t seem that those closest to him have the moral courage to demand that he seek help before he destroys himself and possibly the country. I mean what supporter, especially Christian clergy, could not be concerned for the physical and mental health that the man that they elected President? But it doesn’t seem that they care, so long as he helps give them what they want. 

On the other hand any decent person can both oppose a President’s actions and policies while still caring about him as a person. Human decency requires that those serving in the administration, members of the President’s political party in Congress, and ordinary citizens have the moral courage to care enough about Donald Trump the man to start asking those hard questions. These are not normal times and no one in full possession of their faculties behaves in the manner the President is behaving. 

In the meantime I will be praying for all the people I know in Texas, those who have died in the line of duty, and yes, even the President. 

So until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Statues With Limitations: Part Three


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am continuing my series about statues and monuments which was fueled by the controversy regarding various Confederate monuments and memorials, most which are in the South but many others in states that remained loyal to the Union, were not states at the time of the Civil War, or which were in areas be they North or South which were heavily pro-Union and which sent more soldiers to fight for the Union then they did the Confederacy. 

It is interesting to see how memory and myth cloud history when it comes to monuments, especially those to the Southern Confederacy, a nation that was described by its Vice President, former US Senator Alexander Stephens in these words:

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition. [Applause.] This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” 

Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who so many monuments are dedicated was not happy with his Vice President’s remarks, not because he didn’t believe them not to be true but because their honesty could hurt the cause of the Confederacy abroad. He noted:

“That speech infuriated me, Oh, what Stephens had said was true, perfectly true, but could anything hurt us more abroad than such impolitic remarks? It was the beginning of a fatal falling out between me and that rebellious and vindictive dwarf, who was hell-bent on forming his own policies and disputing mine with niggardly deviousness.” 

The fact is that the vast majority of the Confederate monuments, be they located in the former eleven Confederate states, or place that were not a part of the Confederacy were not built to honor the several hundred thousand Confederate dead, but to remind Blacks that they were subordinate to Whites wherever the were erected. This can be seen by the periods during which they were constructed. Only a few were built in the first two decades following the war, and some of those, including the monument in Portsmouth, Virginia were built by the wives, mothers, and children of the fallen. Honestly as to those I understand why they are where they are, and while I think that 150 years later, unless the context of their construction and monuments or historical narratives to the victims of the Confederacy and the institution of Souther Slavery are placed alongside, I am hard pressed to explain why they remain in places of honor. 

But honestly, those memorials are but a minority. Most of the Confederate monuments that spark such freak controversy today were erected anywhere from 30 to 150 years after the war. The periods that they were built are interesting of themselves. The biggest spike in construction began in the immediate aftermath of the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that legalized Jim Crow and the second during the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement beginning around 1948. The chart below provides a good representation of when the Confederate monuments were built. 

As I mentioned in my first two articles of this series I am not of the opinion that the monuments should be destroyed, nor do I think that they should be torn down by protesters. I think that each monument should be examined based on its historical merit. Since the vast majority happen to be from the days of the Confederate resurgence after Plessy and in the height of the Dixiecrat response to the Civil Rights movement beginning after Brown v. Board of Education which overturned Plessy in 1954. So today I am going to use the example of the monuments in Hampton Roads area as a teaching point. 

Virginia where I live has 223 Confederate monuments, the most of any state. That is in a sense understandable due to it being the largest state in the Confederacy as well as the site of its capital. There are three major public monuments located in South Hampton Roads as well as a number of monuments in local cemeteries throughout the area.

The one located in Portsmouth is the oldest and the most interesting from a historical point of view. Planning and fund raising for it began in the late 1860s shortly after the war and it was dedicated on the site where slaves were whipped and punished in the town square. It was dedicated in 1893. The head of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter say that it was placed there when a church where it was planned to be located backed out. I do not know the veracity of that claim. That being said the location is still problematic, especially since Portsmouth is heavily African American and many of the Black families there trace their roots to the slaves of the city’s ante-bellum times. The monument itself is one of the most interesting monuments that I have seen. It is an imposing sight in the old court square. At its center is an obelisk on which is inscribed To Our Confederate Dead. The obelisk is surrounded by four statues representing an infantryman, a cavalryman, an artillleryman, and a sailor. I think that it would fitting if this monument was moved in its entirety to a cemetery in the city where Confederate war dead are buried. It could be replaced by any number of monuments, perhaps one to the city’s war dead from the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the First Gulf War, and the current wars which have been going on since 2001. 


Norfolk’s monument is located within a block of where the slave auctions, the slave jail, the slave infirmary, and a few blocks from the docks where the were shipped to other destinations. This is important because Norfolk was the leading port in the slave trade from about the 1830s until the outbreak of the Civil War. The monument is over 80 feet tall and is capped by the figure of a defiant Confederate soldier holding a sword and the Confederate flag. At its base are engravings of the Confederate Battle Flag and a dedication to Our Confederate Dead. Despite those words this monument can only be described as a monument to White Superority and should be removed and replace with a monument to all of the city’s war dead. The statue adorning the top could go to a museum. 


In Virginia Beach the Confederate Monument is outside the old Princess Anne County Courthouse where slave auctions were held, and which is on the grounds of the current Virginia Beach Municipal complex. In older times it would have been seen by all entering the city hall or courts for any reason. It is over 20 feet tall and topped by the statue of a Confederate infantryman. Unlike the other monuments dedicated to the dead, this one is dedicated to Our Confederate Heroes. Now it is in a distinctly less visible location and one has to go out of their way to find it. I think it could remain where it is but only if there was monument to the victims of slavery who were bought and sold there. That would provide context for it. 


That monument was erected in 1905 during the height of the re-establishment of White Rule and White Sumpremacy after Plessy. One other, in the Denbeigh section of Newport News stands at site of the old Warwick County Courthouse. Denbeigh was named after the Denbeigh Plantation and the county seat was moved to Newport News when Denbeigh and Warwick county consolidated with the independent cit of Newport News in 1958. The courthouse is now a museum and the monument was dedicated in 1909 to the men of Company H, 32nd Virginia Infantry Regiment. The regiment, recruited from the Peninsula in early 1861 had a number of companies farmed out to the artillery was reconstituted as a small, 7 company regiment in 1862. It was decimated at Antietam and served to the end of the war with the Army of Northern Virginia where five officers and forty-two enlisted men surrendered with Robert E. Lee on April 9th 1865. Since this monument is dedicated to a specific unit which distinguished itself in numerous engagements, including Antietam, and Petersburg that relocating it to one of those battlefields would be completely appropriate. 

Admittedly all of these monuments served a twofold purpose, in the case of Portsmouth, from what I have read was that those who began to contribute money for the monument was to honor the fallen. By the time it was built that purpose was also mixed with the political desire of many whites to re-establish White Supremacy. The same is true with the other monuments in the public square. As to monuments located in cemeteries where Confederate soldiers are interred it is only fitting that they remain where they are. 

As to what should be done with each monument there are options, but what can actually be done with them are dictated by State Law which stipulates that localities can erect monuments but cannot “disturb or interfere with any monuments or memorials so erected.” That is a problem for the Virginia legislature to deal with and truthfully I believe that they should amend the law to allow municipalities to remove, alter, or relocate monuments. 

As a historian I think that all can serve as teaching points and that whatever is done with them that their context in relation to slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow needs to be clarified as part of teaching history and in the process expunging the myths of the Lost Cause and the Noble South from the historical narrative. 

I want to make a couple of points. First I do not think it is wrong for the relatives and descendants of those who fell in any war to want to remember them. I have traveled throughout Europe and I have seen the monuments in city squares that list the dead from wars dating back to the Napoleonic periods and before. Even if I disagree wth the cause that they fought for I will not forbid their descendants to honor their memory, even if I refuse to honor the military service of my ancestors who rebelled against the Union in 1861. 

I think that the Confederate monuments in Portsmouth, Newport News, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach can serve a purpose greater than for which they were originally constructed. I have described what I think would be best done with each, but I believe that with some modifications that each could remain where they are now so long as there are monuments to those who were the victims of slavery, those who were the unwilling conscripts recruited for that immoral and inhuman cause, and those who opposed that cause, before, during, or after the war. 

The same is true for many other of the Confederate monuments throughout the South. But, at the same time we have to address the monuments to Confederate leaders which built during the same time period as these generic representations of Confederate soldiers. The fact is that the leaders of the Confederate rebellion against the United States are much more responsible for the deaths of three quarters of a million soldiers and the devastation of the South than any ordinary soldier. These leaders include the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, secessionist politicians like Henry Benning and Alexander Stephens, and military leaders like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Braxton Bragg. I see little reason for monuments to men who were responsible for such great suffering to remain in places of honor. 

But honestly even this is not enough, for to fully tell the story we have to also honor the Southern Unionists like George Thomas and John Buford who did not forsake their oaths the the country, and men like Robert E. Lee’s lieutenants James Longstreet, Richard Ewell, Billy Mahone, and John Mosby who fully reconciled to the Union, and who were deomonized and then written out of Southern history. 
So anyway, I will deal specifically with monuments to Confederate leaders another time, but I think this is enough for now. That being said, any monuments to the leaders of the Confederacy or those who served during that rebellion need to be held to the bar of history, otherwise we mock all of their victims, and yes, even the sacrifices of the innumerable Johnny Rebs who died in a war that most had little or nothing to gain from. 

Peace 

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, historic preservation, History, News and current events, Political Commentary

“It’s the People Stupid” The Need for Professional Mariners 


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’m holding off finishing the last part of my series Statues with Limitations until tomorrow. Of the past day I have been consumed with the collision of the USS John S. McCain with a tanker near Singapore that quite likely has claimed the lives of ten U.S. Navy sailors. It was the second fatal collision in less than three weeks involving some of the most technologically advanced warships in the world with merchant ships. The other was that of the USS Fitzgerald which was at fault in a collision with a container ship near Tokyo bay. 

Today I have been in contact with our regional casualty assistance coordinator and chaplains who are already or might be called to go to the home of a sailor’s next of kin to inform them that their sailor is dead. If you have never had to make such a notification you are lucky. They are not easy and they never get easier. Between the military and my time as hospital emergency and trauma department chaplain I have been involved in far too many of them, I lost count around the 350 point, I’ve probably been involved in close to 500 such notifications of all types. 

Frankly there are no words that can adequately convey how hard that news is on the loved ones of those who died, especially when their deaths were most likely preventable. Last week I read the preliminary report on what happened aboard Fitzgerald. It was damning and showed some systemic cultural issues that need to be fixed. I am sure that the Navy will fully investigate the incident involving McCain too, and the report will likely be just as damning. It is bad enough that the Commander of the Navy’s Seventh Fleet, to which Fitzgerald, McCain, and the cruiser Antietam which had a grounding incident near Yokosuka Japan, and the cruiser Lake Champlain which collided with a Korean fishing boat, was relieved of his command just before his scheduled retirement.

But the problem is bigger than simply relieving and replacing officers proved to be at fault in these incidents, the Navy is very good at that. The problem is that about 15 years ago the Navy shut down its Surface Warfare Officer School in Newport, Rhode Island as a cost cutting measure. Instead of going to a school after being commissioned from the Naval Academy, ROTC, or Officer Candidate School, to learn the basics of navigation, seamanship, damage control, engineering, and combats systems operations, these tasks were pushed onto the commanding officers of the ships the new officers were assigned. That began in 2002 and I remember discussing the detrimental effect this would have with fellow officers about the USS Hue City. Some 15 years later these are the officers who are becoming the commanding officers and executive officers of our ships. Most of them don’t spend enough time at sea to be truly professional mariners, and many of them spend years between sea assignments. As such they really don’t know their ships that well, the don’t know the sea that well, and as a result they have become addicted to technology at the expense of doing the basics like looking out the window and taking action to avoid collision. It comes down to in the words of my former Commanding Officer, Captain Rick Hoffman said about these incidents: 

“I am feeling a sense of increasing outrage. The more I write and get replies from so many great shipmates and long time friends, the more I feel a sense of urgency to see if we can’t take these tragedies to force a larger conversation about our SWO culture…or rather the demise of the culture. Help build a path forward that restores the professionalism and focus necessary to have a strong Surface Navy. Perhaps our ships are complex enough to look at the Royal Navy model. Professionals on the bridge, professionals manning the Combat Systems, professionals manning the engineering plant. Not this mongrel program that trains everyone up to the minimum level of competence just long enough to survive your tour and go ashore. Ten years later you go back to sea…in command. I guess I am just feeling frustrated.”

It is not a matter of technology being the answer, we have amazing technology, but as one former officer wrote “Technical solutions don’t solve cultural issues. We need to refocus on our capabilities as mariners.” Captain Hoffman noted: 

“I am pondering the value of sparking a larger discussion about our systemic challenges with basic maritime skills. We are ship drivers, we have technical skills but we are not mariners as a community. We don’t cherish the necessary focus on knowing and feeling the ship, the sea and the larger maritime environment. Just look out the window!!!! The CNO just called for industry to provide more solutions. THAT IS INSANE. It is the people, stupid. We have enough tools, we have forgotten how to use them. Eyeballs and brains. Engage the eyeballs and brains.”

The fact is that for more than a decade the men and women that officer our ships have been pulled many different directions, by various factors, many of our own doing. Quite a few were pulled off of ships at critical points in their career to serve in the sands of Iraq or the mountains of Afghanistan. Our Navy has stopped doing the basics of being professional mariners first so that they can get their ships safely from place to black and be ready to sail into harm’s way at a moment’s notice. 


As Captain Hoffman and so many other men who have commanded ships whose comments I have been reading have noted, the issue is cultural and it is a need to return to the basics. 

Until we do that we are going to keep getting sailors killed, and causing great damage to ships that cost billions of dollars in avoidable incidents. 

As for me, I hope that I don’t have to make another death notification, especially for a death that needn’t happen. 

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

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Filed under Military, national security, Navy Ships, News and current events, US Navy