Tag Archives: Marcus Aurelius

The Option of Having no Opinion

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I like reading the words of ancient philosophers when I am perplexed or troubled. One of my favorites is Marcus Aurelius. Occasionally I will look at my paperback copy of his Meditations and look through it. This evening something from it stuck me as quite profound. So I will share it to close out this day, as it is a thought that I think all of us, including me, can learn from.

“You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.”

Have a nice night,

Peace

Padre Steve+’

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The Glory of Solitude


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today I am writing late after a long but good day at a meet up for owners of Papillon dogs. Saturdays are usually my time to be alone and spend time with Judy and our dogs doing as little as possible. I use them to recharge. I’m getting a lot more social interaction this weekend and that is not a bad thing, but every so often I take the time to break away to spend a bit of time alone, usually with my dogs Izzy and Pierre sitting on my lap. Both happen to be quite sensitive and know when having them there is therapeutic for me.

Since Thursday when I walked the Antietam battlefield I have been musing on the value of solitude and the importance that it has in my life. Paul Tillich wrote: “Our language has wisely sensed these two sides of man’s being alone. It has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone.”

I am a natural introvert, a thinker, and soldier, who has found his vocation as a priest, and scholar. I think had I been born 800 years ago that I could have easily been a scholastic warrior monk. Thus I live in a world that is foreign to many people. I value community, friendship, and the camaraderie found in some parts of the military. I have learned over the years to mix rather well in social settings, I stay very busy, and I am bombarded with many issues on a daily basis at work as well as by having to know what is going on in the nation and world because of what I do.

I also know what I need, in the words of Elwood Blues, to “live, thrive, and survive,” and one of those things is solitude, which at means for me, venturing from the busyness and chaos of life, and of being inundated by an often toxic stew of nonstop information which dulls the senses. I have to have times of solitude in order to survive, but for much of my life I tried to fill those times alone by doing other doing things, even good things like praying the Daily Office or reading scripture, rather than actually being alone with myself.

Being alone does not necessarily mean being lonely. Loneliness, usually denotes a sense of, pain, abandonment, and often friendlessness, or even being unloved or unlovable. People can be terribly lonely even in a room full of people. There have been times in life, especially in my journey since returning from Iraq in 2008 that I felt the pain and despair of loneliness even when surrounded by people. I also know what it is like to have people who I believed were friends abandon me. But that has nothing to do with being alone or knowing the richness of solitude.

Everyday try to disconnect from people, social media, and other distractions in order to be alone with my thoughts. This can be dangerous as because in solitude we are quite often faced not by the chaos of what is outside of us, but the chaos, and the unresolved conflicts within us. Being alone and seeking solitude is so disquieting at times that many people want to flee from it, because the outer chaos can be used as a shield to mask us from the disquiet within. Thus it takes a certain amount of discipline to remain in solitude, especially in those times when our own demons of fear, anxiety, disappointment, failure, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings, and impulses seek to overwhelm us.

Yesterday I wrote about my 17 mile walk through the Antietam battlefield and I think that was one of the most rich times of solitude that I have had in a long time because it was much longer than what I usually get. It was punctuated with a chat with an 88 year old resident of the area who was coming up the trail from the Burnside Bridge with his fishing pole in hand. It was an interesting encounter because during the first 11 miles or so of the walk I had come across very few people and most of them seemed to be in a hurry. But that seems to be the case almost everywhere.

But this gentleman was fascinating, and though I was intent on getting to the bridge, I knew that I had to remain. I listened as he told me about some the the changes in the area since he was a child, homes and barns that no longer existed except as ruins, the people who lived in them, and how as a child he would fish or hunt along the creek. When he found out that I was a in the military and also a historian he lit up. He told me about his and his son’s military experiences, and then he told me about his visit as a child to Gettysburg in 1938 on the occasion of the dedication of the Peace Monument. He described the elderly veterans of North and South, as well as seeing President Franklin Roosevelt deliver his speech on that day. Of course I have read about that event, and seen pictures and newsreel footage of it, but I had never talked to an eyewitness, and he may be the only eyewitness that I will ever meet. My solitude was was enriched. I was reminded of the words of C. S. Lewis who observed, “We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” As we parted, he walking back toward the new Burnside Bridge and me heading to the site where Burnside’s regiments threw themselves across the old bridge in the face of murderous Confederate fire, he said, “I hope to see you next year,” and I told him I hope so too, and yes I meant it. I then continued my walk all the while contemplating what happened on the battlefield, imagining what it had to be like for those soldiers, and also contemplating my own life. It was liberating.

Solitude is important for many reasons, but it is especially important for leaders at any level, or those who care for others. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is a historian as well as devotee of the writings of Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius was a wise man and he wrote “It is in your power to withdraw yourself whenever you desire. Perfect tranquility within consists in the good ordering of the mind, the realm of your own.” Yes it is possible to withdraw and to seek solitude, but it is also hard, yet necessary. General Mattis noted:

 “Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting.  We need solitude to refocus on prospective decision-making, rather than just reacting to problems as they arise.  You have some external stimulus, then you go back to your experience, your education, and you see what needs to be done.”

Solitude is a good thing. It is often, at least for me, an uncomfortable time as I wrestle with my inner demons, but in those times of inner struggle I often discover truths about myself as well as the world around me, sometimes coming in the form of old men who enter my solitude and enrich my life. The two, solitude and companionship on the journey are import, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”

I hope that this makes some sense as I don’t often write articles like this, but as I thought about it today I realized that I ought to write about it, if for nothing else than not writing about the Devil’s Triangle of any of the various crises facing all of us. Sometimes it is important to step away for a time in order to know what to do.

Have a great day and until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Abandon Facts and Abandon Freedom: Contending Against Alternative Truth, Facts, and History

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

I wrote a review of Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century on Tuesday and today I wanted to follow up on one of the key points made by Dr. Snyder in that work. Snyder wrote: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis to do so. If nothing is truth, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”  I have been worried about that since the election campaign where Snyder noted that seventy-eight percent of the claims and statements made by President Trump on the election trail were demonstrably false.

As Snyder noted the falsehoods came so fast that they were overwhelming. The assertions were presented as if they were the truth, as if they were fact, creating as Kellyanne Conway said, a world of “alternate facts” and “alternative truths.” Of course there are no such thing as “alternative facts” or “alternative truths” when it comes to the reality that we know. There may be arguments about things that we cannot fully observe or understand, such as the ultimate issues of whether there is a God or not, and if so what is true about him, her, or it; likewise there are things that change the way that we see the world such as when scientists make new discoveries.

But in neither case do these examples posit that there are alternative truth, there are things like God that cannot be proven, and there is a universe that we do not fully understand, but those have nothing to do with people who flagrantly lie about things that are commonly known and claim that the lies are the truth. Such claims are cynical and designed to ensure that those in power cannot be challenged, and when deployed by demagogues in a society in which fear has become an overriding factor, can be frighteningly effective. Thus when the President says “I alone can fix it” or “I am your voice” those who have lost the ability to think critically and who have surrendered to the unending mantras of the demagogue do not question them, they are not matters of reason, they are matters of faith.

Throughout the campaign Trump and his campaign surrogates not only twisted truth, but lied so many times that fact checkers could hardly keep up with their untruths. After the election, Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes told Diane Rehm of NRP: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” she continued, “Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.” The biggest problem in this interview was that Ms. Hughes lied and twisted what happened to fit the Trump campaign narrative that truth did not matter. The fact was that then candidate Trump’s tweets were devoid of fact and the criticism of them was based on fact.

I have written about how some people and parties present myths as truth, twisting history to meet their craven desire for power and control. This appeal to myth was the genus of the President’s campaign slogan “Make America great again.” Such slogans are the instruments by which demagogues in every place and time have used to not only gain power, but to convince people to do things that in normal times they would never consider doing. They are distortions of history that blind their followers to real truth, even worse, they compel people to never learn history and thus accept the lies as truth with all too often fatal consequences. Snyder calls this “the politics of eternity” which “performs a masquerade of history… It is concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts. Its mood is a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous.” To the politicians who like the President rely on them, the past is “a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, all of them equally distant from the present, all of them equally accessible for manipulation. Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some mortal enemy upon the purity of the nation.” These are the basis for things like the Myth of the Lost Cause, and the Noble South, and the Stab in the Back.

This is dangerous distortion of history. George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But I think that Howard Zinn said it the best:

“History can come in handy. If you were born yesterday, with no knowledge of the past, you might easily accept whatever the government tells you. But knowing a bit of history–while it would not absolutely prove the government was lying in a given instance–might make you skeptical, lead you to ask questions, make it more likely that you would find out the truth.”

I cannot help but think that the rapidity of the lies, the incessant attacks on the institutions of our country’s democracy, and the rights established in the Constitution by the President, people in his administration, and his supporters, especially those in the Breitbart universe of alternative media, are nothing but an attempt to delegitimize those institutions in order to gain total control and establish some kind of authoritarian and totalitarian state. The deluge of lies and distortions practiced by this administration and so many others who have taken power after being legally elected or appointed is designed to ensure that people no longer believe in truth. Hannah Arendt wrote: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction ( i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false ( i.e ., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

That is the very danger that we face today because many people, especially the President’s most stalwart and sometime violent defenders, as well as his enablers in Congress do not care, and others are so confused and distracted by the tactics of denial and deflection coming from the administration that they are growing weary. Polls show that many people are quite alright with limiting freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the role of the courts and other institutions designed to check executive power, and have no problem with limiting the rights of groups that they have identified as their enemy, and even limitations placed on their own freedom if it serves to absolve them of responsibility for things that they are too uncomfortable to deal with. The British military historian and theorist B.H. Liddell-Hart observed:

“We learn from history that in every age and every clime the majority of people have resented what seems in retrospect to have been purely matter-of-fact comment on their institutions. We learn too that nothing has aided the persistence of falsehood, and the evils resulting from it, more than the unwillingness of good people to admit the truth when it was disturbing to their comfortable assurance. Always the tendency continues to be shocked by natural comment and to hold certain things too “sacred” to think about.”

Believe me I desperately want to be wrong about this, but my study of history tells me that I am not. Thus I believe that every claim of the President and the administration must be questioned and its veracity determined, before it is accepted as truth. The time has come when we cannot simply wait to see what happens and give this administration the benefit of the doubt. Immediately after the election I was prepared to do that, but the actions of the President and his advisors have demonstrated to me that this is no longer an option. I will of course remain true to my oath under the Constitution, I will still respect the office of the Presidency, but I will always stand for the Constitution and defend those rights, and the institutions that are established by it.

Truth: historical, scientific, and verifiable is not our enemy. However, lies, and distortions, and the trampling of truth under the guise of “alternative truth,” “alternative fact,” and “alternative history” is the moral enemy of our republic and its democratic institutions. Thus truth must be upheld and fought for at all costs, because once you have sacrificed truth on the altar of political expediency you pave the way for freedom to be sacrificed.

So until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under culture, ethics, History, News and current events, philosophy, Political Commentary

The Truth is Rarely Pure & Never Simple

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The past few days I have posted short articles about some very personal things dealing with life and relationships. In a sense that continues today as I prepare for another “Staff Ride” with my students to Gettysburg. This trip will be interesting because over half of the students attending the staff ride will be officers from South Korea. Over the past couple of weeks I have been working on major revisions and additions to another chapter of my Gettysburg text and I hope to share that before the coming week is out.

I have a passion for truth, especially in the realm of historical thought, in fact over the past few years this passion has deepened to a level of profoundness that I never dreamed. In fact for me this passion has become a duty, a duty to truth; an un-sanitized, warts and all examination of subjects attempting to strip away the veneer of myth in order to find truth. This is not easy, but it is what my life has become, knowing that in the long run I will not discover all truth, but hopefully point others to examine history, the sciences, philosophy and even theology to find truth. The process can be uncomfortable, especially when confronted by facts, documents, scientific and archeological data which shows what we used to think was truth, as either incomplete, romantic myth, or even complete lies, untruths and fabrication. Oscar Wilde once wrote,“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Barbara Tuchman once wrote: “The reality of a question is inevitably more complicated than we would like to suppose.” That is the nature of truth. It does not matter if it is truth about history, biography, philosophy and religion, science, politics, economics or any part of life. To actively seek truth means that one must open up themselves to the possibility of doubting, as Rene Descartes wrote: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” I admit that this is not comfortable, but it is necessary.

As a historian I have a tremendous passion for truth, and for unsanitized history and for me this means looking at what we know with a critical eye, to compare and examine sources to question what we or others knew before. Far too often what we believe about our own history is often more preserving myth more than by asking hard questions and applying reasoned critical study. To do this is dangerous, because to do so we have to admit that what we know today could be proven wrong at some time in the future when new facts, documents, archeological finds or other historical or scientific are discovered. To those content with half-truth, partial truth or even myth this is disconcerting, and those of us who attempt to unravel myth from fact and present things in a new way are called “revisionists” as if that is somehow a bad thing. The sad thing is we are having to revise in many cases, supposed history that was revised by people who needed to propagate myth, such as with those who promoted the myth of the Lost Cause, the romantic, noble Confederacy which for well over a half century was propagated as historical truth. This myth was sold to the American public in such in film, television and books, fiction and non-fiction alike, to the point that much of white America, even outside the South accepted the myth of the Lost Cause as truth. Films like Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind and even Disney’s Song of the South, helped ingrain the myth as truth, and even today when so much more is known, many people hold on to the myth and attack those who differ.

A lot of my readers may wonder why I write so much about the American Civil War as well as the ante-bellum and Reconstruction eras of American history. For me they are very important for a couple of reasons; first they are eras, that for good and bad define us as a nation and people. Second, they still have relevance to what happens today, especially in the understanding of liberty, civil rights and race relations.

I have a passion for this. The American Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg are intrinsic parts of who we are as Americans today. The events of that war and this battle continue to reverberate in many aspects of our political, social and national life. Thus for me teaching about this event and what happened on the “hallowed ground” of Gettysburg, as Abraham Lincoln called it, and even 150 years later it matters far more than most of us realize.

Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain is an icon of the Civil War and American history. A professor of Rhetoric and Natural and Revealed Religions at Bowdoin College he volunteered to serve with the 20th Maine Infantry, his military career in the Civil War has been depicted in movies such as Gettysburg and Gods and Generals and written about in biographies and even historical fiction. Chamberlain was one of the heroes of Gettysburg, and his story has a myth like quality, but he too was a complex, contradictory and sometimes flawed character. However, Chamberlain attached a great importance to passing down the stories of people who did noble deeds and who lived exemplary lives. He wrote, “The power of noble deeds is to be preserved and passed on to the future.”

I sincerely believe what Chamberlain said and I am getting ready to lead another Staff Ride for students from our Staff College to Gettysburg this week. I do beleive that the power of noble deeds needs to be preserved and passed on to the future. Even the deeds of less than perfect, often contradictory and sometimes even scandalous individuals. That is part of the task of the historian. I do this in what I teach and what I write, both in the academic setting as well as on this website.

We live in a time of great cynicism, some of which I can understand. We also live in a time where many people and our institutions operate in a “zero defect” culture, those who fail in any way are shunted aside, punished or even chastised or ostracized. However, when I look at the men who fought at Gettysburg, or for that matter almost any individual who has accomplished great things, none are perfect people and many have great flaws in character, or supported causes or ideologies that were evil. That being said, even less than perfect people can rise to do great deeds, deeds that need to be remembered, passed down and told to succeeding generations.

Many great leaders, or other men and women that we consider today to be great, influential or important were or are quite fallible. Even those who did great things often made gross mistakes, had great flaws in their character, and some lived scandalous lives. Such deeds may tarnish their legacy or take some of the luster away from their accomplishments. But I think that these flaws are often as important as their successes for they demonstrate the amazing capacity of imperfect people to accomplish great things, as well as the incredible complexity of who we are as people. No one is perfect. There are degrees of goodness and even evil in all of us. It is part of the human condition. That is the beauty of un-sanitized history, that is the beauty of stripping away myth to discover the humanity of people, and to recognize who they are, who we are, the good, the bad and even the ugly.

When I look at the perfection that imperfect people expect of others I am reminded of something that William Tecumseh Sherman said about his relationship with Ulysses Grant. These were flawed men, but they were in large part responsible for the Union victory in the Civil War. However, to be honest, neither man would never reach the level of command that they rose to in our current military culture, nor would they rise to the top in corporate America. They are too flawed. Sherman said it well, “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.”

That is a part of my passion about Gettysburg and my appreciation and admiration of the brave men who fought in that battle. As I continue to write about that battle and about those men I hope that my readers will gain a new appreciation of their complex and contradictory natures, as well as think about what that means to us today, as individuals and as a society, for it is only when we strip away the myth and seek the truth. Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

Those truths can be scientific, they can be historical or literary, and quite often the truth can also be quite personal.

As John F Kennedy said at Yale in 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

So until tomorrow, have a thoughtful night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Pursuing the Truth: New Year 2016

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Marcus Aurelius wrote, “If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

Before I say anything else I just want to thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to read, comment and even share what I write. That matters to me and a good number of you have followed my writings for years. So I truly thank you from the bottom of my heart, and if you like what you see please comment and share with others.

As I get older I realize how valuable time is. There are few commodities that truly cannot be replaced or conserved, time is one that is always fleeting. As Dr. Suess said:

“How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”

That being said I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, in fact I generally don’t make any because frankly I think that most are a waste of time. However, I do not think that the pursuit of truth is a waste, and as Benjamin Disraeli noted so wisely; “Time is precious, but truth is more precious than time.”

To that end, as I did last year I am going to endeavor this year to commit myself to continue to seek truth and to speak truth, wherever that takes me. Truth matters to me. In my life I have seen so many lies, especially by political and religious leaders that I trusted that I now devote myself to the pursuit of truth. As Captain Jean Luc Picard told the young Cadet Wesley Crusher in Star Trek the Next Generation episode The First Duty: “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, historical truth or personnel truth…” 

So, I will continue to write, especially about historical subjects that have an impact today: civil rights and social justice, faith, military issues, PTSD and military health issues, the Middle East conflicts and a number of other topics. Of course I will write about baseball, which is often my refuge when things are too much for me and music. I may do more regarding music as I was asked to do an article for a journal about liturgical music, stress and resiliency.

I will continue to be as transparent as I can about my own struggles with PTSD and faith in the hopes that my journey will help others who struggle like me. In fact this was a major reason that I started this site back in February of 2009.

Expect more writing about the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War. I have a feeling that that is going to become a life work, even after I retire from the Navy. The American Civil War is so pertinent to who and what we are as a nation and the more I study it, the people, the issues and the ideologies involved I see many parallels with today; some of which are positively frightening. So expect a lot more about these subjects. In fact the Civil War is one in which debunked myths still hold sway over many, especially among the defenders of the Lost Cause who predominate the Christian Right.

In addition to that I expect to be going back to some of my older research and writing about the social, religious, political, and ideological dynamics of Weimar and Nazi Germany and how similar that are to some things going on now in our own country.

While lies are dangerous the myths can be more so, and the proliferation of lies, half-truths and myth have shriveled the brain cells of those who enjoy the comfort of opinion without the benefit of thought. President John F. Kennedy spoke of this in 1962, and his words are timely, especially when hordes of preachers, pundits and politicians, the Trinity of Evil, do this with abandon:

“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” 

To do this I have to constantly challenge my own thoughts, beliefs, and opinions. So with that resolution I wish you a good day and a Happy New Year. Thank you for reading, sharing, commenting, and encouraging me. Until tomorrow.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Truth and Un-sanitized History

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have spent the last couple of days introducing to new readers to things that I have come to believe. Since I am a historian I will continue to do that today.

I have a passion for truth, especially in the realm of historical thought, in fact over the past few years this passion has deepened to a level of profoundness that I never dreamed. In fact for me this passion has become a duty, a duty to truth; an un-sanitized, warts and all examination of subjects attempting to strip away the veneer of myth in order to find truth. This is not easy, but it is what my life has become, knowing that in the long run I will not discover all truth, but hopefully point others to examine history, the sciences, philosophy and even theology to find truth. The process can be uncomfortable, especially when confronted by facts, documents, scientific and archeological data which shows what we used to think was truth, as either incomplete, romantic myth, or even complete lies, untruths and fabrication. Oscar Wilde once wrote,“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

Barbara Tuchman once wrote: “The reality of a question is inevitably more complicated than we would like to suppose.” That is the nature of truth. It does not matter if it is truth about history, biography, philosophy and religion, science, politics, economics or any part of life. To actively seek truth means that one must open up themselves to the possibility of doubting, as Rene Descartes wrote: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” I admit that this is not comfortable, but it is necessary.

As a historian I have a tremendous passion for truth, and for unsanitized history and for me this means looking at what we know with a critical eye, to compare and examine sources to question what we or others knew before. Far too often what we believe about our own history is often more preserving myth more than by asking hard questions and applying reasoned critical study. To do this is dangerous, because to do so we have to admit that what we know today could be proven wrong at some time in the future when new facts, documents, archeological finds or other historical or scientific are discovered. To those content with half-truth, partial truth or even myth this is disconcerting, and those of us who attempt to unravel myth from fact and present things in a new way are called “revisionists” as if that is somehow a bad thing. The sad thing is we are having to revise in many cases, supposed history that was revised by people who needed to propagate myth, such as with those who promoted the myth of the Lost Cause, the romantic, noble Confederacy which for well over a half century was propagated as historical truth. This myth was sold to the American public in such in film, television and books, fiction and non-fiction alike, to the point that much of white America, even outside the South accepted the myth of the Lost Cause as truth. Films like Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind and even Disney’s Song of the South, helped ingrain the myth as truth, and even today when so much more is known, many people hold on to the myth and attack those who differ. 

A lot of my readers may wonder why I write so much about the American Civil War as well as the ante-bellum and Reconstruction eras of American history. For me they are very important for a couple of reasons; first they are eras, that for good and bad define us as a nation and people. Second, they still have relevance to what happens today, especially in the understanding of liberty, civil rights and race relations.

I have a passion for this. The American Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg are intrinsic parts of who we are as Americans today. The events of that war and this battle continue to reverberate in many aspects of our political, social and national life. Thus for me teaching about this event and what happened on the “hallowed ground” of Gettysburg, as Abraham Lincoln called it, and even 150 years later it matters far more than most of us realize.

Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain is an icon of the Civil War and American history. A professor of Rhetoric and Natural and Revealed Religions at Bowdoin College he volunteered to serve with the 20th Maine Infantry, his military career in the Civil War has been depicted in movies such as Gettysburg and Gods and Generals and written about in biographies and even historical fiction. Chamberlain was one of the heroes of Gettysburg, and his story has a myth like quality, but he too was a complex, contradictory and sometimes flawed character. However, Chamberlain attached a great importance to passing down the stories of people who did noble deeds and who lived exemplary lives. He wrote, “The power of noble deeds is to be preserved and passed on to the future.”

I sincerely believe what Chamberlain said and I am getting ready to lead another Staff Ride for students from our Staff College to Gettysburg next month.  I do beleive that the power of noble deeds needs to be preserved and passed on to the future.  Even the deeds of less than perfect, often contradictory and sometimes even scandalous  individuals. That is part of the task of the historian. I do this in what I teach and what I write, both in the academic setting as well as on this website.

We live in a time of great cynicism, some of which I can understand. We also live in a time where many people and our institutions operate in a “zero defect” culture, those who fail in any way are shunted aside, punished or even chastised or ostracized. However, when I look at the men who fought at Gettysburg, or for that matter almost any individual who has accomplished great things, none are perfect people and many have great flaws in character, or supported causes or ideologies that were evil. That being said, even less than perfect people can rise to do great deeds, deeds that need to be remembered, passed down and told to succeeding generations.

Many great leaders, or other men and women that we consider today to be great, influential or important were or are quite fallible. Even those who did great things often made gross mistakes, had great flaws in their character, and some lived scandalous lives. Such deeds may tarnish their legacy or take some of the luster away from their accomplishments. But I think that these flaws are often as important as their successes for they demonstrate the amazing capacity of imperfect people to accomplish great things, as well as the incredible complexity of who we are as people. No one is perfect. There are degrees of goodness and even evil in all of us. It is part of the human condition. That is the beauty of un-sanitized history, that is the beauty of stripping away myth to discover the humanity of people, and to recognize who they are, who we are, the good, the bad and even the ugly.

When I look at the perfection that imperfect people expect of others I am reminded of something that William Tecumseh Sherman said about his relationship with Ulysses Grant. These were flawed men, but they were in large part responsible for the Union victory in the Civil War. However, to be honest, neither man would never reach the level of command that they rose to in our current military culture, nor would they rise to the top in corporate America. They are too flawed. Sherman said it well, “Grant stood by me when I was crazy, and I stood by him when he was drunk, and now we stand by each other.” 

That is a part of my passion about Gettysburg and my appreciation and admiration of the brave men who fought in that battle. As I continue to write about that battle and about those men I hope that my readers will gain a new appreciation of their complex and contradictory natures, as well as think about what that means to us today, as individuals and as a society, for it is only when we strip away the myth and seek the truth. Marcus Aurelius wrote:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.”

Those truths can be scientific, they can be historical or literary, and quite often the truth can also be quite personal.

As John F Kennedy said at Yale in 1962: “The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

So until tomorrow, have a thoughtful night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Silence and Shame after Charleston

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have been amazed over the past couple of days following the terrorist attack committed by Dylann Roof on the pastor and parishioners of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. What has amazed me is the number of prominent Republican politicians, including a number running for president who are in full denial mode about the motivation of this young man. Not only that, anyone now asserting the truth that this was a racially motivated terrorist attack committed by a White Supremacist who evidently wrote a manifesto on a White Supremacist website, who told his victims “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” He confessed to the killings and even said that he almost didn’t go through with them because the people were so nice to him.

Even so prominent Republicans, Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum can’t admit that the motivation was race hatred. It is mind boggling and disgusting. I’m sorry these men are no better than the German citizens and politicians of non-Nazi conservative political parties who turned a blind eye as Nazi thugs harassed and murdered Jews even before the Nazi takeover, who then turned a blind eye as Hitler passed his anti-Semetic laws. They may not have committed the act but their silence makes them complicit in the continuing racism that infects our country. They should be ashamed and they should be shamed by all of us for their silent complicity in the face of evil.

However, by saying this, I am now guilty of the latest attempt to silence those who condemn the abject racism which still exists in this country, white shaming. In fact someone accused me of that last night on a social media site. I had never heard of it, so I had to look it up. I was amazed be because of how disingenuous the argument is. If you are honest and speak up you are yourself racist, and if you are white you are suffering from white guilt syndrome. The people who posit this remind me of Reverend William Leacock of Christ Church New Orleans who said in 1860:

“Our enemies…have “defamed” our characters, “lacerated” our feelings, “invaded “our rights, “stolen” our property, and let “murderers…loose upon us, stimulated by weak or designing or infidel preachers. With “the deepest and blackest malice,” they have “proscribed” us “as unworthy members… of the society of men and accursed before God.” Unless we sink to “craven” beginning that they “not disturb us,…nothing is now left us but secession.”

I’m sorry but we American whites have a lot to be ashamed of in our history; slavery, the extermination of the Native Americans and their subsequent de-facto incarceration on reservations, the war with Mexico where we forced Mexico to cede 40% of its territory to us, the exploitation of the Chinese immigrants who helped build the transcontinental railroad and other projects, the Jim Crow laws, the Tuskegee medical experiments on African Americans, the incarceration of Japanese Americans in our own concentration camps in World War Two, the exploitation of Mexican immigrants who labor illegally for American agribusiness and construction firms doing the work Americans will not do all the while treating them with contempt. 

We don’t even hide it, the use of racist terms of nigger, gook, wetback, chink, jap, slope, flip, rag head, camel-jockey and so many others to describe people racial and ethnic minorities are still prevalent in parts of white society. You see them on social media, blogs, and occasionally some political, pundit, preacher, or celebrity gets outed as a racist when they slip up and say those words. I have had people that I know come up and show me supposed “jokes” and cartoons the content of which is racist bile and they don’t even think twice about it.

I could go on and on and on but I would be beating the dead horse that will not die. But then maybe we need more than a little white shaming, after all our history is full of things that we should be ashamed about.

If this is offensive to anyone I dare say that I am not sorry. As a historian I am committed to the truth, and sometimes the truth is unpopular and it matters. It is my first duty. As Marcus Aurelius said:

“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.” 

Have a great day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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