The Complexity of History and the Human Condition

The Complexity of History and the Human Condition June 5, 2020
“Appomattox Surrender”, by Louis Guillaume, Wikipedia

It is my heartfelt belief that history, and historical figures, are as inherently complex as the human condition itself, and need to be viewed in the context of their era, upbringing, and evolution, as well as the fact that individuals can and do have genuinely good and genuinely bad qualities at the same time. All too often, people pick and choose what they want to fixate on, whether it’s through a romantic retelling, purging the bad aspects only to emphasize the good, or alternately a revisionist retelling of the romantic retelling, which aims to purge out or de-legitimizes the good aspects to fixate only on the bad ones. I have passionately argued with both types, in sheer exasperation.

We can literally do this with any human being, living or dead. And usually we do because the person in question becomes some type of symbol to us of whatever our personal cause may be. To put it simply, we want things simple and straight-forward. We want good guys vs. bad guys, and we want very much to just the actions of the past by the understanding of the present, even though its likely future generations will do the same thing to us in an endless cycle. Its about pinning our colors to a given mast, even if the “simple narratives” don’t capture the muddiness of reality.

For example, if our cause is to envision an antebellum south as a moonlight and magnolias fantasy, they may aggrandize officers of the Confederacy as the tragic heroes of a lost cause, overlooking the egregious moral defets of that cause and society, as well as failings in their personal decisions and behaviors. For those who want to take Confederate officers and equate them with Nazis can be geared towards stripping them of any contextual nuance and intentionally enhance the worst aspects of the individuals and their beliefs to paint them evil incarnate, and Robert E. Lee basically becomes Hitler (even though his belief system wasn’t a whole hunk different from more than a few founding fathers grounded in the southern aristocracy and their slave system, and the issue of breaking up the union based on state vs. federal government was doomed to blow sky high at some juncture, whether over slavery of another issue).

For another example, if we take the Crusades, if your cause is to envision the Crusaders as heroic knights on chargers riding against the infidel hoards so you can shout “Deus Vult” from your couch while munching on Cheetos, that’s how you’re going to portray them, and accentuate (and usually exaggerate) atrocities committed by Muslims against Christians. If, on the other hand, you want to paint the Crusaders as inherently debased land-grab crazy raiders, and shout “Allahu Akbar” to take back Jerusalem whilst streaming Baby Yoda on Disney +, then you are going to have to accentuate (or exaggerate) the atrocities committed by said Christian armies against the Muslims they encountered. And to be fair, the crusading era was replete with more than a little “spin-doctoring” by chroniclers on both sides.

And for a final example, in our own age, if you take almost any figure who becomes slightly famous, or infamous, and especially if they become a rallying cry for a cause, they will be doomed to have their instant canonization (more as a symbol of something bigger than themselves as opposed to personal sanctity) ripped away as their past is ripped open by dirt-diggers. The result is that the individual is dehumanized by both sides, one who puts him on a pedestal far higher than he could ever hope to climb, and the other that drags him through the much and mire just to spite the “cause” he’s embodied. I have seen both happening in the case of George Floyd, pro and con, where one half has turned him into an angel who could do no wrong and the other half takes his criminal history and uses it to detract from the way in which he died.

The fact is that we remember people for different reasons, and more often than not, our collective memories play tricks with us, allowing us to see only that which we want to see. It all depends on our point of view if we choose to emphasize Saladin paying for the liberation of Christian captives in one instance, and slitting the throats of others in the next. It’s up to us if we choose to emphasize Robert E. Lee as a slave-supporting secessionist or a man who did the right thing under pressure in putting aside his arms and trying his best to bring North and South together again. Its up to us if we are in the mood to instantly canonize or subsequently demonize the latest face on the news, usually distracting from the reason they are being featured to begin with.

Perhaps this is the greatest lesson history can teach us: We are all human, and in all honesty, we mirror each other in our own beauty and ugliness, held side-by-side. We are such a contradictory species, capable of great honor and great disgrace. We strive, and we fall short. We think we’re doing the right thing, according to our knowledge of it, but we might wake up one day and find out we were incredibly wrong. Or if we don’t have that epiphany in our lifetimes, perhaps future generations shall judge us by their own standards. Given how we judge those who have gone before us, we would probably deserve it.

It would be a lovely thing to believe that we are ever-evolving towards something better than we currently are. In many ways, I believe this is true. But in other ways, it seems we are on a hamster wheel of our own assuredness that we are “on the right side of history.” The trouble is that our “history” has not been written yet. Perhaps we should approach the past with as much humility as we look forward to the future. We cannot see what is to come anymore than our ancestors could, nor would I, for one, want to be judged by others unable to have lived my own reality.

I am not saying that we cannot make moral judgments about the conduct of others, past and present, at least on an objective level. We can and should learn from history in the sense of evolving out of past attitudes and injustices, and recognize the consequences of those attitudes and injustices to our present day. Everything we do causes a chain reaction into the future, and that is the subtle punishment of contingent time. We need to work out our systemic sins with fear and trembling, with the understanding that while most of us will not be named in the history books, we can hope to make the world a better place even by increments.

It has been said that each generation abolishes something bad, but then replaces it with a new evil. In the same way, each generation has some goodness which passes away to make way for a new reality. But always, there seems to be a collection of ideas that creates a perspective “shift” about what is acceptable and what is not, even when it comes to the we tell our stories and remember our history. More often than not, we find ourselves ashamed by it, just like a teenager cringes at baby photos, or an adult cringes at a teenage journal entry going through a “phase.” The trouble is, we tend to just repeat the process by creating a new mythology to throw dirt on the old one, and are no closer to balance or accuracy than we were before.

Much has been discussed regarding removing monuments and discarding holidays named after people who have fallen out of favor, ranging from Christopher Columbus to Robert E. Lee to Winston Churchill. I understand the desire to make the memory of these figures less romanticized and more nuanced, in keeping with our own moral development. We need to acknowledge the brutality and injustices, and the personal involvement things we today find reprehensible. At the same time, we should recognize the contributions these complex characters made to history, and to be honest, I find monuments to be an excellent way to teach that, rather like open-air museums that capture a time and place in a much more immediate and moving fashion, uninhibited by a sterile indoor façade.

Growing up in such close proximity to the Gettysburg battlefield, and long-familiarized with monuments to Billy Yanks and Johnny Rebs alike, probably has quite a lot to do with that. There are, quite simply, two sides to every story that need to be remembered. Otherwise, it would be only half a story. I never felt the need to pontificate about which were “good guys” or “bad guys”, even though I always knew slavery was a great evil. At the same time, I knew the war, like almost all such conflicts, was complex, and the people engaged in it were just as multi-faceted. And all of them died here. And as such they deserved that much remembrance, that much respect.

I do understand that some monuments really are problematic, either due to the reason they were raised, or because of a present day “trouble spot” they present. But many others could simply show figures who we now rightly view as complex, but who still remain just as pivotal to our story as ever. We could easily attach plaques to most of these, denoting the pros and cons of the individual, and disclaiming those areas which put us to shame. As for holidays, such as Columbus Day, while the explorer himself had a checkered personal history, there is no doubt that his actions in history, for good and ill, have had immense consequences. Indeed, if not focusing solely on Columbus, I would at least propose to maintain some type of day commemorating the journeys of all explorers who shaped the history of this land.

But for some people, there is no complexity to these figures or epochs in history, and indeed, there are some who would say the only way to “make up” for the sins of Europeans is to wholesale reject all celebration of their presence here, unless it is in the decided negative. Its all dark and wicked to them, and there’s nothing good to be said of what’s come from them. If Columbus Day, or all equivalent holidays involving explorers, are banished from the calendar, what happens to holidays based in colonial settlements, such as Thanksgiving? More than once I have seen early calls for it to be “removed” or the Pilgrims to be re-cast as national villains.

People of this mindset are never going to be content until every remnant of the past which we find morally complex has been removed from the public sector or remade it the most shadowy of contrasts….which may ultimately wind up being every figure, because if we dig far enough and hard enough, none of them will come off completely clean. Who serves as the “judge and jury” of these figures from out of the past seems to be currently up for grabs, and more often than not I feel like it is being used as some sort of “band-aid” peace offering to compensate for the lack of real reform in the here and now. It’s a gesture, usually fairly empty, to prove how “enlightened” we are by condemning the dead, when in reality we remain far from the ideal.

The trouble is…there’s no clear end-point, nor a delineated sense of what makes one historical character deserving of the boot but not another. What if there is a Confederate officer who personally owned no slaves, but a slave plantation owner, like Washington and Jefferson, who wasn’t a Confederate? I’m also thinking of statues and monuments in Britain to such figures as Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell. Is there some type of “time limit” on controversial figure representation, based upon how long ago they lived? If so, what happens to figures like Churchill, whose brutality and contributions were equally mixed? The fact is even canonized saints left behind a “mixed” legacy, which can be torn to shreds by modern standards unwilling to take things into proper context.

In my opinion, it would be better to simply make clear that monuments and holidays are meant to mark out major points in our human story, to both lament what should be lamented, and celebrate what should be celebrated. We need to get past this binary thought pattern that prevents both from taking place simultaneously. The simple fact is we cannot “clean up” the past. We can clarify it, to be sure, but we can’t simplify it without hurting both the study of history and our own ability to understand that life isn’t wrapped up in a box with a pretty bow. It’s a mess. Humans are a mess. But we are also worth remembering, and ultimately, there is redemption to be found through it.

At the end of the day, we can live with hope that God will judge us with more mercy than we judge each other, and hope that He will guide us to finding a way forward which makes peace with the jagged reality of our past, and help us to have the humility to recognize our own faults in light of it, and strive for a better future. As Catholics, we might also do well to pray for all the souls who have gone before us, acknowledging that they were no more perfect creatures than we are now. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, even spurred on by the best of intentions. And the acceptance of this truth would be a grace in and of itself.



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6 responses to “The Complexity of History and the Human Condition”

  1. So let me just add some complexity to this. I’ll start here:

    “the issue of breaking up the union based on state vs. federal government was doomed to blow sky high at some juncture,”

    Except there’s no evidence to suggest that conclusion. The actual speeches that proceeded the state secessions, and the proclamations that followed them, mentioned things like the failure of the north to enforce the fugitive slave act and their refusal to stifle the abolitionists. State’s rights didn’t come up, unless you count the rights of the northern states to enforce their own due process against the Fugitive Slave Act.

    Modern historians have identified three narratives that sprang up to explain the war. The “Lost Cause” narrative stressed southern innocence and victimhood, shifted the cause from slavery to state’s rights, and sanctified many southern characters like Lee and Jackson. There’s the “Emancipation” narrative which cast the whole thing as a battle over slavery. And the “Reconciliation” narrative which said that the war was a tragic inevitability and tried to put the whole thing in the past.

    What we’re seeing now is the “Reconciliation” narrative and the “Lost Cause” narrative – allies most of the time – are finally losing their hegemony. After spending 150+ years on a pedestal, General Lee is coming down. This is not just revenge, this is a change in course.

    History doesn’t stop. We tell these stories about our past for present ends. Our present constantly changes, so we sift through our collection of stories and tell new ones.

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