April 08, 2010

National Guilt

Note: this is unedited, raw from the top of my sleep-addled mind... caveat lector

Moving to Texas was a real shock to my system. Really, for any number of reasons, but primarily due to the change in social context. You see, I'm a Yankee... and with the exception of my brief stopover in Longview (6 1/2 years in exile), I've never lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line. And, perhaps more tellingly, my education up until that point had all been carried out in states with a very clear view of who was Right and who was Wrong as regards the US Civil War. So you could imagine my surprise when I arrived in Texas and there were people running around with Confederate Battle Flags all over the freaking place.

I don't know that the shock of seeing that really ever wore off... because where I came from, that thing was about one step short of a Swastika... and I can see the justification.

Yes, yes, I know... "the Confederacy stood for a lot more than pure inbred, racist slave abuse... the North's hands were dirty also..." I'm aware of the arguments. And really, it's not an apt comparison, but it's the closest I can get.

Of course, that got me to wondering: What did the heirs of other defeated causes do? I mean, it's not like the Germans and the South were the only two groups with some rather appalling moral baggage attached to them who lost a war. What about Imperialist Japan? South Africa?

And of course, that leads to still further scratching, because it's not like people going to war in the name of absolutely morally reprehensible causes is a new thing. I mean, look at the freaking Crusades: "we're going to kill the current occupants of Israel because Jesus used to live there... never-mind that was 1000 years ago and he lived there during an occupation by a pagan empire... we want it now!" Not to mention the whole business of the Fourth Crusade where they somehow managed to sack Constantinople.

But at the same time, almost nobody is really wringing their hands about the Crusades or the Terror of the French Revolution or the injustices perpetuated by Bloody Mary. Is there a Statute of Limitations on National Guilt? And what is it that drives countries like Germany to be inhibited to such an extent to where they actually limit free speech as regards their national guilt and ban the imagery of the bygone institution, whereas in the US, certain elements celebrate it? Actually, this sounds like it would be a great deal of fun as a study in Sociology. I mean, Historiography of "Revisionism" notwithstanding, how do people overshadowed by this sort of thing react and why is it so different from place to place?

But so far as the notion of national guilt is concerned, I take no shame in cribbing these remarks of Richard von Weizsacker, President of West Germany as perhaps the most productive I've ever seen:

We need and we have the strength to look truth straight in the eye–without embellishment and without distortion. ... The greater honesty we show in commemorating this day, the freer we are to face the consequences with due responsibility. …

There is no such thing as the guilt or innocence of an entire nation. Guilt is, like innocence, not collective, but personal. … The vast majority of today's population were either children then or had not been born. They cannot profess a guilt of their own for crimes that they did not commit. No discerning person can expect them to wear a penitential robe simply because they are Germans. But their forefathers have left them a grave legacy. All of us, whether guilty or not, whether old or young, must accept the past. We are all affected by its consequences and liable for it.

I really have to agree that there is no such thing as a national guilt, but only individual guilt. And what's more, it's probably a good and honorable thing to acknowledge the sacrifices made by the grunts in the trenches in the name of God and Country, regardless of the nobility of the cause that God and Country called them to. I mean, after all, there is the alternative of something like Vietnam where, to all appearances, the cause itself wasn't particularly good or noble... and look at what a failure to honor those who suffered and died did to this country.

But at the same time, I think the Germans have a point in their banning of the symbolism and paraphernalia of Nazism... because there IS a difference between honoring the sacrifice of the men and women who tried to do their duty, between honoring those who did the best they could with what they knew and believed in their hearts at the time and with glorifying institutions like the Confederacy which, in the words of Ulysses S Grant, fought for a cause which was "one of the worst for which a people ever fought.”

And I just noticed the date that he gave them: May 8, 1985 ... the 40 year anniversary of the surrender Nazi Germany. Which, unbeknownst to me, means that I was married on the 60th anniversary of that rather auspicious day. Not sure what to make of that... but there it is. And I suppose I should note that the nutjob Governor of Virginia set this whole conflagration off, but I don't really think he deserves credit for anything other than returning these notions to the fore of my mind.

Posted by Vengeful Cynic at April 8, 2010 12:33 AM | TrackBack