I am from Texas, but I can’t recall ever having called myself a Texan.
I am from the United States of America, but I rarely identify as American.
One of the high-schools I attended was named after Robert E. Lee. While it was our mascot, I’ve never claimed to be a Rebel.
I was raised without patriotism and never wanted to embrace it. My lineage and birthplace are accidents of my birth. Still, the accidental nature of the life I was born into does not exempt me from examining history.
In junior high, I had a history teacher that taught me that history was really “HIS Story”. HIS being God. There was no need to explain which one. My teacher was clearly referring to the big white spirit guy in the sky. He also said that the Civil War wasn’t actually about slavery. Then we all watched Denzel Washington get whipped in Glory.
It was a weird class. I sat in the back, next to the first friend I made at that school. In fact, it was one of my favorite classes. The middle-aged, obviously Republican, leader of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, church-going, married with two kids, cis white man that taught it humored me.
Recently freed from religion, but also removed from all my friends, I was just beginning to form my own opinions about the world. I wasn’t an atheist; I called myself spiritual. I hadn’t thought at all about social justice, racism, or feminism. Yet, here was a man of authority with whom I naturally disagreed. I was fundamentally averse to all of the things he used his classroom as a pulpit to teach as fact. I wasn’t eloquent, but I called him out. I disrupted his class and he let me. We actually got along all right.
That was the last classroom in which I learned much of anything about the Civil War. World War I & II were duly covered, but the textbooks’ sections on the Civil War always seemed brief. If it hadn’t been for the fact that one of my high-school history teachers was actually a Vietnam veteran, I would have been taught from a textbook that thought that the near 20 year conflict deserved no more than three paragraphs.
Looking back, I realize that my formative thoughts about our planet and its history were entirely filtered through old white people, all but one of them men. How different those classes would have been under people of color, I can only imagine.
The absurdity of the fact that many of our streets and buildings were named after Confederate figures didn’t escape me as a teenager, but it didn’t make much of an impression either. As an adult, that’s changed.
While I attended Lee High, I dated a guy not-so-distantly related to Robert E. Lee. I have family members that have bought versions of the Confederate flag to wear and display. I have a diploma from an institution that took its name from a man that led the army that took up arms against its own nation.
I’ve heard it argued that these monikers are simply patriotic nods of the head celebrating American heroes. But how can that be? I may not be a patriot, but as I understand it, a patriot does not seek to disband their country. A patriot does not attack their brethren. A patriot does not enslave their fellow citizens. If not, what exactly is the point? Lee did not fight for the United States. He fought for the Confederate States. Thankfully, he was defeated.
He is not an American hero. It is neither heroic nor patriotic to revere his name or the symbol of the resistance he led. When his name, and the names of those that fought under him, are venerated as “heritage”, we are forgetting the nightmare of history — brother against brother, humans in chains, and a new country torn apart soon after its birth.
America is a country born of high ideals, ideals it has yet to live up to. We do not mindlessly look past swastikas. We do not name buildings after Gavrilo Princip. We do not build monuments to the leaders of the Apartheid. The signs of Jim Crow are locked in museums. Roads named after Martin Luther King Jr. should not share crosswalks with roads named after General Lee.
Yet, a 2011 poll showed that 10% of Americans have positive associations with the Confederate flag and 58% feel neither positively or negatively. 48% of Americans still regurgitate the line that the Civil War was about states’ rights.
It’s been 154 years. The last Civil War veteran died in 1956, less than 60 years ago. On the line of time, the Civil War has just happened. The ink of its history is only just now drying. Have we already forgotten? Has it already faded from reality to hazy nightmare, its effects still felt, but its meaning lost?
I am not a patriot. I am a humanist. No matter how we identify, it’s time to wake up and learn the lessons of our long night’s sleep.
Bullying has always been a problem, but in an age where so many teens are constantly connected and blackmail is a tweet away, the effects are worse than ever. The Bystander Revolution aims to take the power out of bullying. Reaching out to both victims and bullies is something I have advocated for a long time. As I said in a post earlier this year:
Sympathy for wrongdoers is always scarce.
Relating to the malefactors among us is uncomfortable. To admit that liars, cheats, murderers, thieves, rapists, bullies, bigots, drunk drivers, and suicide bombers are human is to admit that it could have been us.
The most upstanding among us are but a few personal catastrophes away from villainy. Our monsters linger in their cages, waiting to be unleashed by primal instinct.
Every perpetrator is a victim. If they weren’t, there would be no victims.
The Bystander Revolution is revolutionary because it empathizes with the bully without dismissing their actions. Too often, our society either blames the victim or mislabels the perpetrator. One Billion Rising is a new campaign seeking to end violence against women. How they are approaching that goal is unique and I look forward to following their progress. Even so, they are perpetuating a dangerous idea as they gain publicity.
First of all, the masculine chest thumping exercise that is associated with ‘real men’ is dangerous to both men and women. It is born of sexist gender roles that encourage males to be violent, mask their emotions, and devalue females. Secondly, wording it in such a way implies that only men rape and only women get raped. One Billion Rising is focused on women so perhaps that can be excused. Lastly, real men do rape. Rapists are not a special subset of the species. Most women are raped by men that they know and trust. That’s the scary part. That’s the part we don’t want to admit or address. It is estimated that 20% of U.S. women experience rape. That’s 1 in 5. For every rape victim, there is a rapist. Odds are, you know a rapist.
We cannot ignore the fact that our friends and neighbors have probably hurt someone at some point – immorally, unethically, unspeakably. We cannot ignore that we are capable of such things. Denial only propagates animalistic behavior.
When we think of the most horrific, despicable, and unforgivable crimes against humanity, we usually think of one man. Only, we don’t think of him as a man. We think of him as an inhuman monster. Nothing will ever excuse or make up for the atrocities that he committed and set into motion. But I think it is a grave error to label him as anything other than human. He loved opera, dogs, art, and was said to believe in animal rights. We need to realize what fanatical righteousness can do to a person. We need to accept that while he is an example most extreme, he was still a part of the human race. If we deny that, we cannot prevent history from repeating itself. The man I am talking about is Adolf Hitler.
The above image makes me sick to my stomach. I’m hesitant to even post it, which I think proves my point. Dropping villains into a pit of wickedness and covering the hole does nothing. If we are to prevent atrocities, from bullying to genocide, we must remember that each transgressor is human. We cannot scrub away the filthy stains of humanity if we refuse to believe the blotches exist.
Depending on who you consult, the answer varies. Are you: what you eat? what you wear? what you know? what you say? your thoughts? your actions? the face you show the world? what other people think you are? what you think you are? what you love? who you love?
All are interesting hypotheses, all imbued with shades of truth. Yet they all oversimplify the matter. An individual is an amalgam of hard wiring and experience, a singular synthesis of humanity.
For the first time in history, Churchill and those like him aren’t the only ones with the power to write their own autobiographies. Philosophers throughout time have reiterated again and again that history is a fable written by the victors because their words were the only ones recorded. This fundamental idea that history is only ‘based on a true story’ rings slightly less true in an age when so much of the world can log onto an interconnected internet and share their story and point of view via a thousand different social media platforms. Regardless of the platform one uses, if you can log on, you can connect.
There are problems with our current system. Corporations are footing the bill for content and that means advertising is in charge of the vast majority of those platforms. But crowdfunding, freemium services, and user-supported media are slowly eating away at the need for every website to ‘sell out’ just to keep the lights on. In the United States, net neutrality is in jeopardy even though the people have spoken and 99% support neutrality. The reason for the overwhelming support is clear – no one wants their voice tamped down by the powers that be.
Internet access is considered so important in today’s society that the United Nations declared it a human right, but the number of people still without a platform to tell their stories is surprisingly high. More than 60% of the world’s population does not have any access to the internet. The graphic below shows the percentage of citizens that are internet users in each country.
Was the United Nations right, should internet access be a human rights issue? I do not even hesitate to answer yes. It is easy to dismiss the importance of something overrun with angry comment sections and pictures of cats, but the internet is much more than that. It is a bastion of knowledge, a refuge for the lonely, an unending source of entertainment. It is a global market, the local coffeehouse to all who enter. It does not replace the hangouts we haunted before Google came around, but it does do something they can’t – it sends our lives, our stories, our truths to all we seek to share them with and then saves it all for posterity.
I won’t deny that there are some creepy angles to the way our information is used by the websites we entrust it to. The rules and regulations of our virtual lives must be constantly revisited and updated. Still, saving our present for the future to see may be the greatest gift this generation gives to humanity.
Think for a moment about a historical figure, anyone. Go on, I’ll wait. Got it? Good. Now consider what you have recalled. What did they look like? What were their personality traits? Do you feel like you have a good handle on who they were? If you’ve researched this historical figure before perhaps you can tell me what they are famous for; perhaps even what they ate and wore, who and what they loved. But unless they wrote down their own histories as Churchill planned, it’s near impossible to imagine what someone from the past was really like.
Anyone who has looked through photographs from the 1800s has probably thought that the people in the pictures lived very serious, stately lives. Even the kids look solemn:
Just taking a glance makes it easy to think of these children as much different than ourselves as kids. But these children are not stern robots of the past. They laughed, ran, played, and cried just like the rest of us. The way we study history too often leads us to view its figures as one-dimensional caricatures. But what happens when we catch a candid glimpse?
Not so hard to imagine them as living, breathing, emotive human beings now is it?
“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” ― George Orwell
The victors are not the only ones with voices anymore, but we still don’t have a complete compendium of human experience. Everyone has a right to be heard, to offer their history as they understand it. In order to stop seeing other human beings as more than merely ‘other’, we must see their smiles and their tears. We must hear their stories. Mark Twain posited that history does not repeat, it rhymes. If the poetic verses of the future are to be written in tones of equality, we must give everyone a pen.
The internet may contain a distressing amount of cruelty, but it has an impressive aggregate of individuals spreading compassion with every virtual interaction. The world wide web does not have to be a zero-sum game. It can change the world for the better, teaching us more about ourselves and introducing us to everyone else, if only we use it that way.
Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Though many assume that the day our nation remembers him falls on his birthday, that isn’t the case. He was born on January 15th. Which doesn’t fall on a Monday every year, if you were wondering.
We celebrate a world-altering figure by making a Monday near his birthday into a national holiday, which seems to imply that his legacy is not as important as our three day weekend. It’s arguable that my conclusion is a jaded one. Perhaps the government believes that a day off will enable us to appreciate the impact of his contribution. But is that true?
I’d venture the answer is no. A child may ask what the name on the calendar means. Maybe a few will look him up on Wikipedia. Checks will be harder to cash. And thousands that already spend their time volunteering will take the opportunity to do so today as well. But does a commemorative holiday honor history or belittle it?
Veterans Day and Memorial Day, meant to commemorate combat and sacrifice, are both celebrated by barbecuing animal flesh and shooting off pyrotechnics that sound like gun fire and bombs. Is that really the best way to appreciate the reality of war and the soldiers who lost their lives fighting?
You may see a parade on Labor Day, but only about 12% of Americans belong to unions and corporations are being given human rights. We celebrate Columbus Day, but how many students know him as the greedy, misguided father of transatlantic slave trade that he was?
History must be remembered, especially those individuals that changed its course. However, commemorative holidays do a disservice to the events and lives they attempt to recognize. They trivialize and whitewash the struggles, flaws, and realities not only of those they observe, but of the problems they worked to solve.
MLK Jr. used his words and actions to tear down boundaries built by inequality. Yet nearly 50 years after his assassination, many claim that the dream he spoke of no longer needs advocates. Can we blame them for blinding themselves to continued racial prejudices when our nation treats King’s birthday so caviliarly?
It’s said that our memories define us. We save our experiences through photos, scrapbooks, journals, and Facebook walls. Those methods work well for an individual or group, but not an entire nation. Naming streets or even days after a person or event does not imbue us with understanding. The more years that pass, the further removed we become. Pseudo birthdays hold no meaning for us.
History repeats itself because we do not remember it authentically. A lone day off does not help us appreciate our past nor does it aid us in seeing how it influences our present. Our future brightens by centimeters, a generation at a time. How quickly the light could travel if only we committed ourselves to teaching the whole truth.
Our memories and history books are flawed. Yet the fact that we can do better is plain. Nothing can change until we face ourselves. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired others to take action. Knowing how to move forward comes from seeing where we’ve been and recognizing where we are now.
Do what others will not. Reflect, analyze, and act upon your dream. As King realized, you “can do small things in a great way”.